Fire in the Night
Episode 37: Space:1999 The Classic Adventures
"Small ones, large ones,
Loud ones too;
And then there's the ones
Because of you."
--Sandra Osborne (from 'Explosions')
"Down in the hole
The belly, the bone-home
Down in the hole
The clutch of the bellman."
--J. Bottum (from Timor Mortis)
Baal only 'seemed' to grow larger, but according to the Law Of Philosophy, or every philosopher, there is an equal, but opposite, philosopher. It's calefacient face was a charged, rust color with black successions that came together to form closed vertexes near her south pole. The planet's upper mantle was red hot--killer, especially when taking into account the fact that it was still 300,000 nautical miles in the downrange. Stranger still was the fact that the avuncular host star was nowhere to be seen, yet there was heat, and atmosphere, and the imperialism of a new world--one that could quite easily fashion magical storms for the god-like ilk of a Jupiter.
Blinding, per saltum solar flares cast out the darkness of the Plato Basin, and for the first time in months, the conical network of Moonbase Alpha was visible without the need for internal, or external lighting. The walls of Frigoris, normally a deep blue, turned white, and engulfed shadows from the launch pads, dormitories, and laboratory complexes threw black bars in all directions.
Above the glare of the nickel, and polonium shielding of the command tower, the I-Band Omni Radio Booster searched the acme of space surrounding the planet.
Hitherto, it had been a pretty boring conversation, unless you have a hang for ether.
Pierre Danielle, the on-duty CapComm was there when the roster printed out--slowly, but with laser jet certainty. He didn't need a reminder, but procedure was his lover. Removing the document from the tray, he applied the hole puncher, and placed the chart in a maroon, three ring binder.
Astrophysicist Lorna O'Brian stood behind deputy controller Zed Astrin. She reflected upon the big screen, and made notes. Then she made annotations on top of citations.
On the balcony stairs, WSC investigator Truman Starns compensated for his current lack of essential donations--seeing Dr. Dorothy Sullivan by the wide, panoramic vision port, he decided to strike up a conversation.
The pilot had finished shaving, and was brutally slapping himself with a palm-full of neutral aftershave when the call came through. His bath towel was still around his neck, and he had yet to don his flares, but that didn't seem to trouble Big-P Danielle.
"Astronaut Francesco Basso, report to Launch Pad Three." The CapComm instructed inconsiderately.
"Ridiculous." The mission commander blurted back, grabbing his commlock from atop the wine commode cover.
"Frank?" His wife Vesta inquired, turning off the blow dryer, and entering the lavatory in her standard issue robe. "What is it?"
The pilot grimaced, and opened the link.
"I thought we were scrubbing the POR? Yes?" He reminded the CapComm, moderately irked.
"So did I." Danielle seceded. "But I just received the update, and it looks like you and Magnusson are go for a minimum, five orbit reconnaissance."
"Understood." Basso capitulated (Why fight it? He would look for someone he didn't know to take it out on.) and set his commlock on the beige porcelain so he could finish toweling off.
"I thought you were excited to get back to flying, dear," Vesta Basso smoothed the unscented body lotion along her lean, olive skinned arms. She was running late as she pulled on her rust colored tunic. Third shift technician Ed Malcom would bitch and moan about his aching corns and back pain as she would relieve him from his tour of duty. He would bray on and on as Vesta Basso would check through her tool cart and scan the list of jobs that Caroline Kennedy would hand to her on the way back to the Technical hub to compile the status reports for Angelina Carter. Ed's stomach would rumble and he would leave to the dining complex, limping and moaning down the corridor.
The routine hadn't changed in 3 years.
"You've been doing the ground patrol route for the past month, driving past rock after rock after rock. It would drive me nuts." She admitted. "I thought you welcomed the change."
"I want more stick time." The pilot accorded, pulling his flares up. His last mission before taking his snail-tour of the Moon had been a hardware transfer to the Contamination Control Program in the Locus Somniorum. The HAB module was an empty closet...no one on Alpha had acquired any type of disease, more royal than a gnawing case of the Shingles. His cargo was an awkward, unsophisticated microwave landing system. Supply-Three was the last ship he had helmed, which was unfortunate since he was a far better star sailor than he was a driver. "On the other hand...." He chuckled absurdly. "They've cancelled this probe three times. The first time it was because Severance was dreaming up problems with the interface load." He winked, and started pulling his tunic over his left arm. "The second time, Dr. Belgarian was the agent provocateur. Untrustworthy telemetry, he says. Since the planet doesn't revolve, there's no way of knowing what is on the other side. We need 'assists,' he says.
"And I wholeheartedly agreed. The 'assists' would have been a good survey mission but five seconds into the briefing, Tavadi burned the idea at the stake." He zipped his sleeve. For some inexplicable reason, he searched the medicine cabinet for the commlock that was right beneath his nose. "Then Professor Bergman resurrected the idea, embraced it, and then murdered it again after studying the long-range, spectroscopic data.
"We need consensus." Basso decided, fixing the tan belt to his waist. He was forty-eight years old, and still no sign of gray hair. Even after loathsome months of crossing the trackless, lunar terrain with William Gregory Harms, III. "Will this be a new beginning for us all, or are they conspiring to give Francesco Basso acid reflux disease?" He challenged, speaking in the third person. "Tune in next week, same time, same channel, same rude people."
"No one's exempt from the fickleness of management," she agreed, glimpsing into the mirror one last time and straightening her hair clip. "Take my department. Chris Potter can't decide if we work in pairs or work by ourselves maintaining electronics. First it was pairs. Then, I guess he saw we were having too much fun, then it was back to solitary work. There's talk now of assigning us in pairs again for certain jobs."
"I guess you just have to go with the flow," she decided with a sigh. "Have a good day and be careful out there. Don't forget, cards tonight at the Talics." She kissed him hurriedly then quickly walked out of their quarters.
Angelina Carter was uncomfortably perched in the pretzel chair, next to a fibercasted Steve Gardner in Medical Center.
"I suck at mining," Angelina admitted, scribbling notes that were barely legible. "I don't know what I'm doing." Steve Gardner had stepped left instead of right on the scaffolding and fell 30 feet, resulting in multiple leg fractures.
"That's true," Gardner admitted. He 'heh'ed. "It's not 'just a bunch of rocks', is it, Ang? That's OK. Listen to the 'expert', yours truly, and you'll get along just fine. I look at this as an opportunity for you to appreciate my talent and remarkable abilities as a mining engineer."
"Don't be so pompous," she remarked with a smirk. "Did you hit your head or something? Since when did you acquire the technical superiority complex?"
Gardner sat back relaxed in a semi morphine haze, grinning and folding hands behind head.
"I suppose I see your point regarding speed of digging and such," she surveyed the map. "I'll pass that piece of info on to Alan and take more seismic measurements. Fortunately there has not been a lot of activity in the area and..."
She was interrupted by the opening of the double doors and her son Nicky, merrily running into the room. Alan Carter was behind him. The boy grabbed the remote from the stand and pointed it toward the television.
"HEY!" Gardner shouted. "Nickster! I know what time it is! Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk...."
The DVD player came to life and the comedic trio, The Three Stooges, appeared on the screen. The injured engineer and the child were engrossed with comedy from a bygone era. Her son barely noticed his mother kissing him on the cheek, bursting out in laughter as Moe walloped a 2x4 on Curly's cue ball head.
"I really don't think he should be watching something so violent, Bob," Ang remarked as she passed Mathias. "I'll pick him up later for lunch. Please don't let him sit there and watch that all morning."
"Not to worry." The physician waved unreliably. "You can count on me."
She glanced at Mathias, not believing him, then left with Carter. Mathias gave his opinion over a chess game the previous week that being stressed out over the boy watching too much Three Stooges was not a good reason to get stressed out. Nicky Carter had already seen more violence in his young life such that 70 year old slapstick comedy was trivial. Her desire, though, to provide a 'normal' upbringing in an abnormal world was irrational, she knew, but she wanted it anyway. They headed toward the elevator to the lower levels.
"Does it seem a little peppery to you, petunia?" The pilot asked convivially while tugging at his open neck uniform. "I could swear that planetoid is giving us a dose. According to Lorna O'Brian the temperature there is over a thousand degrees Centigrade.
"What an oven."
The idea was humongous.
"No it's not." Victor Bergman disallowed, his eye huge in the magnifying glass before lowering the Endothermic scan plate. "It's accurate to say that these readings indicate a climate that is yellow hot, but the TM we acquired from the Explorer satellite was only partly correct. John, don't ask me how because I can't tell you, but somehow the night side is a completely different situation.
"And I do mean 'different.'"
"Tropical conditions?" The commander recounted. The report was an oxymoron. A complete mismate to the information they had gathered aforehand. "I haven't gotten used to the idea that half the planet could be in shadow. There's no host."
"No, there isn't." The professor jostled. "Still, our latest scans show less inimical temperatures, not to mention water, vegetation, a breathable atmosphere. There was quite a row about this in the Astrophysics Lab, I can tell you."
High atop the Ten Parabola, stellar cartographer Carroll Severance broke away from his dual action lens and retracted the lever that would adjust the hydraulics on the apotheosized telescope.
Koenig's reaction was a phenomenal shake of the head.
"A planet that has no sun, yet there's warming--extreme, calefactious heat, but on the far side, the temperatures are agreeable? Victor...."
"It's possible if there is sufficient volcanic activity, and a thinner crust." Bergman held up the long range photographs. "However, statistically, it is more likely to occur all over the planet. That's why this planet is fascinating, in that it is occurring mostly on one side. It is an anomaly, to be sure."
"It is certainly worth checking out with a reconnaissance flight, at least to gather data."
"Excellent!" Angelina Carter, in radiation suit, rubbed her gloved hands together as four miners, also in radiation suits, brought out 4 lead lined canisters containing uranium on the forklift. They waved at her as they passed her en route to the processing center.
"That load will give us power for another three years," she remarked to the leader of the operation, Captain Alan Carter. She had been up nights, stressed out of her mind in recent weeks because the uranium supply had dipped to the dangerously low '6 month supply' level.
"Heck, if not here," she lowered her voice, "maybe we could use it as start up fuels for a reactor on Baal." She was putting the cart before the horse, WAY before the horse, as she usually did when there was even the slimmest hope of moving off the former earth moon when they came close to a planet. "Yeah," she continued. "Building a reactor from scratch is going to be quite a project but really, nuclear energy is the way to go. Who's to say there won't be plenty of fuel on Baal? Not all of us are cut out to be farmers. Maybe Melita has the green thumb with plants but I'm just not good with them. I just don't have a vibe with plants. We will need power though, so that is where Joe and Joan and Carter and I will come in."
She stopped, realizing that she was rambling, noting the amused look in Alan's face. She only rambled though, when she was nervous. She had no reason to be nervous but a nagging feeling of dread was crawling down the Chief of Technical's throat and settling in the pit of her stomach.
"ALRIGHT, GOOD ONE." Carter called to the surrounding team members--still delighted over Angs' mental impairment. "THAT WAS A DOODLE FOR SURE. LET'S SHUT DOWN THE PAYLOADERS, AND GET THEM ROLLING. GUAN, PULL THE PLUG ON THOSE ACCUMULATORS, AND WE'LL CLOSE OUT ARTEMIS.
"NEXT STOP...." He said coyly, looking directly at the technical chief. "THE KARST PROMONTORY. BEING AS HOW WE'RE ON A TIGHT SCHEDULE, IF YOU WANT TO YAK' IT UP, DO SO WHILE WALKING."
The native, fifty-five degree constant climate was making the pilot more congenial--right now it was far more comfortable than baking like a jacketed potato in the Moonbase network. The grit rolled from the back of his neck.
It felt a little off, but the whole jimhickey could collapse on his head, and Alan Carter wouldn't care.
Famous last words.
He romantically extended his forearm and elbow.
"Ready for another jig,' cutie?"
She smiled, blushing with sudden salaciousness behind the visor. "Sure, why not," she purred slightly, taking his arm. Everything would be alright, right? Maybe it was just the fact she really did not enjoy being in a dungeon like place as the lower levels. The air was cooler, which was nice, as she removed her helmet, but the feeling of being closed in disturbed her.
The distraction of her husband caused her to miss the jump in the seismometer digital reading but it quickly returned to normal just as she glanced down at the instrument again.
Controller Zed Astrin put away his coffee cup, and uncrossed his legs so he could lean closer to the microphone. White beard stubble was showing on his chin, and neck--the culmination of a dreary cycle that could end only in death by numbers. And death by several other things too. Right now, he was discomfited...lethargic, and his face was its own chaperone.
"Phase One crew, lift off."
The ascent engines were lit, and the oppressive, hot aerosol surrounding Moonbase Alpha was interrupted by Eagle One's slow, forty-five degree climb into orbit.
"Alpha, this is Eagle One." Francesco Basso reported, pinned to his couch with a 5-G stomach but holding the yoke firmly. "NAVAID Control is good. We have green lights on the forward ops. Standing by for Mode One Charlie."
On the opposite side of the cabin, command module pilot Ron Magnusson held vigil over the manual thruster switches.
"Copy." Pierre Danielle answered routinely. "On my mark...Mode One Charlie."
Ignorance was bliss.
"What?" Adisa Talic blurted from the data analyst station. Zed Astrin looked up and Pierre Danielle gave her a curious sidewise glance. "Emma, asked computer to confirm." She spoke to Assistance Computer Chief Black, who had been so engrossed in processing Carroll Severance's astronomical calculations that she jumped at the sudden urgency in Talic's voice.
Emma Black swiveled the computer workstation toward the big screen as she transferred the sensor data into the main server.
"What's going on?" Astrin was next to Adisa in a flash.
Emma's jaw dropped as she turned toward Adisa, while the notation displayed on Adisa's monitor.
"Double check that," Astrin blurted as he leapt up the stairs and stabbed the white button on Koenig's desk. "Commander Koenig. Please report to Main Mission. Urgent!"
"This is strange," Ang pulled Ahn Nguyen aside. "I'm getting an increase in seismic activity."
"Wait second," Ahn took the meter. Then, she whacked it gently against the I-beam support. "Now what it say?"
"Uh, the reading is normal." Angelina frowned.
"Yeah, this one does that all time. I think Ed Malcom 'fixed' it but it not working right since then. Don't worry." Ahn went on. "If there is significant activity, you feel it."
"Hey, Harmon," she shouted and trotted ahead. "Another jackhammer coming down in about 20 minutes."
Angelina studied the meter. The reading was steady, normal. She shrugged and clipped the meter to her belt, intent on taking it to Potter to be checked when she went up for lunch.
Commander Koenig and Professor Bergman charged into Main Mission under the right archway.
"We've checked the sensors," Astrin offered. "They are fully functioning without known faults. The data appears to be solid."
The commander grabbed the pile of green bar sheets with a dread that was glandular. He barely had a chance to review that, or the nictitating, flashing delta on Talic's geochemistry tab.
