Fridan, it’s difficult to believe you’re really curious, this close to the end of class. Everybody here has heard my story a hundred times before Oh, all right, everybody.
Those were the last days of mankind’s occupation of the Moon, after all.
That’s the Harvest Moon up there tonight. Such a misty white ball to hang in a crisp autumn starry sky! Such a lovely…
Yes, Merry, I met Mitchell Thompson, the inventor and statesman. With De Winton, he invented the atmosphere regenerator. Well, Fridan, he did also find a way to make alcohol on the Moon. Still, Dr. Thompson was tremendously smart, even in his old age.
He got us, the Four, off the Moon. There were five of us to start, the Rover Tau crew.
Rumble’s up there, too – everybody just remembers Thompson.
We were all old, except Nix. Some of our own Euclides clan even had it in for us. It was that way for everybody. Food and air were rationed once we reached utility and left the Garden. Why waste it on the old?
No! No younger Blending ever killed an older one. Well…perhaps we might have if they hadn’t drugged us. I don’t know.
The four of us – Rumble, Laughing Man, Cooky and me – were almost 30. Nix had been assigned to us as punishment, though we weren’t supposed to know that.
I was the track master. 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 in and see how you like the answer!
Anyway, Rumb was our crew leader.
What? We called him that because his voice was very deep. He rarely had to raise it – we gave good service.
Rover Tau’s last run…did I say we had been out a long time? Well, we had. We had come up empty and still were. Here in Alaska you know how up and down mining is – same way when you’re hunting volatiles on the Moon.
Then we got delayed even more. Night was coming on, but they told us to go check a temperature anomaly at the Bradbury rocket facility. Some software glitch, probably.
You couldn’t ignore it. In low gravity, shrapnel from an explosion there could eventually hit the base.
Fridan, I told you…oh, well, there aren’t rockets up, I mean, down here any more. Maybe you all don’t know. Bradburys – you know, vertical takeoff and landing, like in the old stories. Pointy things. The Thompson engine made that possible.
He invented so many things.
Well, we got there quickly enough. The sensors were nominal but we checked thoroughly. We had to, since it was so hard to concentrate. Did I mention the drugs? They made you fuzzy.
Anyway, everything checked out. 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. I was the track master, you see, so I had to be sharper. Rumb’s job and mine kept the mission going smoothly.
The drugs? I don’t know what they were. It wasn’t…no, it wasn’t fun at all.
There was no odor or taste unless you were being punished. It was in everybody’s water, air, and food. Of course we knew. The Lords told us it was medicine for our weaknesses.
Of course they could have shut us off of life support any time they wanted to. There were rumors that it happened before. You didn’t mind it so much if you were born into it. That’s just how things were.
The Lords lived in Circle City around the edges of the base and we Blendings lived closer to the center, near the maintenance section. No Lords ever came there, except the police.
Where was I? Oh, the drugs. Sometimes you got sleepy for no reason, and other times, simple things were confusing.
We could work, but we really had to focus on it. Why did we put up with it? Well…it was easier that way. You never had to worry if you behaved. You slept away most of your off time, and the dreams were good except for punishment.
Our life was simple, just like the Moon, all in black and white, all one thing or all the other. No unpredictable variables like on Earth with your – excuse me, our – free-flowing water and atmosphere. No chaos.
We didn’t know about the dust.
But drugs made it very hard to be friendly. You just felt irritated and useless, except when you were at work.
Rumb was always watching for too much familiarity. That made me unpopular sometimes because he spent time with me. It didn’t mean anything. We just sat there after signing off and watched the lunar surface roll by until one of us got up and went to bed.
Anyway, that last day the Bradburys checked out.
Nix was monitoring base operation parameters. There was nothing for the Laughing Man, our main prospector, to do so Rumble had him vacuuming. Cooky was setting out our meal containers.
We all jumped when the emergency tone sounded. The Laughing Man tripped as he ran out to join us. No, Fridan, of course he couldn’t float. He had gravitywear on.
Then a call came in from Base Conrad. I recognized the voice – 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 unclear.
“Meteor strike,” Rumb muttered. “Nix! Clarity! Help me with this.”
He then jerked his head 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.
A new audio came in – a man’s voice, very faint.
“That can’t be main channel,” said Nix.
The man was shouting. “You there! You out there! What the devil do you call yourselves?”
Rumble responded, “Roving Base Tau, Euclides clan, sir.”
No response. Gray particles continued to stream past the screens.
Then Laughing Man said, “That’s regolith dust.”
I recognized it now. This was bad news.
Dust gets into everything. It’s very gritty. Once you stir it up, it will be 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 base.
Something big had happened.
The commo crackled again. “I’ve got you now. Blendings, and lucky ones at that. What’s your control code?”
He was still shouting and still very faint. Rumble responded. “We are not authorized to…”
He was wrong to do that. This was obviously a Lord.
“Shut up.” The stranger said much more than that, but you couldn’t hear it clearly. The crackles drowned out the rest. “What’s your code?” The Lord sounded irritated but also worried. “I’m at your main. Hurry! The shrapnel will be here soon!”
Rumble told him.
“… more complicated than a regular base!” There were a couple of what might have been curses and the communication ended. Almost immediately I saw a change in our tracking coordinates.
“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. The geologist made his face expressionless and settled down into a nearby seat.
Time went by, with no more calls.
I put different map layers on my screen, trying to follow the course changes but they were too small. Wherever this Lord was taking it, it wasn’t far away.
Nix asked, “What’s shrapnel?”
“Non-impact-related ejecta,” said Cooky.
Everybody turned and looked at her. No way a cook should have known that. She was like that, and still is – full of all sorts of trivia.
“It’s what we would turn into,” I said, “if the reactor shielding failed.”
If there was shrapnel, then it hadn’t been a meteor strike, Maybe a rover had gone up.
“What if it hits us?” Cooky was asking. “The shrapnel, I mean.”
Rumb thought about it for a bit. “If another roving base exploded and we were next to it, the big pieces would smash us. Out here, no. Maybe some outer damage, and we’d probably drop some low-level power chains. That’s all.”
Nix was puzzled. “So why does he sound so…?”
She was interrupted by a sudden bump. It wasn’t big. 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 swirl out there.
The faint voice came 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 and get into your surface bots. Hurry!”
“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?”
This was hardly the thing to say to a Lord! Some of them would have sent us all to the recycler for that.
Sudden laughter poured out of our speakers – the last thing I expected to hear.
“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 turn to ice. Your knees go weak, too, even if you’re sitting down.
“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 in. Move!”
We stood up slowly and a little clumsily – that was as much the shock as it was the drugs. I tripped a few times on the way to the bot hangar. It wasn’t far from the bridge.
Rumb said to forget about the suits. We’d take the two old bots that had the Thompson engine/atmosphere regenerator.
Nix and I got into Four with Rumble, while Laughing Man and Cooky took One. The Lord took the bots out of Rover Tau side by side.
The air was bad in ours, or else all the excitement made me nauseous. I just sat still, my head in my hands.
The Lord didn’t open communications with us again for a while. None of us said a word until the bot tilted forward.
“There,” Rumb said after a while, pointing at a slightly darker line in the dust ahead, too straight to be anything natural. “It’s a road.”
“We’re going underground,” I said.
Just then the bot went into stepper mode. That downgoing roadway was either at a sharp angle or not very smooth. It was okay, if I closed my eyes.
Then Nix threw up. That was too much, and I heaved, too. It was the worst ride I’ve ever been on.
A while later, a big red light started to flash. Two more lit up and several others turned orange.
“Looks like a little dust got in.” 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 regeneration ports. It got into the exchange system, too.
“You’re almost here!” The voice of our new master was much louder now. I was too sick to recognize it right away. I should have. Rumb did.
“Don’t breathe so much. Relax! Just wait…almost….” The Lord muttered like this for close to 10 minutes as he guided us in.
It got dark outside, and our lights came on. The whitish-gray dust just reflected it back at us.
“Turn it off!” Nix had one of her migraines. “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, except for a bright light off to our right – probably Bot One.
Eventually something on our left appeared. Its definition slowly got better and better. It turned into a bank of lights and decon cones. The outlines of Number One 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.
Now I recognized that raspy voice. There was the brogue, too. But Thompson had died terrayears ago!
“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 was shocking. How much did they know about us?
“I’m Rumble, sir.”
“That’s a lovely baritone you’ve got there, Rumble. All right, you rushed out without air suits. 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 it comes now. Goodness, some of it is low! Steady now!”
We only felt the bot shake twice. The impact vibrations were quite small.
“Well, that’s it,” he said. You could hear the sadness even through the speaker. “Now, let’s get you out of those tin cans. You can’t just hold your breaths and walk to the air lock. It’s too far. The big bay it is, then. 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! Four! What name do you answer to?”
“They call me Laughing Man, sir. Cooky is here, too – she’s our…”
“Never mind. 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 some work.”
It did. Rumb had me help with the tracking.
I was grateful to get orders. It calmed us all 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 bay. Dark enveloped us after we moved away from the decontamination area. Basalt had fallen from the ceiling. Scattered boulders littered the floor.