Bergman saw it though, just before the end.
"Oh no." He muttered briefly, insolubly. Futurelessly. Then came the presage from the master computer banks. It was death knell for the Baal planetoid.
"DANGER...NEAR LUNAR OBJECT IN SUPERMASSIVE STATE...." The female, AI voice of the logic circuit preempted the profound shrillness of the electronic alarm pulse. "THERMAL LIMIT EXCEEDED. RECIPROCAL, SPATIAL DETONATION IS IMMINENT...."
"COMMANDER." Dr. Gurov, the geophysicist stationed in the MPSR room cried vehemently from the open hatch at the end of the mainframe module.
Having heard the deafening clapper, Helena Russell entered through Koenig's office and stumbled unbelievingly, dreamily, past Truman 'Abashed' Starns, who stood frozen on the balcony stairs next to Dot' Sullivan, MD.
The expression (2-x) Motion5 blinked involuntarily on the big screen but by now no one was watching.
"CONDITION RED." John Koenig blared, his voice cracking from the weight of abolition. "PLASMA BARRIER, NOW."
But Adisa Talic was glacial--immobilized by incipient, devious horror.
"DID YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?"
Vesta Basso stood confused amid the chaos. One moment she was under the Technical station, changing out a monitor fuse, the next all hell had broken loose. She glanced at the big screen then looked helplessly at Pierre Danielle.
She wasn't sure what was happening to the planet but she knew it wasn't good. She also had another feeling. The moment the wife of an astronaut dreaded was upon her.
"Frank," she whispered inaudibly, expressionlessly, as Professor Bergman gently but firmly pushed aside a stunned Talic and initiated the sequence for the defense screens.
"Screens up!" Bergman reported as the shaking commenced. With one hand he steadied himself on the data analyst desk and with the other, he held on to Data Analyst Adisa Talic who got a grip on her mental shock.
"Full power!" She supplemented as the shaking leaped exponentially up the lunar Richter scale. Out of the corner of her eye, Controller Paul Morrow and Chief Data Analyst Sandra Benes stumbled under the left archway, weaving about to their places.
June Akaiwa-Quenton, with the added bulk of a full term pregnancy, lost her balance and stumbled backwards, landing against Helena Russell, who inserted herself as willing human cushion between June and the computer deck. Sparks ignited as Russell collided with the bank of computers next to the MSR doorway.
Truman Starns used his spine to impede the fracturing weight of the Level-A support beam, which nearly collapsed, cables and all, atop Dorothy Sullivan. He polished the linoleum with his teeth.
From the top of his head to the heels of his boots, a gray loess and mortar covered John Koenig chose his fall--his target, the reinforced area beneath the balustrade where Bergman and Russell had been blown. Scrabbling frantically for his commlock, he managed to clear his right leg before panel number two overloaded, and burst, sending out an ordinance of fire and metallic shards.
Vesta Basso, face streaked with blood, grime and a widow's tears clung to one of the metal stanchions beneath the technical desk.
Several stories under, it took all of 3 seconds for Angelina Carter to realize her seismic meter was indeed working properly as the ground began to shake, matching the spike and continued high readout on the digital LCD.Once in awhile, Ed Malcom actually fixed something correctly; this was ne of those times.
"LOOK OUT!!!" Phil Geist violently pulled Angelina out from under a roof section, as he happened to catch a glimpse of a stress crack stressing out. Granite boulders pummeled to the ground where the Chief of Technical Operations stood one half second beforehand.
Koenig's "GET OUT OF THERE, CARTER!!" on her husband's commlock, as he attempted to assess the near futile situation, was a useless irony to their situation as the rumbling and screaming escalated in the lower levels.
Specialist Harmon wailed as hardware and barrels of U238 munched him from the overturned bed of the armored rover.
In the high dome of the Ten Parabola, stellar cartographer Carroll Severance wasn't there to see the main power grid negated. He was too busy being unconscious from the thud of the gunmetal gray circuit box, which fell from the telescope's barrel. Striking him upon the head, it sent the astronomer down the deep, dark rabbit hole.
He dropped to the floor like a concrete block, his chair, still swiveling in the glancing dust.
Somewhere in the bilious vapor cloud, Specialist Navas cried out, strangling on debris and tremendous gore from the exposed artery of her mangled shoulder.
"EAGLE ONE." CapComm Pierre Danielle persevered from the epicenter of hurricane carnage. But his TTT link-up was broken and--ingenuously said--astronauts Basso and Magnusson were no longer there to listen.
The fabricated, caissoned bulkheads of Moonbase Alpha--once sprawling in an ovate web across Plato's dry bed--disappeared in the violent onrush of the suprahot, cumulonimbus gases.
The Mare Imbrium was in brief, outre' highlight before the satellite was plunged into the nova's umbra. In abyssal space, the lost legacy of the planet Earth became a submerged, overmastered silhouette. The encompassed Moon--an infinitesimally small, 2,000 kilometer sphere. A black dot on an effulgent, white wall of expanding, divisive atoms.
Blackness surrounded her, then abruptly the red glow of the emergency batteries illuminated the wallpanels. Doctor Helena Russell cautiously sat up, rubbing the back of her neck and slowly, slowly managed a standing position.
There was no sharp pain, mostly aching and pulling, which was a good sign. She tasted blood, though, and realized she had bitten her lip, almost completely through. A flesh wound, it would have to wait for attention.
"June," the doctor crouched down again next to the pregnant operative, who was groaning in semi-consciousness.
"I'm alright, doctor," she rolled over, amazed that she was still alive, "I....oh.." She stopped, alarmed by the drenching wetness of her flares.
"Your water broke," the physician nodded assuredly. "You'll be alright. Stay calm and don't get up."
Helena squinted, running through a preliminary assessment, as barely visible forms returned to shaky standing and sitting positions.
"John," Russell went to Koenig who was sitting up, shaking his head to stop the ringing, as Bergman propped him up with an assisting arm. Koenig had landed on his chin, the gaping cut a reopened childhood wound. It had bled profusely, as was typical of head injuries and his neck and tunic were covered in hemoglobin. "Are you alright?" she queried, as she triaged him for more serious head injury but decided his wounds were superficial, as he rose to his feet.
Without waiting for an answer, she made a beeline to Pierre Danielle, who was hemorrhaging profusely from the nose. The swelling and contorted shape told her the assistant chief of reconn needed her attention more than Bergman or Koenig.
"Paul...." The commander fixated again as he bollixed though the dark--past the huge, Rand McNally globe of the Earth which had, only a mere five minutes ago, resided in his office. His face was streaked with twin rules of blood that was blackened with gumbo sealant. "Sound the base."
The controller shook his head unconditionally. A pie shaped scrap of paper clung to the sweat and silt on his face like a muttonhead's Band-Aid.
"CAN'T DO IT." He replied, fuming. His totality of being was covered with cinders, in his eyebrows, his ears, under his fingernails. Baal had done a number. Somehow, in the shockwave shatter and delirium, his workstation was blown from it's moorings and lay at a right angle to the services desk, both keyboards on the floor, the stem of the swish lamp, separated from its cover by a huge crack. His optical mouse lay buried in the solid state disaster of red, and blue wires before the big screen. "ALL COMMUNICATIONS ARE OUT. WE HAVE NO LONG RANGE FACILITY, NO COMMLOCK FREQUENCIES, NO SATELLITES.
"NOTHING. WE MAY AS WELL TIE STRINGS TO TIN CANS, FOR ALL THE GOOD IT WILL DO."
"What amazes me is the fact that we're still breathing." Bergman observed, his back and right knee in shards of glass agony. "We were in low apogee. Being that close to Baal, it's a miracle we weren't vaporized in the explosion."
"The absorption fields didn't last ten seconds." A scummed-up, sharooshed Benjamin Ouma reported from the capsized, short-circuiting remains of his station. He was a putrefying sight. At least some things had not changed.
"HOW COULD THEY?" Sandra Benes argued tepidly. Behind her, the inestimable, gross, concussed Truman Starns sought to extinguish the flames of the fricasseed, master computer with a can of cool-dry. "NONE OF OUR UTILITIES WERE DESIGNED TO WITHSTAND BLOWOUTS OF THAT MAGNITUDE."
"WELL, WE'RE REAL SORRY ABOUT THAT, SANDRA." Koenig volleyed back. His vexation had a name, and it was two dead pilots, Eagle One, and God knew how many others. He had yet to see the score card...frankly, didn't want to. "THE NEXT TIME A GODDAMN PLANET COMES APART, WE'LL BE SURE TO RSVP YOU FIRST."
Zed Astrin winced in response to the torture of his new floating rib. His malaise, worsened by the sight of Emma Black, unconscious near the vision ports, with her rived tunic flipped back to expose her left breast. Helena Russell knelt beside her, respectfully pulling the material back into place while giving the commander and the professor an indeterminate look.
The commander would have, could have gone further in flaming the services manager, were it not for the sounds of gelid breath that emanated from the stairs just beside him. Helena Russell was already there. Her patient was there in body, if not spirit.
"Vesta?" The physician inquired, one survivor to another, of the catatonic woman who sat motionless with her algor palms dangling between her legs.
Koenig stooped to assist, but it was, perhaps, too late for this type of damage control.
"Physical shock," Russell mumbled as she assessed the stricken woman. "It is not trivial." She stood up and took a blanket from the first aid unit on the wall and draped it around Vesta Basso's shoulders. The cause of the condition was obvious.
"If I can't contact Medical, we need to at least start bringing people down there for treatment." She blinked, discouraged as all the monitors displayed ominous static and snow.
As if to underscore the urgency of the predicament of the more seriously wounded, Dr. Sullivan made eye contact with her, finishing her assessment of the prone Harness Bull Mohammad Zamari. The security man's fall from the balcony resulted in his final physical exam. No autopsy would be necessary, judging from the amount of gray matter on the tile floor which had only minutes before composed of the left side of his brain. Sullivan left the dead man, skirting around the large pool of coagulating blood, to attend Pamela Rose, who sat on the steps next to the right archway.
Her lower left arm was swollen like a balloon, but the bumps under her flame tunic along with the rust colored spots told her a compound fracture was likely. Rose promptly dry heaved partly in pain and partly from the gruesome sight of her own bones protruding from her arm as Sullivan tore away the sleeve.
"The bulkhead on Level D of the Command Tower is sealed," Lars Manroot gave them the gloomy news from under the left archway. Manroot had been on his way back to Main Mission from central computer when Baal transitioned from planet to chunks, opting to take the stairs instead of the elevator. It was a good thing since lunar debris from the explosion took out the command tower elevator. He had escaped with his life and he was relatively unscathed.
It was Lars Manroot's "lucky" day.
"We are completely cut off from the rest of the base." Manroot delivered the conclusion, and glanced in dismay at the chaos of wires, cables and upturned work stations in Main Mission.
"John...." Victor Bergman said affirmatively, while motioning the commander towards one of the lower vision ports that was not encrusted with entrails from the Baal planetoid.
Koenig left Manroot to his thoughts of hopelessness, and topped the stairs. Palms resting on the sill, he reconnoitered the area below the command tower. Launch Pad One was gone/submerged/interred; likewise, about one third of crescent shaped, Technical HAB; of the fabrication unit, there was no sign and Residence Building-C--the largest dormitory on the base, was seen from only the third story up. Some of the transparencies seemed too opaque; garish steam seemed to roil away--into the void; evidence of explosive decompression.
There was no need to worry about the huge, Vehicle Assembly Building. It was already underground. Again, Moonbase Alpha found itself remodeled by forces beyond its comprehension.
"We have to get the ground crews moving as soon as possible." Koenig conceived, eyes moving truculently from east to west. Through the mire, he could just make out a trio of LRV's--probably dispatched from security HQ to survey the random, chaotic, Hand Of God destruction. The lead car started to roll through the sand towards the command tower which evidenced some surviving structure, even if it was quixotic. "We need to find out the condition of the Alpine Valley refineries."
"The DEFCON Corridor?" Bergman divined.
"Maybe." Koenig said while walking back towards the riches-to-rags group. "EVERYONE, LISTEN. OUR SITUATION IS GRAVE, BUT HELP IS ON THE WAY. AS MANY OF YOU ALREADY KNOW, ALPHA WAS DESIGNED WITH CERTAIN FAILSAFES.
"In the event of nuclear war." He expostulated without pride. "THERE'S AN EMERGENCY EGRESS TO THIS UNIT. IT CONNECTS TO THE REST OF THE MOONBASE NETWORK. UNFORTUNATELY, THE CONNECTOR IS UNDERGROUND, SO IT MAY TAKE SOME TIME TO DIG OURSELVES OUT.
"Helena...do what you can here." The commander said with reserve. "Victor, you and Starns are with me. Paul, it's imperative that we get communications up and running again."
Morrow nodded in obeisance, but he was a magician without a top hat, or a rabbit to pull.
Sandra glanced at Morrow then at Koenig, wanting to shed her opinion on the Commander but decided her quickly evaporating energy reserve would be best spent untangling the mess of cables and wires that was the communication station. She disappeared under the desk mumbling something about futility as Ben Ouma reached for Vesta Basso's tool cart. Curiously, the widowed technician's cart was the only piece of furniture which had not been upturned when Baal was wrented asunder.
"Lars," Helena Russell finished splinting Pamela Rose's arm and glanced at the next stricken Alphan, "We need your help." She nodded to Koenig, Bergman and Starn.
"Be careful," she called as the trio departed through the Commander's office.
"...oh please...." Ed Malcom beefed and bellyached. Bargaining, even though he was the only member of the expedition who was completely unharmed. Landing on his fat ass was his only date with destiny. "I'm dying."
"SHUT YOUR HOLE." Carter derogated him while examining the motionless, intractable treads of the armored truck. "YOU'RE NOT DYING." The pilot scolded--whacked and disgusted and leaning against the scrunched, evacuated fresh water tank. "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT DEATH IS."
"Ed," Angelina Carter interrupted kindly and with surprising patience. "Go help Ahn find the maglights. We need some more lighting in here other than our commlocks."
He glanced at her miserably, like a fat mangy dog, then lumbered away to the Vietnamese technician, who gave the Chief of Technical a less than appreciative look. In the mind of the petite specialist, she was better off finding the flashlights herself. She was probably right. However, Ang had to get Malcom away from Carter. If he wasn't careful, the obese technician would eventually get on the Chief of Reconn's last nerve and end up on the receiving end of Carter's infamous left hook.
"Four people are dead, all mining engineers" Angelina reported to Alan. It was unfortunate to lose the expertise in their situation. "Blake Dekker, Tim Robbins, Brett Kelleher and Tina Popadopolus. Two people are seriously injured and will need to be carried on makeshift stretchers." She went on after suppressing a sigh, which did not escape his detection. "Everyone else appears to be ambulatory, suffering either possible broken arms or cuts and scrapes.....except for Ed."
"Are you alright?" She gently turned his left elbow to get a better look at the jagged cut which appeared to have mangled both his orange sleeve and his biceps.
She winced, not only because of the deep cut in his arm but also from the ache in her left side. On the other hand, she ached all over and pain meant she was alive.
"Besides feeling like a Berk, I'm midland." Carter replied, searching for an azimuth but finding only the blackness. "I GUESS I SHOULD HAVE DOUBLE CHECKED OUR ODDS IN THE LUNAR GEOLOGY BACK ROOM. MAYBE THOSE BOUNDERS WOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER."
Phil Geist, limping on a splintered, left ankle took the remark as an insult, which is precisely what it was intended to be.
"REALLY?" The mining chief reproved him. "ALAN, IT'S NICE TO KNOW THAT YOU'RE COMPLETED UNSPOILED BY FAILURE. AND FOR YOUR INFORMATION, THIS ISN'T A BLIND VALLEY. ARTEMIS IS A DEVELOPED SECTION AND HAS BEEN SINCE THE LATE EIGHTIES.
"NO SEIZMIC ACTIVITY."
"You could have fooled me." Carter ragged back. "Seems like a few minutes ago, the mountains were coming down on our heads. I wonder what made me think that, Phil."
"I would concur with that assessment." Specialist Harmon circumscribed. "Though I would not rule out the possibility that this had something to do with our close passage to the planetoid.
"Incidentally, communications are out." He told Ang' and showed her his commlock.
"On our end or theirs?" Communication Specialist, turned bulldozer operator Tim O'Connor joined the group. He typed in a code on his battered commlock.
Harmon's commlock chirped merrily in response.
"Our transmission is fine. It's Main Mission's receivers which are not functioning." O'Connor explained. "I just tried to ping the Main Mission communication server and got no response whatsoever."
"It wouldn't be a surprise if Alpha suffered some damage due to the quake, including the Command Tower." Harmon postulated.
"Actually," Geist debunked, "It would be a surprise if there was damage to the Command Tower. We just reinforced the footings to 50 feet down for stability against lunar quakes."
Ang picked up the dropped seismometer, which was still miraculously functioning. "Six point two on the Richter scale."
"Sure, that's a strong quake," Phil continued, "but the Command Tower would have been easily able to withstand a quake of that magnitude with minimal damage."
He leaned against the gray lunar dirt wall, favoring his injured ankle. "And by minimal, I mean a few dropped papers or overturned chairs, worst case."
Until now, it had not occurred to Angelina Carter there might be any more than minimum impact from the quake on the higher levels of the base. She assumed Nicky and everyone else was safe. What if they weren't? What if the base was destroyed and they were all dead? The thought was making her ill, contributing to the edge of nausea she already had in the pit of her stomach.
"Well, I'm sure they are aware of our situation down here," she pushed black thoughts out of her mind, "and they are working on rescuing us. I think we should stay put and let them find us since our last location was reported just 5 minutes before the quake. They know exactly where to find us."
"I have absolutely no idea what's become of them." John Koenig said ignorantly, stopping at the end of the accessway with Bergman and Starns bringing up the rear. The commander's skin was an uncertain, roseate shade born of the dim glare from the emergency lights. They had negotiated the central stairwell--a disaster of litter only, with one splattered coffee cup, and sheets of data everywhere from an abandoned green flimsy. Starns studied the empty slip cover briefly before tossing it back over his shoulder. At ground level, they turned left, and then another left which brought them to a squat maintenance hatch which still opened on the manual override circuit. "If it still exists, the nuke' corridor is at the bottom of this ramp." He dilated, stooping beneath the door frame. "One more hatch, and there's no telling what's on the other side of it."
Gathering his brio, the commander slid open the transparent door to the nearby disaster locker. The bulbs were out, but beyond lay a red environment suit.
"Victor, help me out with this, will you?" He said as he liberated the helmut and gloves from their couplings.
"Do you smell that?" Starns nettled, sampling the belvedere with his broken, pugnacious nose. "A really aggressive odor." He described, feeling his lungs tighten. "Almost like bleach."
"That's not bleach, I'm afraid." Bergman shook his head and shot a look of immediate concern to Koenig. "Loxx fuel. We should be alright as we can close off areas and contain it." He unfastened Koenig's left glove and pulled. "However, if it gets into the ventilation system of the Artemis Cavern, the last known position of the excavation team, it will affect them."
That is of course, if they are still alive, Bergman thought but did not add to the statement.
"We have to assume they are alive until presented evidence otherwise," Koenig added, practically reading Bergman's mind as he unlatched his right glove. "We HAVE to."
Acting on their own recognizance, Harness Bulls Judge and Theylan rolled across one of the lava tubes, and brought the rover to a halt beside the rent, contuse mountain of wreckage. A galaxy of hypersonic ice floated in the one eighth gravity. All that remained of the collapsed silo was a single, tumtum gantry that remained crippled from the clobbering given to it by the Baal aftershock.
"It's difficult to see anything through the vapor cloud." Theylan observed. The communications carrier in his suit worked just fine. "We've got a downed cistern. I'm not sure what it feeds into, but the wreckage is spread out all over the place."
"What about the MMC?" Pierce Quentin urged on the opposite end of the link, from inside the security cube.
Judge turned slowly in his suit, and aimed the rotating floodlight upwards in the direction of the high annular building with the decussated roof.
"It's there." He replied simply. "The tower is half buried in a drift of regolith." He studied, squinting. "I can see faces in the windows. Alive and kicking. Looks like they're trying to signal us."
"Chum, that's about the billionth time you've tried that." Carter remarked, sitting on the running board of the disabled truck. "I'm starting to think you don't comprehend what it means to have a lift not go to the top floor."
He closed the lid to the First Aid Kit. Its contents were all but depleted and technically they had only been lost in Yonkers for a half hour now.
At his feet lay four, smashed helmut visors. Disaster dictated that he not bother to check the suits.
"Just a thought." Specialist Harmon replied defensively as he turned incurably away from the doors to the heavy equipment elevator.
Unexpectedly, Ed Malcom managed to get a small generator going to provided a minimal light as Angelina splinted Guan Rivera's left leg. She was helping the seriously injured engineer quench his thirst with a sip of the quickly disappearing water supply when Ang straightened, sniffing the air.
The odor was reminiscent of a swimming pool. Jessica Moran, geologist turned nurse and tending the other seriously injured Alphan, Andrea Mathew, noticed it too.
"Maybe the pool sprung a leak," she joked to Mathew, who was already becoming feverish and the smell was particularly amplified to her.
"Bummer," Mathew mumbled, momentarily calmed as she drifted into unconsciousness.
Angelina knew they were no where near the swimming pool. "I'll be right back, Guan."
She found Carter arguing with Jed Harmon who was clearly annoyed. Carter stood up when she approached while Harmon decided to give the lift motor another look.
"Do you smell that?" she whispered after taking him aside. If it what she thought it was, she did not want to start a panic.
"I've been smelling it for the past ten minutes, and it's getting stronger." He acknowledged, while heaving the strap of a pregnant field sack over his shoulder.
"Isn't Launch Pad One's Loxx silo right above us? If that thing sprung a major leak....." she glanced around, "we can't stay here."
"That it is, Pumpkin." The pilot regarded the useless truck, and clapped the battery of his digital GPS, but there was still no direction, north or south. His expression could aptly be described as one of disgust. "The aroma is one hundred percent, solid propellant. This isn't a high cavern so enough of it will turn our lungs to Tapioca." He glossed, aiming his maglite at a doorway, carved in the basalt atop the ledge. "If there's anything down here to oxidize it, then we'll have 'real' trouble; flame, all over our faces, and down our backs.
"You know about Napalm? Same principal."
"What?" Geist impelled him. "Alan, did you always want to be a doomsayer, but never got around to it? For your information, the lousy plumbing doesn't extend that far. We're five kilometers down--over five thousand, fucking meters. How do you figure that a payload spill could reach us here?"
The astronaut looked at Ang.' Just when he thought he had heard, and seen it all--now it was time hear more.
"Unfortunately, the electrical conduits extend down from the launch bay to the more developed areas like this one," Ang answered the question by opening a master electrical main box. Instantly the aroma became more pungent. "If they lose atmosphere, there is a failsafe hatch which seals shut over the main box in the hanger area. Unfortunately for us, that has not happened. However, we are definitely being exposed to whatever is leaking upstairs. Man, that must be quite a spill."
She paused for a minute. It was yet another design flaw on the base which they would have to rectify...if they survived.
"We really have no choice but to go or we will be asphyxiated. It would not be a pretty way to die, Phil, choking on our own vomit through chemically burned throat and nostrils."
"Nuts to that." The pilot depreciated. "Look. Geist. HOW FAR DOES THE LIFE ZONE EXTEND DOWN HERE?"
"There's two square kilometers of habitable volume." The geologist argued. "You want to explore? Well, those are the boundaries, but I hasten to add--that is the way out." He gestured, pointing towards the heavy equipment elevator. "We can dodge the gas but somehow, someway, we're going to have to return here."
"What's down that passage?" Carter nodded towards the rift in the cave wall.
"The Karst Promontory, of course." Geist answered. "And the lower AA Region."
"Then let's start hiking." The pilot decided and felt his throat burn.
Angelina nodded in full agreement, moving toward the seriously wounded and mentally constructing makeshift stretchers with pipes and blankets.
"WHERE WILL WE GO? WHAT ABOUT THE RESCUE TEAM?" The mining chief crossed swords with him. "THIS LITTLE STROLL COULD COST US, MATE."
"There's not going to be any bloody search and rescue. At least not from that direction. That exit is closed." Carter educated them all. "As to your other question, I don't care where we go, Phil, as long as it ain't here.
"We're on our own."
Without love, life is hard.
Without a base, you're just plain screwed.
"That's encouraging." Truman Starns told Victor Bergman as they waited beside the closed hatch to the DEFCON Corridor. He was referring to the commlock at his hip. After a brief, static glow, a red, blue and green bar line appeared. It was still bunk useless, but the test pattern was a step in the right direction.
Rather than being lost in space, trapped within the confines of a settlement that was blown to oddments, they could now say that they were lost in space and trapped within the confines of an outpost that almost worked, but not quite.
"It is indeed," Bergman nodded in agreement as his commlock micromonitor displayed not only the test pattern but began playing a ping, ping, ping.
He pressed the red hot button in response and Sandra Bene's image appeared on the screen.
"Professor," the petite Data Analyst allowed herself to smile. "It is good to see you. We are obviously making progress."
"Yes, you are, Sandra," Bergman grinned back. "Excellent work."
It was a small victory but the battle of reconstruction was far from over. She nodded as she signed off.
In Main Mission Control, Paul Morrow was at a loss for words. How to define the efficacy of damage to his workstation. Well, actually there was a way to define it. It sucked; was, in fact, busted to offal, spaceage plastic refuse. The entire complex was a silicone nightmare--all except for his paper shredder, which was good since he was giving serious thought to sticking his head in it.
Lars Manroot was attempting to splice a loop of coaxial cable when the voices came. It took a second to clarify that it was not the product of Schizophrenia. A darting glance from Helena Russell seemed to support his case for competence, and the fact that the dialogue was coming, not from limbo, but from the speaker beneath the big screen.
"...east-west damage control initiating a hold...."
"...report on C-Band, Unified S-Band...."
"...and Dyronforth...all effected areas evacuated...."
"Paul?" Helena Russell said fulgidly.
Morrow dropped his handful of jumbo, self regulating garbage and cut across the trench, moving the physician gently aside so he could increase the volume.
"Audio communication restored to 60% of the base," Sandra responded from under the communication station. All one could see was her tan flares sticking out one side of the station and Lars Manroot's flares protruding from the other side. "Some interbase commlock visual also restored but signal depends mainly on location."
"That is good news," a stressed but professional Russell responded. She turned abruptly as a wail from June Akaiwa -Quenton sent her dashing back through the Commander's office and into the auxiliary access corridor. The laboring woman had been removed from the computer deck for the sake of privacy but the big doors separating Koenig's Office and Main Mission or the side access were not operating; priority to repair them was low.
John Koenig's commlock was not even granted the pittance of static. It remained powerless, and inutile. Exactly the way his command seemed so much of the time. After walking twenty five meters down the ramp in full pack, and pressure suit, he stopped, and opened the door to the nuke' highway via the manual override panel.
Seeing what was on the other side, he emitted a potent sigh of relief. After removing the intake hose, he unsealed his visor and pulled it back.
"How bad is it?" He asked of Pierce Quenton, and his team of harness bulls. Pete Garforth was there to represent Technical Section along with several EMT's, and variegated infirm patricians.
Garforth took one look at the crud in his coffee cup and decided he no longer needed the caffeine jolt. The other attendants of the command conference preferred dry, unbearable stress.
"Had we all died, it would have been worse...." Michelle Cranston trailed from a position at the round table that was normally occupied by Angelina Carter. This did nothing to make the predicament seem more picayune. Like the commander's office, that line of reasoning was a malformed mess.
Sandra Benes gave Cranston a bizarre look which said 'DUH'. She did not open her mouth though because she knew she'd regret what would come out. The Chief of Services was exhausted. After being on her back under the Analyst Station for 6 hours, when access to the rest of the base was restored she went to status her area and people. Hydroponics was in relatively good shape but the dining complex and main kitchen had been destroyed. Gonzales had just closed the hatch when Baal came apart. Miraculously, no one was in the kitchen area, the appliances of which were now scattered on the lunar surface.
"Communication has been restored to 95% of the base and all internal commlock functions are operating within limited range," Benes reported the 'good news' to Koenig after educating him on the canteen situation. "We still though, have not been able to contact the excavation party because the signal amplifiers are being repaired."
"We do know that at least some of the party may be alive," Sandra continued, "as we did get one sensor functioning and we were able to pick up life signs. They were weak signals as the amplifier is iffy and needs further refinement but we were at least getting them. Commander, for some reason, though, they have moved from their last reported position. In fact, they are moving further away from the base rather than staying near the main cargo lift."
"Had they stayed, it wouldn't have mattered." Garforth included, setting aside his unscrumptious, smegma' coffee. There was a Y-shaped, silvery crack in the corner vision port where he stood. Were it not for the collision shielding, they would all be building castles in Plato's protohistoric soil instead of sitting in Koenig's office. The Gorski rubbertree plant fantastically survived the hail of demise that occurred an hour earlier. "The elevator isn't responding, and it's not an electrical problem. The call is being transmitted, but there's no movement. The bottom of the car is outfitted with boosters which allow it to move upwards at 300 meters per second. I theorize that those were damaged and that probably, their fuel requirements are all over the floor of the shaft.
"There's no way to be certain."
"Backup?" Koenig asked impatiently while grinding his DC hardcopy. Beside him, Victor Bergman shrank, compulsively tapping the lid of his ink pen against his front teeth.