Would the crashes up above dislodge any more rock?
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.
It didn’t help that Dr. Thompson went a little too fast at times and had to repeat himself. The bot’s step mode made me sick, but I held it back.
Now here was the other bay. Thankfully we could roll now.
Decon equipment came on. Dr. Thompson moved us through it. When we got to a big airlock, Four went in first. After several long minutes, Laughing Man called to report they were inside and everything was okay.
The lock opened again, and we rolled into a wide metal chamber. It was empty.
We parked near in the middle and waited. When all bay lights were green, Rumb opened the door. The fresh air revived us quite a bit. It was filthy in the bot and we got out as quickly as we could.
“Over there.” The speaker voice reverbrated inside the decon chamber. The three of us held hands as we walked over to the door.
It was made of the same metal as the bay and set into the usual valve-and-gasket construct. There was a weird pattern of lasers intermixed with the regular decon equipment. We started to feel the tingling half a meter before we reached the door.
We let go hands and went forward one by one. The door slid up as we approached.
I felt the decontaminating lasering through my suit. You always do. The door slid down behind us and there we were, in the airlock of a huge lounge.
WeIl, it was only the standard-size lounge for a large inflatable habitat, but it was bigger than Euclides Hall.
Everything looked brand new, but old fashioned. The whole effect was overwhelmingly gaudy at first. It was a Lords kind of place, too, but very quiet.
Cooky and the Laughing Man were nearby, standing alongside the biggest Earth globe I’ve ever seen. It was old Earth, before the War, beautiful and finely detailed.
Cooky turned it with one hand. They weren’t aware of our arrival. Out of speakers in the globe’s stand came music and a scratchy man’s voice that sounded very old:
It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go…
“Leave it alone, you two!” The acoustics were very good throughout the lounge, but Rumble’s voice was too loud in the stillness. He lowered it some. “He’ll be here any minute now. Where did you get that?”
He meant the big chunk of wrapped candy in Cooky’s hand.
She shrugged. “There’s a bowl with lots in it over there,” she said, stashing her find in one of her cargo pockets, making sure it didn’t show. No one, not even Rumb, would turn her in – she always shared her loot.
“Where?” Nix looked around.
“Earth sure was pretty back then,” Laughing Man observed. “Too bad the Old Ones ruined it.”
It was the usual thing you say on seeing old Earth. Ordinarily, this would have led to all the usual platitudes, but not then. The deep quiet of the lounge was awful. And the great Dr. Thompson was coming.
“We’ll wait.” Rumble said it harshly.
We stood in a circle and assumed the position of waiting. Quite some time passed. It was very dark in the lounge, away from the globe. There was a spotlight on that.
I eyed the Earth when Rumb wasn’t looking. Those light tan, green and blue colors matched the lounge. It wasn’t really gaudy after all.
Concentrating was harder and harder. I wondered what the candy tasted like, and if it had peppermint. I love peppermint.
Nix was next to me. 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.
Certainly the Lord would notice it. What would he say?
Was everybody having the same difficulty keeping their minds on track?
I realized later in the medical bay that this was the start of the Awakening, that wonderful rediscovery of our senses that clean, undrugged air allows.
There was a hum and a far door swished open. A Lord came in. He was tall and wearing a heavy G-wear work coat and headpiece. He was thinner than we expected. His face, though, was red and puffy.
Those dark eyes look very cold in pictures, but they aren’t…I mean, weren’t in person, perhaps because they were now framed in long gray hair and straggly beard. They were…well, everything that the man was came through those eyes.
Images just don’t capture it.
We were terrified. This was the greatest Lord of all.
He waved to us, and then started to remove the gravitywear.
“I like to float,” he murmured. “Helps my arthritis.”
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. We had gotten above ourselves. It would never happen again!
Without the heavy work clothes, Dr. Thompson was quite bouncy. He wore the uniform of a High Lord.
“I can see this isn’t going to be easy,” he said in that famous voice, high and clear.
“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 lilt in his voice, as well as the brogue.
When neither of the man answered right away, the Lord shook his head.
“The best of the best,” he said with a sigh. “Come on.”
He moved forward and tethered himself to a chair by the globe. We meekly took the seats he indicated.
Dr. Thompson continued to float. He just smiled invitingly, not saying a word. After a while it became clear that no orders would be forthcoming.
“I’m Rumble, sir.”
“Ah, yes, that’s a lovely voice you’ve got, Rumble. No, sit back 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 the tether.
“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 air for Base Thompson.”
The Lord gestured around. I’d never heard of Base Thompson before.
Then he changed the subject. “Did you know that both your bots were almost out of air?”