"Yes." Garforth explained. "We could reel it in on cable--it would take forever, but it's been done before. The problem there is that something is obstructing the shaft." He shrugged his gloomy shoulders. "We're going to drop a camera down...see what's up with it...if it's something we can remove. The trouble is--the deeper you go, the harder it is to effect repairs. They're five kilometers down."
"Why not drop some C-4 into the shaft?" Truman Starns ascertained. "Or a PETN grenade? That might free it up."
"It could." Garforth suspected. "We might also end up doing irreparable damage to the cable trunking. The line might break, and the car would fall--and they would be smeared all over the cave floor--and they would die. There will always be a high risk factor for mining operations on those levels."
"There is a high risk factor for everyone out here no matter what they do," Sandra Benes amended sadly, folding her hands over her 5 high stack of flimsies, the top of which was a casualty report for her section.
"Are there other possible access points to the mines?" Koenig redirected the subject to the rescue of the excavation team.
"Commander, there is the remote possibility that we could retrieve them using the service hatch on the Lohrman Rille." Ben Dover, the assistant mining director offered. "It's forty meters, northwest of the octane reservoir."
He was a feverish man who could not keep his hands away from his face.
In the docile moonlight, his shadow resembled that of Bullwinkle, The Moose.
"I know that accessway." Challenged a sphinxlike Garforth. "The tunnel runs diagonal to the Karst Promontory, but it only extends for one kilometer."
"Right," Dover replied while turning on the projector which was activated to his laptop and pulling up an AutoCAD file. "You can see the access tunnel in green. Notice the 'blue line'." He deftly moved his laser pointer across the wall. "That blue line connects the Karst Promontory to the access tunnel. However, that is a ventilation shaft. It is about 1/2 meter square, though, and it is almost completely vertical."
Dover shook his head. "The toughest part will be for them to actually get to Karst Promontory. It is pretty rough even by mining standards. There are lots of hazards, fragile terrain, loose rocks, steep drops, to name a few. Its a challenge for those trained in the field."
"Way to go, fossil." Carter trampled with sadism, and exacting dislike. "You're so slow, I betcha' on Earth you held a hair dryer at passing cars to see if they'd brake."
Phil Geist yawped at the lack of organization, and throwing his hands in the air, hobbled his way past Ang.'
Work on the grotto stairwell was not progressing. The former, aluminum postern lay in a crumpled heap--bulldozed beyond recognition by Baal.
"GET OFF MY BACK." Ed Malcom sniveled with great, pansy distress. He carried the huge samples of Pyroxene in both armpits, and dropped them--with a brutal crack of the lumbar each and every time--in the growing pile ten meters beneath the cave exit. "ASS HAT."
"Ass hat?" The pilot imitated the cellulite retaining technician. "Now, that hurt."
"WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO GETS A WORKOUT?" Deadhead Ed wailed, perspiring oil--his breath laboring in tortured, cheynes-stokes. He bent to retrieve the next step--a huge, octagonal block of Olivine, and in the meanwhile the rest of the mining party was entertained by the sight of his hazardous, plumber's butt.
"Everyone else has sustained some kind of injury." Carter replied, diligently checking his GPS for signs of signal. "All except for you and me, berk, and between the two of us, I'm the one who is handsome and smart.
"So keep packing."
Angelina Carter was beyond sympathy for the self-centered technician as she ignored his pitiful, groveling look, pouting for her to run interference for him.
"He's in charge, Ed," she motioned to Carter. "Don't look to me for support or clemency. Do what he says."
She was cold and unwavering. Just 20 minutes before, they had lost the other seriously injured member of the excavation team. Her arms still ached from the fruitless administration of CPR.
"Andrea is still critical but we've gotten the blood loss to a stop," Angelina reported on the condition of the remaining near death team member. Her tattered sleeves along with tunic and flares encrusted with dirt, blood and sweat underscored the harsh reality of their situation. "She's tough but her real enemy now is infection."
She closed her eyes and sighed, running her hand through disheveled hair. "Alan, by the time Ed finishes the stairs, we're all going to be dead."
"Jed Harmon says there is another way down but it is steep. It would require ropes and harnesses."
She glanced at O'Connor, who was still programming and tweaking his commlock. "Still nothing from the base," she answered the question with a shrug. O'Connor's swollen and likely broken right wrist prohibited his participation in any heavy lifting. "But he is still working on it. He is actually attempting to send a Morse code signal using a lower frequency band."
Her left side still ached and the need to take breaks was becoming more necessary. Unbeknownst to her, her blood pressure had been slowly declining while her heart rate was increasing along with the nausea.
Carter conceded the flatness beneath him. It was delightful to torture Ed Malcom, who had served them all, over the years, with treachery, imbecility and unkind body odor. But now was not the time.
"HARMON." He called, dropping the GPS in the left pocket of his cargo pants.
"Where's this other passage, and what kind of drop are we looking at?"
Adisa Talic was standing in the ruins of the Trajectory Team desks. On her clipboard there was a stack of maintenance requests that would shame Leo Tolstoy. Standing far away from the hot-wires of the mainframe, Lars Manroot and technician Cliff Aldridge were attempting to right the three hundred pound mainbeam. In the event that worst came to worse, there was a circular saw laying in the inbox of the controller's workstation. The orange extension cord had to be run from the last operational socket on Level-B, which happened to be in the OK Corridor.
She smiled bitterly, compendiously at Umberto Garzon, who passed her in the night with a blackened, twisted, ricked-out hunk of heavy ventilation fan. And so what? What could not make them stronger could only kill them. They only needed it to breath. Who cares? Who....
She had no idea what caused her to look up. Minutes before, there had been nothing on the big screen but impervious nebulosity, and decaying particles. In hindsight, it was more because of the Master Alarm that was triggered at her station than it was the spherule that appeared in a rare divide of uncontaminated space. The data analyst moved with rapidity to her fucked-up, dumpsite station and increased power to the high gain antennae with a screw that no longer had a knob.
Benjamin Ouma and Kate Bullen watched blunderingly from atop the stairs.
"Commander Koenig, we have a contact." Adisa Talic grappled--her booted foot pressing the comm-pedal on the floor so hard as to crack the plaster smothered linoleum. "It's still in the downrange...over 350,000 kilometers outside the vapor cloud, but it's getting closer. It seems to be pitching over--into the rubble, not away from it.
"I believe it's a spacecraft."
"Oh my god," Marilys Singh mumbled as she peered over the ledge leading nearly vertically down into the Krast Promotory. Her dark eyes were wide with terror and fear of heights.
"I'm not going down there," she shook her head.
"I'm afraid there is no choice," Angelina swallowed the lump in her throat. Her voice echoed as the small rocks fell from the ledge. Her initial opinion was neutral BEFORE Geist lowered a maglite to the floor. Now, they could see how far down it really was, as the light from below cast haunting shadows on the walls.
She wished they had not lowered the light source into the canyon.
Behind her, Jed Harmon and Ahn Nguyen were securing anchors and hooks into the rock, using sledge hammers and crude pliers.
"You go last, lardass," Harmon sneered, through grime, perspiration and matted hair at Malcom. "This is our longest length of rope and if you break it, at least the rest of us will already be down there."
First one down--also in line for an obligatory broken neck, Carter's left boot broke the fragile silicates as he realized, too late, that the embedded ladder ended here.
"GEIST." He called upwards, clamoring to pull himself up. "WE'RE OUT OF WRUNGS. WHAT'S THE DEAL?"
"NO DEAL." The mining chief called, panting and descending. "THAT'S WHY I GAVE YOU THE PITONS. AFTER MINING OUT THE ANORTHITES, WE LOST INTEREST IN THIS SHAFT. YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE THE HAMMER AND BUILD US A SIDE MOUNT. IT'S THE ONLY WAY."
"BASTARD." Carter yelled angrily. "YOU MIGHT HAVE TOLD ME THAT BEFORE WE GOT STARTED."
"NO TIME FOR TALK...." Geist defended his position. "THOSE WERE YOUR EXACT WORDS, SO DON'T BLAME ME. YOU COULDN'T WAIT TO SQUEEZE YOUR ARSE DOWN THAT HOLE. INCIDENTALLY, YOU'VE GOT A ROUGH MOUTH, PAL--VERY UNBECOMING OF SOMEONE WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE IN CHARGE OF THIS EXPEDITION. KEEP IT UP AND YOU'LL GET SOMETHING TUNED BESIDES YOUR COMPASS."
"PHIL!!" Geist's immediate supervisor, Angelina Carter, boomed from the side as Harmon and Nguyen quickly lowered the harness past him. "Knock it off. Save your energy for something more productive."
She was not going to reprimand him further. She could sympathize with Geist's irritation with her husband. When weary and completely fatigued, Alan Carter not only vented with extreme sarcasm but he seemed to enjoy it. That was the worst; not the stinging acerbity but the apparent pleasure he seemed to derive from tormenting others with gibe. Naturally, she knew he would later regret acrimony toward those who were boneheads due to circumstance. With assholes by nature, like Ed Malcom, there were no regrets.
"You could have told him the ladder ended in the middle of nowhere before he went down," she chided Geist evenly, handing him the second length of rope. She motioned up and was lowered next to Carter.
"At least we've got lights." The astronaut smiled reassuringly at Angelina. Thirty meters above, the 150 watt floods remained anchored reliably to their ceiling mounts. "How long will that last?"
She gazed at him blankly. She was about to slightly upbraid him for getting into it with Geist when he completely disarmed her with his charm. She had the urge to hug him but even if there was not an audience above, dangling from a rope 30 meters in the air was not the place to get affectionate.
"Tungsen lights run on emergency batteries," she answered looking up. "Pretty efficient and used in the mines on earth. They can last for a few days but it's better than a few hours."
She hoped they would be out of the caverns within hours, not days: long before the lights went out.
"How much further down do you suppose it is to the bottom?" she asked, refusing to look down to estimate it herself. If she did, she knew she would become dizzy, making her headache and nausea worse.
"HEY SWALLOW." He summoned Geist again. "HOW DEEP IS THIS HERE HOLE?"
"ME AGAIN?" The geologist mused. "THERE ARE THREE OTHER PEOPLE ON THIS TEAM WHO CAN SERVE AS FUCKING TOUR GUIDES. ALAN, LET ME KNOW WHAT I DID TO EARN YOUR RESPECT. I'LL CORRECT THAT PROBLEM AT ONCE."
Just below the rim of the orifice, Specialist Harmon expired nerdishly as he wended his way down the truckling tunnel.
"STOP BLOWING HOT AIR, AND ANSWER MY QUESTION." The astronaut clung to the last bar and craned his neck upwards. "HOW FAR DOWN DO WE HAVE TO GO?"
His knuckles were an achromatic, ivory agony that could not bear his own weight. A screaming fall seemed inescapable.
"I DON'T KNOW." Geist conveyed with laxity and insensitivity. "A HUNDRED METERS...MAYBE A HUNDRED AND FIFTY. IT'S BEEN A WHILE. HELL OF A FALL, THOUGH. DON'T LET GO."
"GODDAMNIT." Carter vituperated him. "IS IT A HUNDRED, OR A HUNDRED AND FIFTY. JUST ANSWER MY QUESTION, JAKE."
"A HUNDRED." The mining chief swore with professional oath.
Ang rolled her eyes during the exchange. Unless blood was drawn, there would be no point of intervening. She had discovered that Phil Geist was nearly as hard headed as Alan Carter and was a comparable match to his glib and sometimes caustic tongue.
Stricken with odium, and after entrusting his immortal soul to a clip-on, safety harness, the pilot handed Ang' one of the iron spikes. From someone above, he could smell the charged, rubbery tang of burning wires. There was only one place it could be coming from, and his desire was to be wrong for at least another hour.
"Tinkerbell, take that and maneuver it beneath my boots." He instructed the Technical manager who was dangling beside him in the gear sling. "NYGUEN, GIVE ME SOME SLACK. IF I HAVE TO PLAY GEORGE, THE MOUNTAIN CLIMBER I'LL NEED ROOM." He expounded, abandoning the ladder and allowing himself to descend. "GEIST, YOU GO LAST. RIG A CHECK LINE. THE ONES WHO CAN'T WALK, YOU LOWER THEM. BEFORE SAVING YOUR OWN BUTT, I WANT YOU TO MAKE SURE EVERYONE ELSE MAKES IT OUT OF THE CAVERN. THINK YOU CAN HANDLE THAT, OR IS IT TOO HARD? MAYBE I OUGHT TO LET MALCOM HANDLE THE OPERATION."
"THANKS FOR ASKING." The geologist construed the remark, unfazed.
"Right...." Carter approved as Ang' held the piton against the calcium-slimed walls. "Hold it steady...watch your hands."
He pounded the first one in.
"It appears to be holding just within range of our detection suite." Specialist Modoc analyzed. "It made a plane change about five minutes ago." She exemplared, looking earnestly at Koenig and Bergman. "Two million nautical miles per second."
The MPSR room, normally a claustrophobic, closet of a compartment, was all but wrecked. No thanks to Baal. The surveillance desk was still operational, but the support panels, including BIOCHEMICAL, and ASTROPHYSICAL were a hodgepodge of baked circuits and shattered injection molding.
Koenig stared out the viewport with rectangular long range binoculars. It was a nearly pointless gesture but it lessened the blindness since there was no image on the big screen.
"Cartography estimates the ship is very large, over 3 times the size of Alpha." Koenig commented, comparing a recent star chart of the area to the image from the binocular and noting the addition of a bluish 'dot' in the field.
"It's very impressive." Bergman concurred, rubbing his left shoulder with the blunt end of a T-Square. "And there's more. Our 'guest' was just close enough for the lab to do a particulation study. John, whatever it is, it's utilizing interatomic spacing, and transposing repulsion. A highly advanced process. The only thing we could compare it to--and it was beyond us, even on Earth--is a Vortical Implosion Drive.
"Essentially, it fashions its own collapsars, and then slips through them to emerge safely at its destination on the opposite side."
"Incredible," Koenig acknowledge, slowly lowering the binoculars. "Moving through black holes for them is like plane ride for us on earth. It is the ultimate in travel, Victor. I wonder if..." He was about to speak the unthinkable when he stopped himself.
If this race could create and manipulate black holes for interstellar travel, perhaps they could create and manipulate an event horizon to send the moon back to earth.
The commander and the professor looked up to see the Main Mission Controller standing in the open hatchway.
"Still no reply to our communications." Morrow reported. "The blip is still hovering just outside the corona discharge. Forward momentum has ceased."
"It's not really reasonable to assume they would understand our language." Bergman said sagely. "We may want to use something more symbolic--visual transmissions...maybe even a morse light. Getting them to pay attention is easy." The professor postulated with woeful eyebrows raised. "The question is, do we really want their attention? Considering what just happened?"
"Considering what just happened?" Koenig repeated speculatively. He glanced at the blue pinpoint on the black velvet beyond the lunar landscape. "Are you implying we had something to do with Baal's demise?"
Anything was possible; the Commander had been in space long enough never to dismiss any supposition no matter how bizarre and unlikely it may be. Rather, he had not considered the possibility that their presence could have been a catastrophic trigger.
"Professor, Dr. Nayland asked me to give you this." The controller segued and handed Bergman a folded slip of paper. "Hot from the AP backroom." He joked blackly.
"Look...." The professor smoothed back his hair as the tension turned to lead. "It...would seem...." He reread the memo, authenticating it while Koenig waited. "John, our friends are emanating blackbody radiation." He decided fully, and without debate as he passed the bad word along to the commander. "Now, that could cause us to stand back and reconsider why Baal exploded, couldn't it?"
"Right," Koenig nodded, considering the new information. "Attempting to harness it may have been their undoing. On the other hand, it is a delicate balance and our very presence, our own kinetic energy, may have disrupted this space." He had the feeling of dread again.
"What do you mean, Commander?" Morrow, not a physicist, blinked then looked to Bergman. "Could you please explain the implication of this data in layman terms?"
"Alright." Bergman replied affably, setting aside the T-square, and leaning against one of the panic handles on specialist Modoc's board "I can try. Blackbody radiation--or cavity radiation, as it's sometimes called...." He assumed Morrow was a Rhodes scholar. "...is an absorption system. Like butterflies in a jar, only hotter, deadlier. Imagine how much power you would have if you could find a way to tap the neutronium core of a star." The controller seemed to understand, but Bergman found no fault with him if he was feigning competence.
"It's another reconciliation of the duality of the particle and wave nature of light, Paul" Koenig leaned against the sill, retrieving his quantum physics training from the back of his memory. "Discrete 'packets' or quanta, as we call them, of energy are emitted from the radiating body in the form of a sine wave or modes. In Classical physics, one would expect the radiated energy to increase exponentially to infinity with increasing frequency. Obviously, this is not the case."
"These 'modes' offer us a test for Quantum Theory." The professor elucidated. "After it's been bundled together, it reradiates it's own energy, but not with the characteristics of the radiation that was incident upon it, which probably explains why we were unable to detect any of this until Baal was obliterated.
"Also, figuratively speaking, we're morons. Yes. Out of our element. Even before the blast, I doubt that we would have comprehended it because it's a discovery that's a thousand years ahead of us."
"Your point is?" Morrow hustled with distrust and befuddled antagonism.
"Think of what you could accomplish if you could project that much heat into a standing wave." Bergman smiled, satisfied by the dawn of awareness on the controller's face. "All of those scientific wonders of the universe that we thought to be fantasy, and speculation--practical invisibility screens; unlimited thermal power; the ability to curve space just as that spacecraft appears to be doing. They would all be made feasible." The professor clasped his palms together in a posture of elegiac prayer. "I would also ask you to ponder what might happen if such an awesome force of nature started to run rampant."
Koenig understood where the trail was leading.
"Do you think they lost control of their process, Victor?" Koenig scratched his chin pensively.
Further discussion was temporarily delayed with the appearance of Helena Russell. "John, Victor, Paul," she nodded to the three men. "Communications has been able to pick up life signs from the Medical bracelets. Sandra has them set up on the monitor in your office, John."
Dr. Russell swiveled in the chair as she tapped a series of commands and brought up the image on Koenig's 21" monitor. The screen was split into quadrants, each bearing the name of a different person trapped in the caverns below, refreshing with a different set of 4 every 30 seconds.
"First," she began with the others, including Dr. Mathias, gathered around the Commander's desk, "We are not picking up any signal from 8 individuals. It's one of two possibilities. Either their monitors are malfunctioning or they are dead. Judging from life signs, one person, Andrea Matthew, is critical and likely being carried around. Though I can't rule out injuries, everyone else appear to not be in any immediate danger, with elevated heart rates and blood pressure certainly indicating an abnormal amount of stress level in everyone.
"The only individual apparently unaffected and as close to normal as possible is Ed Malcom."
"WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?" Carter yelled as a steel mill of orange sparks began to emanate from the casing above.
"I'D SAY IT MEANS THAT WE'RE ABOUT TO LOSE OUR LIGHT SOURCE." Phil Geist was happy to oblige him with an answer over the cacophony of short circuits. "AND PROBABLY OUR LIVES IF WE'RE NOT AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS SHAFT WHEN CURRENT GOES."
Ang glared angrily up at Geist, not that the chief geologist could see her 'if looks could kill' stare. Panic suddenly burst from the group, most of which were descending the rungs, clinging to the wall.
"I thought you said the light could last for days!" Singh cried out accusatorily at Ang.
"I said 'could' last for days," Ang retorted. "There are no guarantees."
"WE STILL HAVE FORTY METERS TO GO." Carter argued for an extension.
"OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.'" Ed Malcom screamed in agony--nowhere near the kiss of death, except in the killing fields of his own mind--knowing that the end was near, that he was unable to turn a corner, that he was denied a last meal.
"CONGRADULATIONS ON FIGURING THAT OUT." Geist lauded him with mock sincerity. "YOU'RE A REAL SOCK SLAMMER, CARTER."
The geologist could smell the locks of his hair as they smoldered and burned.
"Alert Two you are GO for the terminal count." CapComm Diane Chaplin spoke into the link. Beside her, Kate Bullen relaxed, holding a red flimsie at her belt. The base was fragmented, but they would always have bad news paperwork.
On pad one, the A-2 Eagle lifted off from the platform, banishing the drifts of prehistoric beach and ascending upwards. Three kilometers downrange, her sistership A-1 was already coasting over the Alpine Valley and heading deep into the red, gasconade of radioactivity that engulfed the Moon. The target was not yet visible, but with a little luck, the coordinate line would carry them within ten million nautical miles of the alien spacer.
If they spun the Roulette wheel just right, they might even live to tell about it.
"Alpha, Alert Two." Astronaut Fanta called over his plantronic headset. "Burnout completed...bandwidth is steady, and angle of rotation is thirty degrees, DW."
"Copy, 30-DW." Chaplin replied, turning to the next page in the flight plan while Benjamin Ouma studied the situation on the mainframe deck.
"I hope you're right about this, professor." Controller Paul Morrow enunciated while leaning forward on his elbows at the command desk. "You realize that RDX is the most powerful non-atomic explosive we have."
"If it's placed just right, we'll have nothing to worry about." The mining AD, Ben Dover proclaimed cheerfully. "We will widen the two kilometer bypass."
Sitting in Koenig's chair, Bergman rubbed his forehead with nauseous digits.
"And if we fail?"
"Then they'll die quickly...mercifully."
"That's unacceptable." Morrow balked, crossing his arms and turning to face the vision ports.
"Let's be optimistic," Bergman replied, not that there was a reason to be but just 'because', "and assume that it works. It will still be a vertical trek but at least we can get down there a bit easier."
"The sooner, the better," Dr. Russell added from her place on the white sofa. She was nervously, unconsciously rubbing her index finger and thumb together. "The air is unbreathable at the upper levels but the life signs indicate they have moved to deeper levels. Since the hydrocarbons are heavier than air, though, the poisonous gases will follow them." She paused, then continued. "We have lost another life indicator. It could be a fault in the medical bracelet or..."
They all mentally completed her sentence.
"Alert One, Alpha," Chaplin spoke evenly into the microphone. "Commander, Alert Two is closing 15 degrees on your starboard side, two nautical miles behind. Verify on your starboard keel camera?"
"Alpha, Alert One." Koenig replied, turning the dial on the A-V control panel. "Rendezvous confirmed, which is unbelievable. We're standing by now for AOS. We can't even see our hands in front of our faces, the aerosol is so dense. So far our DTS is unaffected. I'm impressed." He stated. The morbid humor was not lost on his CMP, Dave Sperla who proffered a stressed-out grin from the confines of his own couch.
"Ouma here, commander." The mainframe chief cut in on the forward monitors. "Your tracking is good...you appear to be on course, but there appears to be some type of heat transfer going on out there. It's not critical--at least not yet--but it is growing, particularly along the centerline of your current trajectory.
"Computer is working up a more reliable prediction. In the mean time, you can relax, knowing that you're in capable hands."
They could count on it.
"Well...here's another point of view." Victor Bergman argued, moving quickly down the steps to the Trench stations, and relegating Ouma to the debouch. "John, that Blackbody solarization has started to expand. We thought the wave was spent, but apparently it's not. If the calcine build-up is just right, you may find yourselves in a very tight corner. I agree, the effects are negligible now, but be aware of your environment." He advised. "So far the alien spacecraft appears to be unfazed, but don't take any unnecessary chances."
Koenig gave a tentative glance to his co-pilot then returned to Bergman's image on the monitor.
"Is there a significant change in frequency and wavelength reading?" Koenig queried.
"Computer can't be certain," Ouma's impassive image invaded the left monitor. "There is too much electromagnetic interference from the remains of Baal to obtain accurate data."
So much for being in 'capable hands.'
"He's dead," Angelina made the pronouncement over the body of Earl Jamison at the bottom of the Krast Promotory to Alan Carter.
It was quite obvious. Jamison's lifeless eyes were wide in terror as he fell to his death. A freak accident of the harness, a loose clip which became unlatched, as he twisted against the vertical cliff. Each circumstance alone would not have cause the lifeline to fail, but the one in a million combination permanently ended Earl Jamison's worries.
The last thing he saw was the extinguishing overhead light, 150 meters above. All they had left were the 6 maglights, actually, 5 now that one of them had been dropped from 20 meters.
It was officially out of service.
Traversing the last 5 meters were Ed Malcom, who was whimpering loudly, and Phil Geist, directly above him.
"Jesus, Alan," Angelina mumbled, morosely and out of earshot of the others. "We're not going to make it. I can smell the fumes already."
"Let me down! LET ME DOWN!!!" Ed Malcom cried out hysterically.
Geist cut the rope and Malcom fell the last two meters, landing with an audible thud on his amply cushioned rear end. The morbidly obese technician shrieked as if he was mortally wounded.
"For God's sake," Ang berated Geist, as he landed carefully, shifting the bulk of his weight to his good leg. "What did you do that for?" She couldn't decide whether Malcom may have actually been injured or if he was being his usual sniveling self. The volume of his whimpering was decreasing so she decided she would not have to check Ed's ass for injury and add more misery to her own ill health.
"He wanted down, so I let him down," Geist replied cheerfully, grinning wickedly.
"This is not a game and I am not amused," Ang snapped coldly at the Mining Chief. "Did you ever consider for a minute, Dr. Geist, that all we need now is for someone else to be injured?!?! Someone who is as large as TWO, perhaps THREE people?!?!" She glared in his face. "If he's hurt then YOU can carry him."
Ang turned without allowing Geist the opportunity to speak and stormed from him, toward a delirious Matthew, moaning for water.
"Geist." Carter broke his vow of absinthian silence with a vendetta, dealt out in spades. "If dumb was dirt, you'd be a whole acre."
The pilot was physically the closest to the Earl Jamison when the bandeau failed. He was there, to watch another human being die; there, to witness the big splat at the bottom in digitally remastered Technicolor; there, to experience the clarets of grue as they blitzed his hiking boots, his lips and his sideburns.
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" The geologist said acerbically, shining his Maglite directly into Carter's eyes.
"OUT OF MY FACE YOU FREAKING' CATTLE TRUCK." The astronaut flared and smacked the flashlight from the mining chief's hand. It flew against an outcropping of bronze stalactites, and rolled away--it's light revealing no answers, only rocks.
"THAT'S ENOUGH OF THAT." Geist reddened--his palm still extended like a crossing guard. Putting his worst foot forward, he pushed Carter backwards with both hands. Using the symbolic language of venom, the pilot responded with a stifling punch to the other man's sternum. Eating the pain like Hershey's Kisses, the mining chief parlayed a greeting card of his own and the mailbox was the astronaut's jaw.
"!!!!!!STOP!!!!!!! STOP IT!!!! BOTH OF YOU!!!!!" Angelina practically shrieked herself hoarse, as she placed herself between the two men, each at opposite arm's length. She glared coldly at them, back and forth. "Phil, I've warned you to put a lid on it. If we are to..."
"WARNED ME?!?!?" He interrupted. "Why don't you tell hubby there to back off? He's being a fu..."
"If we are to get out alive," Ang returned the favor and interrupted Geist, speaking loudly and firmly above him, "it will require everyone to remain calm and keep our wits about us. You two fighting is NOT going to help."
Geist straightened. Biting his tongue as he rethought his case then spoke again. "I am doing the best that I can, Ang." His tone was even and low with obvious effort to keep it that way. "My team lowered everyone in the group who was not an expert rock climber, including the injured with less than adequate equipment. I'm sor..."
"YOU'RE THE BIGGEST BULL-ARTIST SINCE PICASSO." Carter boomed, his hair matted with dirt and with both fists clenched like fated hammers. "I TRUSTED YOU TO KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE. NOW JAMISON IS DEAD. WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU?"
"!!ALAN!!" his wife objected to him dismantling her efforts at Détente.
"Holding the end of his line." The geologist testified stormlessly while wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. "There wasn't much for it." He reflected, inspecting the scarlet skin of his burned palm. "Especially not with Orson Wells blocking my view." He elucidated while offering up Ed Malcom as evidence. "By the way, he'll get us all killed if we live long enough. As long as he's around, we may want to ask ourselves exactly how much oxygen and space do we need."
"Gentlemen." Specialist Harmon said tactfully. "This will do nothing to help us prevail against the classic conflict of humanity versus nature."
"You're right, of course, Jed," Angelina nodded as she sat against a rock. The room was beginning to spin or perhaps it was her head. Resting on her backside made the merry-go-round stop.
"Jed," she went on, ignoring Carter and Geist who were exchanging mutual glares but otherwise silent. "What is the next step to get out of here?"
"We may be out of steps." Harmon conceded, looking to the roof of the cavern for that unknown vent, that uncharted lava tube that existed only in the subjunctive mood. "Where we are...." He trailed, consulting his charts. "Is in an air dome beneath the Karst Promontory."
"Get down to the brass tacs, Geist." Carter moved. "Where's the cab?"
"There isn't one." The mining chief insisted. "This area was shut down due to an inordinate Radon build-up. That's why Technical Section spent six months running conduits from the Electron Oxygen Generator."
"I offer as a footnote...." Harmon entertained. "The minute possibility of escape via the water evacuation ducts."
He hoped that Carter wouldn't brutalize him, knock the lantern from his hand and then abuse him with it.
"Eh?" The astronaut perked.
"It will never work." Geist declaimed. "Those were used for a hydro-erosion project before Breakaway. They're incomplete, and there's no way that fat and thin alike can make it through."
"Your cruelty is discomfiting." Specialist Harmon upheld Ed Malcom. "After all, this man is in shape. Round is a shape."
"He can fend for himself." Carter announced severely. "Not even Dracula would think his blood is worth bottling. Sink or swim you rotten birdcage bottom."
"!!!NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" Ed Malcom wailed with abandonment.