“They were getting low, sir.” Rumb sounded a little surprised that the Lord had noticed.
“Why didn’t you say anything at the time?”
“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.”
He spoke like all the Lords, long-winded and care-free.
“You’re probably wondering what has happened to Base Conrad Alpha, as you called it. To me it will always be Moonbase One.”
He paused before going 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. Relax, little Blendings. This is your new home. 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 knows by heart. Of course it involved him – he was one of the pioneers! Soon he got to more recent times.
Thompson’s constant reelections as President annoyed some Lords, so he retired – “my biggest mistake,” he called it. When that didn’t appease his enemies, he decided to make a “hidey-hole” in a small closed lava tube he found one day while out mapping. We were in that now.
Somehow he smuggled one of the old inflatable habitats out of the base and installed it in this rille near the old rocket storage facility. It was unclear which came first, the rockets or Base Thompson.
“What if they had started a disposal operation?” Nix asked him. She could be bold, like Rumb.
“Well, you see, I was the one who had the rockets stored out here, not dismantled, in the first place. Options. Always have them.”
He brought out extra food and water as he could, even though the built-in supplies of such a large habitat, once activated, would last one man a very long time.
He did this under cover of mapping runs. Instead of questioning the increased frequency of the Lord’s excursions, his enemies used his absence to consolidate their forces.
Dr. Thompson listened to them plot. He had designed a good commo system for his hideout.
“It’s only one way.” He sounded apologetic. “Couldn’t think how to shield a two-way system from tracing. That devil Tze….”
We had no idea who he meant.
“…Tze was always just a hop, skip, and a jump behind me. Once I was gone for good, he’d track me down through the link, so I made it one way. Thus unwittingly they forced me into the role of silent witness to the great tragedy of Moonbase One. Well, I wasn’t martyred in it. 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.
“What happened?” 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. I’ve got it all written down, stored digitally and in hard copy. Everybody will know all the details. Let’s just say that I saw it coming and skedaddled. They lost me in the lunar dust. Figured I died a horrible lingering death. I ate steak and drank much wine that night.”
He looked around with pride, then shook his head.
“That dust. They should have listened to me.” Dr. Thompson seemed to be talking, now, not to us but a greater audience who wasn’t there. He sounded a little defensive. “It happened the first time we fired a mass shot back to Earth – before the war, of course, not long after Moonbase One was established. Then it got worse. The dam’ fools kept shooting it off, months after everybody could see what the problem was.”
“The mass driver, it caused the dust?” Rumb asked.
“Ever see one of those things go off, son?”
“You wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it, after just one firing. And they just kept shooting.”
Dr. Thompson shook his head again. “There was a whole sector of technicians I had personally trained to manage the anti-dust measures. I left them behind for the base. I also made sure hardware and software was all in good order. Silly me! Who would have thought they’d execute the only people on the base who could maintain the system? 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 just barely escaped with my life. The Dust Muffins, as I used to call them – those poor kids had nowhere to go but into the recycler.”
He fell silent for a moment or two. Then, “Of course, it wasn’t long before 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 Rumb.
“Not necessarily,” Thompson replied. “I don’t have the detailed data…just the same news as everybody else – fires breaking out everywhere down on Earth, the terrible explosions, sectors going quiet, a few awful glimpses in between Earth clouds that finally hid the whole planet. I’ve got a telescope here, but can’t see anything, what with all this Moon dust. Lately, though, I’ve been calling….”
“Why is there dust out there now?” Rumble suddenly asked. “Nobody used the driver after the war. What stirred it up today before the shrapnel got here?”
“I have just told you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What did you see there at the end, Rumble?”
“The screens flickered a few times. Then we saw the dust.”
I spoke up. “Well, it’s clear enough what happened. 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 said, 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.
“Precisely,” Thompson said.
“A movie?” I asked. “Whose movie? Who made it and why?”
“Who controlled your rover, Clarity?” Dr. Thompson asked.
“The Lords did, of course. Back at Conrad.”
Dr. Thompson saw he would have to fill in the rest of the blanks for everybody but Nix.
“Oh, a lifetime of habit is a tough thing to get over! Nobody likes to admit they’ve been hoodwinked. All right. You see, after the dust shut down the mass driver, the Moon’s economy just collapsed. Now, if they had listened to me and put as much effort into getting us set up as a way station for explorers as they did into the mass driver…but no, the future was too difficult to grasp. They focused all their hopes on the present, on the goose laying the golden eggs. We had the technology to overcome the problem, I know we must have, but instead they used it to trick people and keep the status quo going after the disaster.”
“What disaster?” I asked.