Angelina ignored the technician, as she moved back to Matthew's side. Andrea Matthew was slipping away and there was nothing Angelina Carter could do about it. She was not a doctor but medicine had become somewhat of a hobby and her knowledge was fairly impressive. All she could do was lend comfort, and lie to Matthew, telling her that they would be rescued "soon", as the injured structural engineer drifted out of consciousness.
"Phil...<crackle>...Where <static> you? Answ...<crackle> me." Geist's commlock came to life, barely and he grabbed it from his belt.
"!!Melita!!! !!MELITA!!! I'm receiving you!!" Phil yelled into the commlock, ecstatic to hear his wife's voice; one sweet sound that he was beginning to think he would never hear again.
His answer? Snow, cracking and loud static.
"I disagree." Paul Morrow told Koenig over the link. "If you turn away now, we'll know nothing."
Ben Ouma turned back to his software cart--unwilling to commit to either side, while Umberto Garzon regarded the controller with silent contempt.
"What kind of bung is that?" Co-pilot Dave Sperla critiqued from the command module of Alert One. "The temperature has risen five hundred degrees in the last fifteen minutes, but he expects us to charge ahead?"
He thought the commander might have a clue.
"Koenig to Alert Two," the Commander studied the temperature sensor data. "I'm beginning to see the same effect. At this rate, our hulls will begin to melt in..."
His voice trailed off. "Alert Two, I'm picking up an exponential rise now in exterior temperature. Confirm?"
The Alert Two CMP, astronaut Domalik should not have unsealed his suit, but he did, and using one of his beta-protected gloves, he attempted to beat out the circuit fire that was lapping at his couch.
Even more saddening, this, considering that the fire extinguisher bottle, secured to the bulkhead behind him, went unnoticed in the sudden, tumultuous panic.
"ALERT ONE, MAYDAY." Pilot Fanta hacked and coughed through his helmut into the broiling, spitting transmitter--all the while attempting to fan away the smothering, Acapulco Gold fumes that were emanating from his MCP. The orange, ancerine light panels above him began to flicker as the ship rocked wildly on the dead band. "WE'VE LOST OUR GYROS, AND OUR ENVIR CONTROL HAS BEEN COMPROMISED. WE'RE NOW ATTEMPTING TO IMPLEMENT EMERGENCY PROCEDURES.
"CABIN TEMPERATURE HAS INCREASED TO 250 DEGREES." He cried, as the re-entry, cryo-tanks beneath the floor of the aft equipment bay suddenly exploded, creating a bodacious bulge in the command module's inner hatch. "OUR ETC...." Fanta attempted to remain composed. "OUR ETC SHOULD BE...."
But they were all out of seconds.
"Turn back Alert Two," Koenig frantically hit the communication stud again. Deep furrows ran across his brow. "Alpha, this is Alert One. We are turning back as well. Alert Two, do you read me?!?!?"
"RESCUE EAGLE, THE ADDRESS IS UPLOADED." Paul Morrow bullied his fingers along the CONTROL keyboard. He moved frenetically, mythologically--with the psychotropic adept of a four armed Sanru. "LIFT OFF IMMEDIATELY."
The hasty and the tardy meet at the ferry, or so the saying goes.
Dust, regolith, rocks and a few boulders rained violently after the thunderclap from the ceiling of the subcavern under the Karst Promontory. Miraculously, none of the large boulders landed on anyone, though everyone was covered with another layer of dirt and grime.
"This is just rich," Angelina Carter scowled, shaking the dust from her hair. "I can't believe its happened again."
"No," Ahn Nguyen, "it is not lunar quake." The crisscross grooves of her long braid were so caked with dirt that her braid resembled a smooth dark snake hanging from the base of her skull. "I think shaking come from above. Something hitting surface...yes?" She looked to Harmon and Geist for affirmation.
"Christ...." The mining chief demurred. "Do you think that may have been Basso and Magnusson? In Eagle One?"
Carter gave no response.
"Captain Carter! Phil! Ang! I find the shaft!" Ahn Nguyen shouted while crouched on a iron ore ledge and staring up into a small hole above her. She sat back on her heels as Jed Harmon peered into the blackness of the opening, which was only about 1/2 meter in diameter.
"There it is," Geist pointed to his unfurled map with his maglight. "It leads straight up to EOG #1. There's a conduit which connects about 20 meters from the top and a hatch that is probably pressure sealed shut. But, when we get within 20 meters, we can use the commlocks to call someone to open the thing up."
Geist's sudden optimism was unnerving.
"Uh, I hate to burst your bubble, Phil," Angelina studied the too small aperture, "but how are we suppose to go up that. I mean, maybe Ahn can get through but what about the rest of us?"
Ang remembered her New Testament instructions, 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.' Evidently, the odds were more in favor of both the camel and the rich man than the trapped Alphans.
"That's some scheme you've cooked up." Carter blurbed while inspecting the man hole. It was an escape, suited only for an anorexic. "I can see making the first leg of the journey." He admitted, noting the easy, forty inch circumference. "No one except a cone head could make it out that hatch at the top. It ends in damn near a vertex. What was this thing for? An underground railroad for Bulimics?"
"Don't know." Geist marveled with him at the curious design. "This isn't my Moon, precisely. Back in the good old days--in our universe--Commander Aldornia limited the mining operations to conserve power. Koenig is better about trying to make the abnormal seem normal, or at least comfortable."
"Oh please." Carter groaned. "Spare us the yarn about Phil Geist, the perfect survivor, and how he used to eat shit for breakfast--and appreciated it. If Joe Blow Terran was so 'resourceful,' then why are you in the exact, same predicament as us mentally challenged folks from Earth?"
The mining chief smiled maliciously--his assault predicated teeth grinding out a promissory Visa/Master Card for the pilot's nose.
"I am none too familiar with this conduit." Specialist Harmon went to the fore. "But about fifty meters up, there appears to be a small, maintenance hatch."
"We don't want to go there." Geist advised, and perched contemplatively on a rock like Rodin's "The Thinker."
"Why?" Carter mouthed.
"It's not a good idea." The mining chief reiterated, pouring a capful from his canteen and then passing the water to Ang.'
"Why?" The astronaut prodded. He was tired--sick and tired. It was like the song "Penny Lane" by the Beatles, only this version was penned by a morbid co-author. The Moon was in his ears...and in his eyes...da-da-da-DA-DA-DA. If they didn't leave soon...they would die.
"Well, maybe you should go ahead and give it a whirl." The geologist retorted, standing again. "I sure hope your legs are long enough to jump that bottomless pit on the other side.
"THAT'S ENOUGH," Angelina hissed at Geist then shot a look of anger at Carter. The fact that she was physically between the two men prevented the pilot from seriously deviating the geologist's septum. She was, though, weary of playing referee and wondered if they should just have it out with each other.
No, not until this was over: IF it was going to be 'over' in the form of getting out alive.
Geist turned away, momentarily vanquished, and unclipped his commlock from his belt. "Melita, it's Phil. Can you hear me?" He called almost desperately into the communication device. His answer was snow and static. "Sweetheart, if you can hear me, we are under the Karst Promotory. We're near the auxiliary ventilation shaft to the EOG #1. Send the rescue team to that location."
More snow and static blared from his commlock as he released the 'transmit' button.
Geist tried over and over again, sounding like a broken record. Presently, Phil's voice grew distant to Angelina and she felt herself beginning to black out. She closed her eyes tightly and drew in a breath to clear her head.
Somehow she was not surprised by the house of horror sight when she opened her eyes. Men and women with shaven heads and bruised faces were buried up to their necks in the ground around her, pleading, begging for her to free them. She searched frantically for a shovel, a pick ax or anything she could use to dig.
"Hurry!! Hurry, for God sakes, HURRY!!" they screamed at her, some of them beginning to sob as a whirling sound in the darkness grew louder and louder. A fireman's hatchet, encased in Plexiglas with the etching, "For Emergency Use" appeared on the adjacent wall but the lock on the case was formidable.
Angelina tried to smash the case with a rock but it could not be broken. She grabbed for the key ring filled with a seemingly infinite number of keys and began trying each one in the lock.
She turned again as the first shrieks and a warm liquid splattered on the back of her tunic and flares. She cried out in horror as the hideous machine with the horizontal rotary blade easily decapitated the helpless victims, their heads with wide eyes and gaping mouths bouncing toward her and landing near her feet like misplaced rubber balls.
The dispensary unit was done. Buried. No more shampoo/alcohol-based analgesics. Beyond it, there was only the gaseous, red mosaic left behind by Baal and ghosts from the highlands of Protagoras and the unprosaic, interminable, boring wonders of the sixtieth, lunar parallel. Vesta Basso turned from the cool, antiseptic bulkhead, and beheld her life. A dark, private room in Medical Center. There was a trio of MD's, and any number of emergency technicians but she knew who her doctor would be. The only one qualified to analyze the guts of her cerebrum, to dope her up with R&D pharmaceuticals.
Bob Mathias was to be her Dr. Kildaire. She didn't need a scholar to figure that one out.
Over the years, others had cracked, but Vesta Basso could sing.
The chief of staff was nowhere to be seen. Helena--gone to search for her ungrateful bastard, Demetrius. The more slavish her devotion, the more she was alienated. Vesta could relate to that. The Moonweaver had arrived about an hour ago--it's spirit coalescing from the open bottle of Seconal that was sitting on her meat factory nightstand.
Look what you're doing to your nervous system. The agent of depression reproved her. It was the ultimate Alphan, in many ways. Alone, without a gospel, desperate in a way that would make Henry David Thoreau seem like Norman Vincent Peale. Let me perform the aria for you.
I am your spaniel....
"I don't want to hear that." Vesta said angrily, but with pending with guilt. After all, a product of the shriven mind was still some company. The cool thing about schizophrenia was it meant that she would never be alone.
Would you like me to do my rendition of Puck? Of Oberon?
"I can't talk right now." Vesta replied, more politely and tried to mend their fences by smiling graciously at the Moonweaver.
They never did search for him.
"Why did you bring that up?" The widow spat. "Do you feel the need to blame someone? Is that how your 'friends' are?"
"HE HAS BOLTS, HE HAS NUTS--HE CRACKS THEM ALL IN HIS WELDING HUT.
"HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE'RES CEDRIX." The Moonweaver danced.
At that moment, Vesta stared around the open door into the brightly lit corridor and saw the VAB supervisor enter through the double doors to the main ward. He stopped at the desk, rubbing his forehead in a slow, aching figure eight pattern. He appeared to be asking for aspirin.
"Paul! Answer me!" Commander Koenig paced in the travel tube, accelerating from Launch Pad 3 to the Command Tower. His copilot gave him a blank, curious look but otherwise said nothing.
As the car came to a stop, Koenig sprinted out into the corridor as soon as the doors parted. Rather than take the elevator, he dashed up the stairs. His co-pilot, though a younger man, was barely keeping up with him. The commander paused momentarily under the left archway in Main Mission.
Every person in the room was immobile with a look of terror paralyzing their bodies and their features. Victor Bergman was backed into a corner, moaning and trembling. Helena Russell, in a fetal position by the balcony steps, let out a guttural scream, her face stained with tears.
"HELENA!!" Koenig grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her almost violently. Her hands were clawlike, digging into his orange EVA suit, bloodying her nails. He spotted the laser hypo on the floor and noted its contents filled with several doses of an anti-hallucinogen.
Then he saw the brown-green tentacle materialize out of the second step leading to the command deck. It made hideous suction noises as it gripped the floor. There was another one..then another.
Koenig grabbed the laser hypo and injected himself. The dose was intense enough to make his head spin and stomach turn.
The nightmarish monster disappeared back into the floor again. He applied the hypo to Russell's delicate neck. She gasped and closed her eyes, shaking violently then groaned.
"John?" the doctor opened her eyes and struggled to a sitting position. "What in the hell was that all about?"
Look at these women...
...who work spells to make you miserable....
Bob Mathias didn't care.
"She's gone." He said with noticeable ire. It was especially diaphanous if you were Hoch Ragusa, the on-duty RN. The assistant medical chief tossed the linen back onto the bed in the darkened room and headed for the commstation.
"Dr. Russell." He called, and punished Hoch Ragusa by forcing him to stand with him. "Vesta Basso has left the ward. I don't think she's anywhere in the medical complex."
"That's quite a dream, Ang" The fifteen year old young man chuckled, slapping his knee. His bell bottom jeans and his plaid shirt spoke of a different era as did the bean bag chair. "A base on the Moon?" He laughed. "Well, maybe," he spoke out of consideration and contemplation. "But that is years away, Ang. Not in your lifetime and certainly not in mine."
Nicholas Verdeschi was correct, regarding the last part of his statement. Angelina Verdeschi's oldest brother was killed in a high speed automobile accident the day he turned 16 years old. His body had been hopelessly mangled and unrecognizable. His funeral was decidedly closed casket.
"And as far as the moon being blown out of earth's orbit?" He smiled kindly at his youngest sibling and only sister. "Well, that is an impossibility reserved for science fiction stories."
"John, she needs to be found," Helena Russell cut the link after acknowledging Mathias. She administered the last dosage of the hypo into Harness Bull Pound's neck, returning him to a less horrific, though no less hopeless reality.
"She has delved into a highly depressive and schizophrenic state. She refused to believe Frank is dead." She bit her lip. "She could kill others...or herself."
"PAUL." The commander stormed the trench--bringing the blizzard with him while still holding his helmut.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, te decethymnus, Deus in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem; exaudi....
"Ah...." Bram Cedrix puffed with boom box, name-that-tune recognition. "Johannes Brahams."
His favorite it was not.
"Not precisely." Lauren Hahn corresponded gently at the Tower Team cubicle. Sitting atop the desk, Michelle Cranston set aside her metric wrench and gaped at the foreman. She wanted to compliment him for being more acculturated; she wanted to admit her underestimation of Cedrix's chic, hip-catness, but it adhered to her tongue like cheap peanut butter. Beside her, Pierre Danielle had no such deceptions. He knew at his core that Cedrix was an Austrian hayseed and he told him so.
"She told me it was Wolfgang Amadeus." The assistant reconnaissance chief gloated over the solenoid casing that he was unscrewing. "But then again, I'm no expert. I'm a Captain Beefhart man myself."
"I knew that." Cedrix argued defensively. He straightened his back...sucked in his gut.
"You lie," Michelle bantered to Cedrix neutrally. "You don't know shit about opera, Ced." She was absent minded, only half paying attention to the conversation. With Ang trapped with the excavation team below, most of the burden of Technical fell squarely on her shoulders. Working on the plan to rescue them as well as overseeing the repairs to the base was putting furrows in her brow and deepening the fine winkles around her eyes.
"What do you need, love." Hahn switched topics, adding one more to her pile of closed-out, red flimsies.
"Eagle 5-1." The foreman explained busily. "Tell Layne I need to check out that POP transducer, although something tells me this will be a low traffic day."
"Tell me about it." Hahn said easily. "Coop' has been a beast, and I expect more of same from the commander."