“The dust, and all the equipment breakdowns it caused. Stopped Moonbase One’s commerce dead in its tracks. Fortunes were lost, but it wasn’t so easy to leave the place afterwards. There was trouble on Earth, too. Then life on Earth ended, or at least got bombed down to the amoeba and cockroach level. All these years, Moonbase One – all right, Base Conrad – it has been able to maintain life support and other basic systems, and that’s all it’s been able to do. There were panics, riots, fights. The Guardians were the last faction to take over, long after I had gone. They’re what you call the Lords – it seems they killed off the rest. You Blendings were kept well out of it throughout.”
“Why?” Rumb asked.
“You were the new egg-laying goose, son! They would keep you working, no matter what, since you’re best able to tolerate life in space.”
“No!” I said.
“We’re the weakest of all!”
“I repeat, you have the blended genes of all humanity, and those of you who made it to the Moon were the best of the best.” Dr. Thompson sighed. “You also had the worst political representation that I have ever seen in a very long and eventful life. ”
He sighed again. “You got the short end of everything. Base Conrad Alpha, as the Guardians named it, absolutely depended on your labor. If you had known the true state of things, you might have revolted, or at least organized and protested. So they took the technology I designed and misused it for a big con job.”
“I don’t…” Nix started to say.
He ignored her. “You were already isolated physically on the base. All they had to do was modify the medical equipment and software I helped build, making it numb and control you. They still had to send you out for water and materials, but they shielded everything physically. With the old imagery and mapping files available – many of them mine – the only hard part was to time visual playback in the rovers so that you saw what your instruments were accurately recording as you rolled along.”
Dr. Thompson snorted. “You can always find people willing to surmount any problem 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. I felt angry and scared, betrayed, oh, a mix of different things. My body felt twitchy, too.
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.
I didn’t want to hear any more and felt restless, so I got up and walked over to the Earth globe. It was nice to look at colors in this cold, impersonal Universe of ours.
I just wanted to touch it.
Rumb said something, but Dr. Thompson overruled him. “That was the right thing to do, Clarity.”
I didn’t understand. None of us did, then.
The Lord now untethered himself and turned, saying, “Come on.”
We followed him across the vast lounge to an arched door. Light streamed in when he opened it. We all stepped out into a very long hall. The Lord turned right, walked past several doors, and stopped by a big green door on the left.
“The medical bay,” he told us, with a proud wave of his hand. “It’s automated. I’ve loaded up all the food lines and so forth – hope you like action movies and old books. It’s all I brought with me. There now. Get in there, do what the bots tell you and just relax, if you can. We’ve got to get all that poison cleaned out of you, and no doubt you need some quiet time after all this. Two weeks anyway. The rest of the night. Then we’ll talk again.”
None of us said a word. Dr. Thompson took some drink packets from a nearby shelf. He handed one to each of us and took a larger container for himself.
“Drink it all down,” he told us. Then he said, “To Earth!”
He drained the container with one long sip through the straw. We took big sips, too, and gasped and coughed. It was alcohol, I found out later.
“Good! Good! In you go!” With that, he opened the door for us and then left.
When we went into the medical bay, the bots first cleaned the alcohol out of us and then started the interactive routines that, over the next two terraweeks, guided us into recovery from at least some of our stresses and dependencies.
The Awakening was difficult, physically and mentally. We did it, though.
One day Cooky and Nix and I were at the table, and Rumb surprised us. He and Laughing Man were on their way to the video room,taking a shortcut through the kitchen.
They were chatting like old friends! It was the first time I’d ever seen Rumble relax.
“…not in a lava tube,” he was saying.
“No,” said Laughing Man, “most likely, I think….” he hesitated.
When the geologist didn’t continue talking, Rumb asked. “What?”
“Well…um…even if it was open, the radiation would still build up with a reactor.”
“Yeah. Storage,” Rumb said.
“Yeah, it’s a pain. If you ask me, I think he tapped into Conrad’s power supply somehow.”
Rumb shook his head. “Too big a draw-down. Dr. Thompson wouldn’t give himself away to that Say guy.”
“How else could he power this base for decades? Sure, he’s been running on base power – he figured out a way to do it on the QT.”
“Well, no. I think…”
They passed through into the kitchen 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 the Laughing Man for that.”
We gossiped away. Even Nix relaxed some there.
The lunar morning eventually came. A message appeared on the duty board screen: “Meeting in lounge by globe. Thompson.”
“It’s graduation day, people!” Rumble told us, and he immediately started to clean up his kit.
We moved. The green door clicked shut behind us.
The hall was long and gray. Now I noticed that it had very poor lighting. We all looked up. Just a few meters away was the surface of the Moon…and Euclides Hall was gone forever.
There was a woosh, and a light suddenly appeared down the hall to our right. Dr. Thompson bounced out of the archway that led to the lounge.
“Why all the glum faces? You got high rehab marks. Come on in.”
Soon we were standing around the big globe again.
“I like this Earth,” he told us. He was still floating but this time seemed a little off balance. “You all look wonderful! Sit down.”
We each thanked him and went over to the same couch where we had perched before.
The Lord looked ill, I thought. There was a little film of sweat on his face. A homemade sling encased his left arm.
He saw us looking at his arm. “Dropped something on it,” he told us. “Nothing but a strain.”
He reached over to the Earth globe and gently turned it until the spotlight centered upon Ireland. That song played again…
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
“We’ll have a little party this evening. How does that sound?”
“Good, Dr. Thompson,” we all murmured.
“First, I’d like to test you, though. Just see where you’re now at. Clarity.”
I jumped when he said my name.
“You’re a track master. Good! Good! We’ll start with you. Come with me. The rest of you, wait here. I’ll be right back. Help yourselves to some candy.”
Dr. Thompson led me back to the hall. This time we turned left but stopped after just a few steps. He opened a door, and we entered a room that had several dark terminals in it. There was a base tracker screen set up in one corner, and this was where we were bound.
He asked me to sit down in the tracking chair. “Does that look familiar to you, Clarity?”
It did, though the layout was a little different. The Lord flicked through a few screens, stopping at one with 18 icons that were set up in three rows of six each.
“That looks like the Bradburys,” I said.
“Good! Good! Now here we are,” and he pointed to a large oval, perhaps 3 clicks 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, I want to see how well you can set a track through an obstacle course. 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, oh, say Bot One. On the surface. You are to lay out three tracks for it: one to the storage depot itself and one each to two rocket icons that are either completely open or only have very little debris on top. I warn you, it won’t be easy. Are you game?”
“Yes, sir!” Inwardly I was pretty nervous.
“Good! I’ll set up the course.” He left.
I ran my hands over this equipment, getting familiar with the unusual parts of the functional design and trying to focus.
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.
Suddenly thirty-two obstacle icons were there on my tracking screen. There was a mix of sizes but some of them were quite large, many times the size of my little bot icon. Most had radiation hazard signs, too. All of the rockets were covered.
It was an impossibly dense pattern. With Dr. Mitchell Thompson watching, though, I headed One toward the Bradburys.
After several hours, the track was laid to the facility gates.
Only by remembering a couple of the tricks Dr. Thompson had used bringing our bots could I manage a route in, and then it was very messy, with no backup, and only to one of icons. It was the one with the least amount of debris on it.
Was that acceptable? It was the best I could do.
Eventually the door to the room opened. Dr. Thompson walked in and, you won’t believe it, but he actually patted me on one shoulder!
“Good! Good! Come on, Clarity. We’re late to dinner.”
He sounded quite pleased. For the first time I noticed there were others out in the hall. There was Rumb – he waved at me. His eyes crinkled up a special way when he smiled.
The Lord was already in motion down the hall. I joined my crew, flustered by Thompson’s praise.
We chattered as we walked along. All of us had apparently passed 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.
“Where’s Cooky?” I asked.
“Wait a minute. Vehicle systems, ejecta blankets….” Nix was the first to start putting the larger picture together.
Dr. Thompson stopped in front of a door, opened it, and bowed. A delicious aroma came out, and we rushed in – and stopped in shock.
It was a Lord’s Room – wood paneling on the wall, rich furniture and carpeting, and a dining table.
There were six places at the table. Cooky was over by a small door, grinning.
The great man behind us bumped into Nix, who was at the rear. He laughed. “Go in! Go on, get in there! Don’t be shy! Sit down! Cooky, you know what to do.”
Apparently she did, because she opened the door and disappeared.
After showing each of us where to sit, our host turned and went through the door just as Cooky came out of it, holding a tray. Dr. Thompson returned while she was handing out dishes. His tray had drink containers.
“Eat! Don’t wait on ceremony,” he told us, but as hungry as we were, we certainly did wait, with a Lord serving us!
After the table was loaded with dishes, Dr. Thompson and Cooky sat down. He 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.
The fiery alcohol still took away my breath. This time he called it wine.
“To hope! May it always spring eternal! Now let’s dig in.”
Oh, what a feast that was! It was wonderful at first, that last meal anybody ever had on the Moon.
The trouble started during dessert. Dr. Thompson had just told us how he got the Earth globe out here.
“Don’t know why I keep it out in the lounge now. As a monument of sorts, I suppose. Let’s adjourn 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?”