"I'll hook you up." Danielle volunteered, grabbing his commlock as he set aside his screwdriver.
What's a 'Johannes Brahams' Cedrix wanted to ask but didn't.
The trail ended when the doors closed to Travel Tube-B.
And by now, thoroughly deranged Vesta Basso fingered the car's manual actuation controls before realizing that there was such a thing as a commlock hooked to her belt. On a lark, she turned away from the depot and danced on lily pads and infected, Typhoid-ridden toad stools all the way to the stairwell. There was no rush. The cup, so to speak, would be full and waiting when she got there. And perhaps, even Frank who continued to steal her oxygen and usurp her soul because he was in death, what he never was in life.
It was like magic.
"You got fifteen inches on that." Yul Ostrog commented wearily, handing the altitude chamber specs' back to Specialist Pipe.
Bram Cedrix exited the buzz of the passenger module, re-entering the Pad Four white room precisely on queue.
"I'm done too." He proclaimed.
"How are you getting on?" Ostrog asked--too preoccupied with his own hopeless mortality to really care.
"She's ready." Cedrix announced. "Now we'll see who's nuts enough to try that little number again."
Actually there were only two people who fulfilled this qualification. Both of them stole around the corner as the mechanic and the foreman headed for the Ready Room.
Their names were Vesta Basso, and Vesta Basso.
"COMMANDER." Dianne Chaplin started. "I'VE GOT AN UNAUTHORIZED IGNITION SEQUENCE. EAGLE 5-1 IS LIFTING OFF."
John Koenig asked for a co-pilot to assist at intercepting Vesta Basso.
His wish was granted.
"Yes, he tried to flummox me, but I knew better. After all, everyone knows that a tire is composed of synthetic rubber; natural rubber; sulfur and/or sulfur compounds; silica; Phenolic resin; aromatic, naphthenic, paraffin oil. Polyester, that's a brain buster, I do admit; Nylon; petroleum waxes, etc. How would you feel--how would any of us feel--if some sheister tried to convince us that the pigments were anything less than zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. I hope you won't think I have a big head when I say that I did some pioneering research with black carbons; fatty acids; inert materials; steel wire.
"And oatmeal. Funny--I almost called you Newton. Why do I keep doing that? You're not Newton, you're the commander, but I digress again.
"Where was I? Oh yes. I've always had a certain penchant for the smell of fresh rubber. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say the most puissant products are between fifteen and sixteen percent antioxidant. The same is true for a truck tire. The approximate densities are:
"Ten mesh--about twenty nine pounds, give or take the cubed exponent. Great Scott, my neck is sore.
"Thereisnothingworsethangoingaroundalldaylikeyouhavearhinosteppingonyourhead.Icanfeelitrightinmycarotidartery.Occasionally,Ihavebeenknowntogetararetypeof exczema-onewhichwillcreateplatudinouswartsandzits.EachoneisaboutthesizeofaFabergeegg.IwishIhadbroughtablackheadextractortotheMoonwithmethistime.Had Iknown thatwewouldbefacinganuncertainadventureontheedgeoftheuniverseIwouldhaveplannedmytripmorecarefully.
"My speech is tangential, isn't it? My sincerest apologies, Newton. I suppose like all, great men, I suffer from the occasional bout of Attention Deficit Disorder. I say, like all great men, I suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Did you catch that? I was telling you about my Persian flaw--the infrequent lapse into Attention Deficit Disorder.
"Ican'ttellyouhowmuchpainI'velivedthrough.AnothertrialthatI'vebeenforcedtoendureisunsightlyskintagsonmyeyelids.Theymakemelooklikeadope, andtheybecomerawandirritatedwheneverIblinkmyeyes.Nottoworry--Ihavenointentionoflettingmytrialsinterferewiththesuccessfulcompletionofthismission. Letlessermenwhineandcryabouttheunfairnessoflife.Itismyintenttowrestthebullbyitshorns.
"Because there really should be more to life. Than bull. But back to tires--several, key points prevented me from being taken to the figurative cleaners by this guy. I can see that you're a busy man, so I'll cut to the chase. Let me begin by prefacing with the weight, in percentage, of a new, radial tire. I offer as a list, the following factors to be closely scrutinized:
"Insulation of steel cord.
"These are the building blocks that will open unto us the door to Steel Cord Analysis." William Gregory Harms, III said.
Commander John Koenig responded to Harms as he usually did; he ignored him. Admittedly, though, this time it was more difficult. An unfortunate side effect of the anti-hallucinogenic drugs on Koenig was a bass drum, unrelently, pounding headache.
Boom...Boom...Boom...Blah, Blah, Blah....Boom....Boom...Boom...Blah, Blah, Blah...On and On and On.
"Eagle One to Alpha," Koenig spoke through Harm's monologue. "Breaking orbit in 5 seconds. I show Eagle 5 on a collision course with the epicenter of the blackbody radiation core."
"It's worse than that, John." Victor Bergman said gravely in tight, video close-up. "Our instruments on Alpha are a bit more detailed, even at this extreme range. The model we worked up shows Eagle Five is on a latitude that will take it within range of the alien spacecraft."
"Petrov here, commander." The colonel telelinked as the monitor split in two to accommodate his dire. "You should know, Eagle Five's weapons are now armed--it's optical damage threshold is at full capacity."
"Right." Bergman agreed on the left hand side of the screen. "She also took the ship that we were planning to send to the EOG transfer depot to help rescue the mining team. It's carrying a thousand pound demolition bomb--the kind we use for uncovering ilmenite deposits."
"Not good...." The colonel decided. "Not good."
"No, it's not." The professor authenticated. "And considering what happened to Eagle One, it's not hard to guess what Vesta Basso is planning, is it?"
Koenig looked away momentarily then returned his gaze to the monitor. "No, its not. We will do whatever is necessary to stop her. Whatever is required."
"Harms...boosters in 10 seconds."
"I'm OK, now really, Alan," Angelina Carter stood on shaky legs and steadied herself looking up into the shaft. She conservatively sipped the water, acutely aware that their supply was dwindling. "I haven't eaten in awhile and the fumes must have gotten to me." Her stomach was still turning and she was pale white, though the lack of lighting as well as the fine layer of grime everyone was wearing made it difficult to perceive her distressed complexion.
"I chip away at sides of shaft," Ahn Nguyen lowered herself out of the hole from above. "I think even Ed can go up it, at least maybe first 50 meters. Shaft opens to wide cavern with two ledges. It look like another opening from one. Not sure where it lead. Probably made in quake that trapped us."
She unclipped the rope from her belt. "Phil up there now fixing stakes and hooks."
"Well, I'm not pulling up lardass," Harness Bull McGiver snorted, motioning to Malcom. "I pulled a muscle and maybe more lowering bubble butt 150 meters. He's on his own."
Angelina ignored Malcom's pleas of clemency while performing a vital sign check on Matthew. It was amazing that the badly injured woman was still alive. Ang adjusted the harness of the stretcher while Malcom's whining and near sobs went in one ear and out the other. She dismissed his presence until she looked up and realized she was staring into the barrel of a laser.
"I'M GOING UP FIRST. YOU WILL NOT LEAVE ME," he sniveled. "YOU CAN COUNT ON IT."
"Ed," Angelina sat back in disgust. There was no fear but unmitigated fatigue and irritation. "Put that down. Of course we're not leaving you." She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She could clearly see the power pack was not charged. Ahn Nguyen had spent the weapon to hone out the entrance of their escape. Unfortunately, Malcom was either too stupid or too distraught to realize his weapon was useless.
"Don't be ridiculous."
Before he could reconsider his position, McGyver tacked the supersized technician to the ground. The useless weapon tumbled off into the darkness. McGyver brutally pummeled Malcom's face, as blood and pieces of teeth, intermixed with Malcom's yelling, jettisoned in Ang's direction.
"That's not the Men's room." Geist informed Carter as he continued to whittle his way to the surface with only faith and a rock hammer. "If that's what you're thinking."
"Why the hatch?" The astronaut inquired, clinging to the wrungs. "Was there some sort of explosive decompression?"
"Not at this level." The mining chief replied, and snarled like a nerd, eyeing him from beneath his black, bone rimmed glasses.
"Then why was it closed off?"
"Oh, that again." The geologist recalled minimalistically, while examining a multifaceted hunk of Pyrite. "Well as I recall, back in 1995, a couple of tech-heads took a tumble." He laughed. "You might say they had an early 'Fall' on the Moon that year. It must have been a real screamer. We sent a camera down to see if we could locate the bodies. The final depth for our cable was over nine kilometers, and there was still no trace of the cave floor below. We suspect it goes down even farther. Be a good chump--hop down there and help us update our maps since you're so curious."
His cackle was imperative.
"Geist, do you cherish anything?" Carter wondered, too exhausted to retort.
"Not much." The mining chief confessed. "I care about Melita--and the preservation of my own arse. Rational self-interest. A touch of the Ayn Rand. That's my philosophy."
"No." Carter refuted while reaching for his commlock with his free, left hand. "Pounding your pud.' THAT'S YOUR PHILOSOPHY."
He opened the hatch.
Precariously perched and wrapped in harness and rope, Ang directed her maglight through the opening.
"That's no bottomless pit," she spoke to Geist as Carter pulled himself through the opening and landed on solid ground. Ahead, a tunnel disappeared into the darkness. Ang gripped the top of the hatch and swung through the opening, landing next to Alan.
"Maybe on the Terran Moon this opening led to a great abyss but this isn't the Terran moon," she reminded him. She wondered now if Geist had been referring to Terran moon blueprints all along but she did not vocalize it. It was an understandable mistake, if he had downloaded the wrong maps from the server which housed the computer memory from the Terran Moonbase Alpha. However, she didn't want to mention it because she didn't want to listen to Carter and Geist resume the verbal fisticuffs.
"JED!!" Ang called to Harmon into the shaft. "Can you pass me a copy of the map?"
"I've got a printout of the PDF, ten kilometer copy." Harmon rubbed his chin mysteriously while holding the sheet under the maglite's beam. "There appears to be a discrepancy here. There are no outlets of that sort in this quadrangle--at least not according to the ILC Geological Survey that was performed in 1990."
He scaled the air well, one piton at a time, and handed the stereo copy to Ang.'
"What do you mean it doesn't appear on the map?" Geist questioned. "I've been on one Moon, or another for five years now and this opening is, at the very least, a common denominator."
He folded his arms, and shunned the improbable.
"I don't doubt your veracity." Harmon explained. "It is certainly possible that the surveyors overlooked this passage during their cartographical study."
"Those guys don't overlook things." Geist persisted unswervingly. "I know. I used to work for the Hevelius Foundation. They had the weight of global tax dollars resting on their shoulders. The end result is that you have crushed shoulders, but a reliable map."
"Well, it's not on this map," Ang retorted pointing to the lack of passage on the paper. Her voice was edged with irritation. In the shaft, echoes of an equally weary and irritated mining team attempting to help each other up the narrow shaft bounced off the narrow walls and into the mystery corridor.
"GEIST." Carter called from the darkened arroyo on the other side of the hatch. "I NEED YOU IN HERE, PRONTO."
"Wait here." The geologist cautioned Ang,' and Harmon with saintly sincerity.
Knowing their welfare was secure, he entered the course with both fists doubled and with murder in his heart.
"WHO ELECTED ME TO BE YOUR GUY FRIDAY?" He crabbed, swinging his lantern back and forth over the indiscreet waterfall of igneous rocks that lined the trapezoidal, tunnel walls. "CARTER, THERE AIN'T NO 'I' IN THE WORD TEAM. WHY DON'T YOU GIVE IT A REST, AND-"
"SHUT UP." The astronaut punked the geologist again, shoving him backwards towards the opening.
Infuriated, Geist was about to reciprocate with more brute force diplomacy--until he realized that the pilot had just saved his life.
"It's not bottomless." Carter described, hunkered down and examining the open pit. "And there are your two bodies."
The mining chief was foiled.
"Goddammit! Why don't you guys just stop your...." Angelina's tirade came to an abrupt end as she and Harmon step around the corner and stared into the pit. It was only about 6 feet deep: ironically about the depth of your average grave. However, it was about 20 feet wide and beyond that appeared to be more tunnel. The bottom of the pit though was lined with razor sharp, jagged stalagmites.
Angelina shone the maglite on the bodies, scanning them up and down. Absence of bacteria and the extremely low humidity resulted in semi mummification of the remains. Both bodies were clad in the orange jumpsuit with the large "WSO" logo patch above the left chest, typical of the early 90's technical uniform.
"I can't say for sure since I'm not Bob Mathias," Angelina started, alternating the light between the bodies and the glinting stalagmites, "but it doesn't appear that they died from a fall. I mean, it is just not deep enough. It doesn't look like they were skewered with one of those dagger stalagmites either." She shook her head, noting the absence of any pointed rock formation protuding from the corpses."
"I wonder what killed them."
"Alpha, this is Koenig." The commander alerted after braking. Between Alert One, Eagle Five and the extraterrestrial disc there was nothing but gas and comparisonless space. "Be advised, we're encountering some type of high energy fragments. The source appears to be perpendicular to the alien ship. This effect is accompanied by high, alternating degrees of temperature.
"Victor, what do you make of it?"
"It's hard to say," Bergman responded at the other end of the link, while looking down at his long, unfurled register data tape. "But it could be an energy dispersion from their power source; a secondary by product, much like heat is the secondary bi-product of burning a candle for a source of light. It could be harmless."
He reviewed the data again, frowning.
"On the other hand, it could be an energy build up for an eventual weapons discharge." His brow furrowed emphasizing years of concern. "Use caution, John."
"We're ranging now." The commander observed as Eagle Five grew steadily larger in the metric crosshairs of the arc, rendezvous window. On the opposite side of engagement, the interstellar hockey puck hung low in the inertial drift. Even at this range, it was something like magnificence--the Viking Drakkar Oseberg, the Olympia, floating in the fog-bound port of Piraeus. The grandeur was as obviate as Vesta Basso's attempt to massacre them. "If we can overtake her, I'll try to go in from the top and make a transverse, centerline connection."
"He can't do it." Umberto Garzon told Bergman in Main Mission. "Her reactor is operating at 20,000 K's. We've never deployed a drop shaft at that velocity."
"No, we have not." Paul Morrow said angrily to all concerned. "And I shant' say this will be the exception to the rule."
"He has to at least try," Helena Russell interjected from the humanitarian perspective. She was under the big screen, eyes roving between the medical monitors and the image of Koenig on the colored monitor. "We give 110% to rescue those who are physically injured. Why shouldn't we do the same for someone who is mentally ill?"
At his turntable workstation, Benjamin Ouma eschewed the debate--even if he did think the commander was as crazy as a March hare--and commenced to typing probability formulae into his red, lateral keyboard.
"One for one, we have to match course and speed." Koenig reasoned aloud.