“Absolutely, my boy. Go ahead.”
“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.”
He raised his container and said, “To life.”
Dr. Thompson sighed and nodded. “Here, here.”
“To life,” each of us murmured.
Cooky asked Dr. Thompson how he had known what time dinner would be.
“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, of course.”
Something about the way he said “you people” made us all bristle.
He didn’t notice. “Since you five were on a long-distance rover, some of the highest values were to be used. As always, it worked out accurately.”
“As always,” Nix murmured to herself.
The warm glow of the wine I had taken was gone now. I felt indignant. “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 could have.”
“It’s not silly.” I said it – quietly, though, not wanting to offend a Lord.
“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 when she said it.
Laughing Man turned to Dr. Thompson. “No, it’s not silly.” After pausing at his own boldness, the geologist threw all caution to the winds. “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 hadn’t expected this. “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, too. Now you’re saying we are.”
Thompson 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. “And everybody’s gone.”
Rumble cut her off. “It’s free will, Dr. Thompson.”
“What?” Thompson was surprised.
“Free will. We were all, well, kind of scared to work with you at first – you’re so famous.”
I couldn’t believe Rumb was talking to a Lord directly like that. He didn’t sound drunk.
“We’re all humans, you said. How would you feel? For us, it was the first time any of us really had done something all on our own, and then to get praised by the 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 was at a loss for words.
“I see,” he said eventually. “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…”
Cooky said, “Don’t, Nix.”
Rumb also said something, but this time Nix charged ahead. “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 ‘we people’ would never put it all together. You tricked us, Dr. Thompson. None of you Lords can be trusted.”
For a moment or two, things were very quiet.
Great anger swept through me, not really at poor Dr. Thompson, but at all the Lords for everything – just everything, including the fix we were in.
“What’s all this, Doctor?” Laughing Man shouted.
“Ten,” Dr. Thompson said, but Laughing Man ignored it. It didn’t make sense anyway.
“Why couldn’t you just tell us what the situation was?”
Thompson just said, “Nine.” He was looking down at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap.
Nix answered for him. “It would have changed the equations, don’t you see?” Her voice dripped sarcasm.
“No!” someone said.
“Yes!” said somebody else, and, “He lied to us!”
“People…” Everybody ignore Rumb.
“We don’t need to be doing this right now.” There was an edge to Rumble’s voice now.
“I should have known….” Laughing Man sounded bitter, but Thompson interrupted him with a roar.
“Sevensixfivefourthreetwoone! Sweet Jesus!”
All of us immediately cringed. Mitchell Thompson didn’t say anything for quite a while. He kept his hands clenched together. Rumble had his head in his hands, but the rest of us were sitting bolt upright, staring straight ahead.
Dr. Thompson spoke, slowly at first. “I have not ever taken abuse lightly.”
After a pause, he carried on. “You, none of you people, you…Blendings.”
Here, he couldn’t restrain himself. “Yes, Blendings!” he shouted at us. “If you want to reforge your shackles, 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. “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. “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 pulled another drink container out of somewhere, took a long swig, and then to our amazement, he started to sing, “It’s a long way…”
He changed his mind and talked 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 preference for slavery, well, you leave me no choice, and therefore you yourselves will have none.”
It was terrible, the way he said that.
“Down at the very end of that hall out there you will find a door. Beyond that, you will find a rocket hangar.”
Several minutes of quiet went by after that, while he drank. Without turning my head, I watched him help himself to Nix’s drink container. That was empty. 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 just brought the rockets down into the hangar. Never thought the base would pick it up. Had to hide them – it was obvious things were falling apart over there. Well, never mind now. Listen up!”
He started to gave us our orders. “There’s air in the hangar, but you’ll have to suit up. The dust control isn’t very good. Good enough for one shot. We’re losing power here. There’s enough for, oh, 15 hours, 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.”
Thompson inclined his head up toward the ceiling. He obviously was getting tired, 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! 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 let up. He ordered us out and soon we started on the longest, hardest work shift I have ever endured.
We were still off-loading #6 as the 11-hour mark approached. We stopped when the Lord appeared. He ordered us to stop. Like us, he was in a sealed suit.
He lined us up on the #9 ramp. Then he ordered us into the Bradbury, one by one.
“Take a seat, each of you. Not you, Rumble. Nix, into the cockpit”
Rumble strapped us in. I thought he would head for the cockpit, but he turned and climbed back down to the door instead. I heard the Lord talking to him but couldn’t make it out.
Then Rumb crawled back, greeting each of us in turn.
“Did he say where we were going, Rumb?” Laughing Man asked. “Rumb!”
“Rumb!” I tried to gesture. “There’s still debris out there, on top of the roof, I mean.”
“Oh yeah,” Rumb mumbled. “He’s gonna move it.”
“Well, he’d better hurry up,” I said, looking at the clock.
Rumble went up to the cockpit and had a few words with Nix before he scrambled down past us one last time, not looking at any of us.
I heard the door close and then the locks clicked. I listened but couldn’t tell which seat Rumb was in. Anyway, I was too busy wondering.
Dr. Thompson was locked out. Why?
Nobody said a word at first. As three hours passed, we eventually got into a group discussion over the com links. Nix joined in briefly, saying that she was waiting for Dr. Thompson to call in.
Then the Lord’s voice crackled in our ears. “Drat! Can you hear me? Hello?”
Nix handled it. “Yes,sir. Is there a problem?”
“I’m up above you, in your Bot One. I’m stuck!”
“What’s he doing out there?” Laughing Man asked.
“I can’t move that piece. It’s on the cover. You may have to power down, unless I…. What! Who the devil is that? Who hit me?”
Rumble’s baritone suddenly filled our ears. He was singing!
It’s a long way to tip a rairy….
Rumb had to be in Four. Up there, not in here with us.
“Exercising free will,” we heard him say, “and the laws of physics. Please hit the juice, doctor. Please. That’s it. Keep the momentum going. I can’t stop now.”
“Tip a….Merciful heavens! All right, I’m moving. Thank you. Over here.”
All three of us in the passenger compartment went crazy, so Dr. Thompson just started singing that crazy song with him. Rumble ignored us, too, going “la-la-la” after the first sentence or so.
The breaks in their voices told us how much maneuvering they were doing at the console. One person can run a bot, but it’s not easy.
I looked at the clock. Only minutes to go before the 15-hour mark.
Nix broke in on our headphones. Her voice was a little shaky. “He knew what he was doing, Clarity. He told me…he made me pilot.”
“You knew,” I said.
“Where?” Cooky asked. “Pilot to where?”
Screams and chaos broke loose. Not that fiery, blasted, monstrous ball set against stars like a warning in the clear lunar sky!
It’s a good thing we were strapped in. The singing over the commo link stopped and Dr. Thompson talked us down.
“I knew you’d take it that way. Seeing the globe would have made it easier. I’m sure I’ve heard some broadcasts. There is some life on the Earth. Some chance they survived, anyway. There’s no luck left here on the Moon any more. Not now. Rumble! … You fool! … Wait a moment…did that thing just move?”
“Yes, sir.” Rumb started singing again.
That’s all there was for a while, as the two men worked in silence.
I looked at the clock again. The base had to be out of power by now. They couldn’t come back in.
“There!” The two men said it together, then Dr. Thompson added, “Hurry, lad. Push now.”
After a few moments, Rumble called in. “Nix! We’re off the pad. Now’s the time. Good luck!”
“Good luck, Rumb,” she murmured.
“NO!” We all shouted. The blast would get them.
“Lad, it’s Tipperary. Say it after me. Tip-er-ar-ry. A lovely place in Ireland, before the war. Before the war.”
“Tipperary.” We all said it with Rumble.
“That’s right. Sing it now after me.”
It’s a long way to Tipperary, that’s right, it’s a long way to go, To the sweetest girl I know….
I heard Rumble say, “Goodbye, Clare.”
They sang on.
Well, Dr. Thompson sang and Rumb la-la’d after him. We felt the first little tremble as the engines lit, and a thrill that made the seats quiver. Then we started pulling G’s.
But my heart’s…
There was stunned silence for a while. Then Nix suddenly shouted, “Earth! Earth!”
An image flickered on the cabin screens. A live image of Earth.
It was different.
Gone were the fires and smoke. The surface of that globe was almost pure white now, but blue and brown broke through in places. Had Thompson known it? How could he, through the impenetrable dust?
“I thought I was going to Hell,” Cooky said in a hushed voice.
Crying leaves a mess in zero-G. We had to unstrap to clean it all up, and then I found the note Rumb had left me. It was a good note.
Half a moment, please…
It was a long flight. There was plenty of time to talk about what Rumble had done, and why; to cry; and to start reading Dr. Thompson’s notes before our rocket safely reached its pre-programmed destination, here on Kodiak Island.
Yes, Fridan, Earth’s gravity immediately broke three of my ribs when I tried to get out of my seat after a perfect landing. Cooky broke her arm.
There’s no time to tell of it now. There go the dinner bells. Let’s go.
What? Will we go back? Yes, of course we will. Why do you think Thompson left those notes?
Should we? Well, that depends on what we choose to take with us. Maybe we’ll do better next time.