"The crosscut will wreck Eagle Five's passenger module." He said jaggedly. "We'll only have one chance at this and then that hole we're going to punch will evacuate the ship's life support."
He didn't want Harms to answer him back.
"CARTER, EXACTLY HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PRONE TO THESE RANDOM ACTS OF STUPIDITY?" Geist abrogated him.
Inching along the five centimeter ledge, palms gripping any available hand hold, the pilot inched his way along in an attempt to reach the opposite side of the Pitchfork Grotto, as he had eponymously named it.
"STOP TALKING--YOU'LL TRIP ME UP." He grunted, hoping that a slow exhale would maintain his equilibrium "YOU'VE SEEN THAT SHAFT. WE'RE NOT GOING TO SPOON AWAY SIX MILES OF DIRT. I WANT TO SEE WHAT'S ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TUNNEL."
But try as he might, he fell anyway.
"Alan, you always did give Mum the most stress," William Carter, III. stated casually from his crouched position in the corner. "Being the rowdy youngest, the daredevil who had no fear, I thought for sure you'd get yourself killed before your 30th birthday and I'd be the one to outlast you all to a ripe old age.
Pretty ironic, actually."
Actually, it was ironic. William Carter, III, one of the pilot's older brothers, died as a 29 year old during WWT. The TriContinent discovered his role as an undercover agent but before they could extract information through dubiously unethical interrogation tactics, William Carter dislodged the cyanide capsule sewn into the lining of his coat and dry swallow ingested it.
Memories--they tasted just like wine. And vinegar. And harsh grapes.
He started his peruse with thoughts of becoming a doctor of the veterinary arts. The first and only to specialize in Armadillo acupuncture. The old man put Carter down, and after his relentless speeches, the lad knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, an executioner. Prowess as Rugby intervened to salvage his self-respect. As far as the books go, he earned straight "C's" in everything except mathematics. His numeric excellence eventually led to a Bachelors Degree in engineering and avionics.
He contributed to the war effort his skills as a pilot. The patriarch of the Carter family would not have liked that either. He hated pilots...and stewardesses...and luggage carousels...and the two ounces of enticement that an airport gin bottle would provide. On the bright side, by then, the old man was no longer around to care. He was too busy taking a dirt nap. As it turned out, Carter's mastery of flying and sub-atomic massacre was so unparalleled that he was expatriated, beyond the equator to a NATO bomb group over China.
The rapacious way that the royal air force sucked him in was deadening. Then came the transfers and astronaut's training at Woomera and JFKSC.
He still could not quite shut the old man out, but firing fusion torpedoes at low orbital targets made him feel better.
"I GODDAMN HATE YOU TOO." Phil Geist reciprocated, tit-for-tat, as he inched along the narrow substratum. "STOP CALLING ME 'THE OLD MAN' AND HOLD STILL. I'M TRYING TO RESCUE YOU."
He anxiously signaled Harmon to begin lowering the winch.
Angelina remained silent, biting her lower lip, and wondering what was going on. Maybe he suffered a head injury in the fall. Maybe he finally went off the deep end, literally, into madness.
No. Not Alan Carter. Every one of them would succumb to their own private, delusional "reality" and plunge into madness but he would be the one left standing amidst the 'lunatics'. Or, so she always thought.
She knew Carter was not insulting Geist but made no effort to clarify this fact. The 'Old Man' was dear ole Dad, William Carter, II, a man who would swing from model, loving father to asshole Pop extraordinaire in one sentence. Brother 'Will' had long departed from this reality and Ang found it disturbing Alan seemed to be carrying on a conversation with a dead man.
"Your temper will be your undoing, Alan," dead sibling Will predicted, "just like the Old Man." He laughed. "He was quite a bastard, wasn't he? You thought you had it bad but I got the pointed end of the skewer from him...over and over again. I guess he loved us, in his own fucked up way, but believe it or not, I think you were a favorite.
"Lucky you." He concluded, completely unaware of his surroundings and the fact he was in the bowels of the runaway moon.
"Alan?!?!" Angelina called out, almost touching the ground as she was lowered into the pit, but frantically searching the area with the maglite. "Alan?!?! Answer me! Are you hurt?"
"He can't hear you." Geist fumed as his sling caught on an anorthite that was shaped like a furling claw. He bore his teeth at Harmon, who took that as a hint to give up more slack. "I'll bet the cracks in the cave walls were foam sealed next to some sort of hyperbaric gas mixture. That fog is probably what killed those technicians. Then, someone was nice enough to seal the hatch and deny all knowledge."
"Right." Harness Bull Thatcher replied skeptically. "There's a shorter, less voluble term for it. In security circles we call it premeditated murder."
"Did those UFO's forget to remove your anal probe before they left." Geist rattled Ed Malcom. To the mining chief, the technician's very existence was proof that mankind did have sex with buffalo. "MAKE YOURSELF USEFUL AND TOSS ME A COUPLE OF FILTERS."
His eyes were beginning to water.
"Then, come all my heartiest, we'll range the mountain side." Carter sang his bad rendition of "The Wild Colony Boy" while his resurrected brother did the hambone. "Together we will plunder, together we will ride...."
"IF HE FIGHTS ME, THERE WILL BE NO WAY TO PULL HIM UP." Geist said through the rasp of his respirator mask. He dangled like a jewel thief, ten meters above the demented, musical astronaut.
"Then I'll approach him first," Angelina shouted to be heard from behind the respirator. Tears were beginning to stream from her eyes. "God, it is getting bad down here." The portable O2 tank was dangling beside her, lowered on a separate rope simultaneously.
"Hey...you did good, Alan," the deceased Will pointed to the approaching 'angelic' form. He seemed distressed that Angelina completely ignored him, as she kneeled next to the pilot and fitted the mask over his nose and mouth. His face was pale and his lips were beginning to turn blue.
"Easy, babe," she spoke gently, as she turned the valve and started the flow of oxygen. "Deep breaths. You're going to be alright."
William Carter III disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
"Better head top-side." Geist advised Ang' with grave concern. All around them, the lancing, serrated cones tipped death at them. Their glance was lost as dust began to powder the floor of the pit from the stressed plate high above. "C'mon, blockhead." He pulled Carter to his rubber feet as debris sprinkled onto their cork muzzles. "Time to EVAC."
"Hey...." Carter hyperventilated behind his PPE.
Then the walls of the antre began to shake.
"DOCTOR GEIST." Harmon yodeled and it was right on schedule. "THE OHM METER."
"I KNOW, I FELT IT DOWN HERE." The mining chief called back. All things considered, he was dry and unmoved by it all--as if having 10,000,000 tons of lunar sheeting dumped on your head was a daily activity, like breakfast.
In the meantime, Carter and Ang' began to accede upwards. Their fate was in Nuygen's hands.
"THEIR BLASTING US OUT." Harmon was confident. "USING CHARGES TO MODIFY THE CHANNEL."
"No." Geist offered a new view as a huge piece of Talc fell from above and exploded beside his left boot. "WE'RE SO FAR DOWN, WE WOULDN'T HEAR OR FEEL THE REPORT."
"...bridge...." Carter mumbled stuporously--at the mercy of the elements as he dangled in his harness like a salvaged mutt. "GEIST...." He resonated with lethargic coherence. "THE BRIDGE...WE'VE GOT TO EXTEND THE BRIDGE."
"I DON'T SEE ANY OTHER WAY OUT," Ang yelled into her respirator while she steadied Carter with the other arm. "WE CAN'T GO OUT THE WAY WE CAME AND THAT HOLE IS JUST TOO NARROW TO CONTINUE."
"HOW ABOUT THAT." The geologist bubbled cheerfully as his sling began to uprise behind them. "FOR ONCE, WE'RE IN AGREEMENT. WHILE WE'RE HERE, WE MAY AS WELL CHISEL THAT IN STONE."
"POSSIBLY IT'S A SPIKE CAUSED BY INCONGRUOUSNESS TO-"
"SPIKE, MY ASS." Geist cut Harmon off. His mask and hair were covered with yellow bespangle as the Moon disassembled itself. "I'LL TELL YOU RIGHT NOW WHAT IT IS."
"PAUL." Sandra Benes vocalized suddenly in Main Mission. "SHOCKWAVE. IMPULSIVE AND LOCAL."
"Another lunar quake?" Helena Russell steadied herself, griping the edge of Ouma's computer desk. Bergman was at the computer deck, scrolling through register read outs as fast as Emma Black handled them to him.
"No," the professor shook his head while bolting toward Morrow's controller station.
"JOHN!!!" Bergman reached over Morrow's shoulder, relinking to the Commander's Eagle. "Get out of there. There was a concentrated energy wave originating from the alien ship with Vesta Basso's Eagle as the target. It missed and hit the moon instead resulting in a 5.5 magnitude quake. Sensor detect another energy buildup in progress right now!"
"Computer estimates release of energy bundle in 10.4 seconds," Ouma interjected with a barely detectable sense of alarm.
On Koenig's NAVLOCATION grid, the pinging circles were replaced by a solid greenlight.
Aboard Eagle Five's passenger module, the overhead phosphors burst and went immediately dark. The ballasts and longitudinals crashed to the deck like mangled gutters. The spacecraft pitched and shuddered as sparks fell on the midship workstation. Goreing its way through the transverse and expansion joints, the capillary that extended from the keel of Alert Two brute forced a connection. The trauma of rescue caused the main bus to short out as the tunnel mated itself to the decompressed section.
In the smoking command module, Vesta Basso's bloodied, purple lips were fattened against the C&D panel. On her lap lay the root of a wisdom tooth she had meant to have pulled. She clawed at her bleeding face as the on-board safety protocols pulled the plug on both her drive and her dream of vengeance.
"HOLD IT STEADY." Koenig told Harms as he grabbed his helmut and disappeared into the aft equipment bay.
"IT'S MOVING." Specialist Harmon cried blessedly from the heart of the Moon. He was the first to reach the bridge controls. The hydraulic ramp started to advance to the obverse side of the pit. All around them, the Mare Basalt--suitcase sized--was dragged downwards by the artificial gravity. Ed Malcom opened his cowardly mouth to beg and barter and scream and got a Plagioclase sandwich for his pains.
The others were smarter and walked carefully, but no less expeditiously, to the opposite side. They reached the opposite side unharmed with Ang' and Geist assisting the staggering, overtaken Alan Carter.
Angelina turned as Ed Malcom pushed his way into the opening off the bridge but in the act of saving himself, knocked Abba Score off the bridge, leaving her no choice but to gain her footing on the crumbling hill.
"Abba! Give me your hand!!" Ang turned to help the Procedures Technician, aka backhoe operator, as she slipped down the dusty hill. Fine as sand, the lunar dust made it nearly impossible to get a foothold and the powdery film of regolith on the metal bridge made it just as impossible to get a grip.
"FRANK! What are you doing?!?" the Technical Manager could not stop the Geologist from jumping off the bridge and giving Score a boost from behind. Tom Graham grabbed her by the elbow and hauled the screaming Abba up onto the ledge. The fact that she traded a dislocated shoulder for her life was not immediately appreciated but ultimately she would be grateful.
"FRANK!!" Angelina yelled as the unfortunate scientist clawed his way up the hill and slid backwards, reaching for Ang's hand only to be swept away into the mountain of quicksand gray talcum as their fingers barely touched.
"Help meeeeeeeeeeee! AAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!" echoed the plaintiff cry of the geologist as he disappeared into the darkness.
The boost protective cover dropped to the floor. The submarine hatch was kicked open on its hinges and the aluminum ladder slid on its track to the floor of Eagle Five. John Koenig dropped to the floor of the burning, inconstant, exploding fireworks floor of the passenger module. All around him, ripped high voltage cables dropped from the ceiling as he headed towards the bough.
In the CDR's couch, Vesta Basso was blinded by shattered plastic, toxic fumes and a hatred of everything sentient.
"Your presence condemned an entire planet to death." A hideously disfigured Vesta Basso stood calmly between the pilot and copilot's couches of the Command Eagle, as Koenig came to a grinding halt at the door of the service module.
The woman with the strawberry blonde hair hovered above the copilot seat.
"Your arrogance condemned your planet," The beautiful woman shook her head sternly. "You were warned, many times, to stop your experimentation with that which defines and regulates the physical plane."
"They are not at fault. Only you are to blame for your conceit."
When Koenig blinked, the woman was gone and Vesta Basso lay slumped in the pilot's couch.
Oh Noble Soul.
Witness him now as he finds a fracture in the wall, and quenches his thirst with fatal, pink cave slime.
"I thought we agreed." A swollen, rancorous Paul Morrow looked to Sandra Benes for reinforcement, even though it was Petrov he was speaking to.
"We agreed that the vessel may have tried to defend itself." The colonel recalled cooly--he was also looking to Sandra Benes to buttress his argument. Why? He didn't know. Her face was not beneficent and her cheeks burned--as if her head was filled with hot briquettes. "They had every right to do so."
"According to computer, the emission came within two kilometers of the settlement limit." Benjamin Ouma ratiocinated. "That's too close."
"The target, though, was Eagle 5," Bergman amended, sitting back in the futurama plastic chair, with characteristic calm. "Although they appear to have achieved some sort of level of manipulation of the quantum mechanics aspects of blackbody radiation, it is clear they lack mastery of it.
"That is, if mastery is possible." The professor nodded to Koenig who merely glanced in acknowledgement. The Commander had shared with Bergman and Russell in a private conversation what he saw in Eagle 5 as he stepped into the Command module.
Dr. Helena Russell nodded her head slightly as she watched Morrow boil. Her muse was interrupted as her commlock chimed.
"Helena," Dr. Dorothy Sullivan's somber image appeared on the CMO's micromonitor. "Vesta Basso passed away 5 minutes ago."
"Thank you, Dot," Russell nodded and cut the link. She was not at all surprised and in fact had been expecting it.
A four wing, multiplex of funeral parlor bereavement poured from John Koenig's skin like sweat. Victor Bergman rubbed his chin, looking stage right for the wisdom that now eluded him. Ouma dared to look up over the table--the discs of his spine failing him like a crashed firewall on a Citrix server. Petrov showed no emotion.
Russell wiped a few eraser granules from her white medical flimsie--her stolid was yet unscraped.
"First Frank." Sandra Benes totaled the points callously.
"And now the both of them." Morrow completed the sentence. They were like twins with conjoined cortexes and phlegmatic, bad attitude.
"Paul, I see where you're going with this." The commander spoke unflappably. "Your summation is wrong. We cleared the blackbody energy package before it destroyed Eagle Five. She died as a result of my decision to make a transverse connection. The aliens had nothing to do with it. If anyone is to blame, it's me. At the speed she was moving, standard docking maneuvers were out of the question. I knew what the repercussions might be if we spiked the ship.
"When the drop shaft was deployed, the resulting concussion killed Vesta Basso." He said with indubitable finality.
"No," Sandra Benes shook her head while Paul Morrow backed her up with steely resolve. " I still say the aliens are utilizing a power that they can barely control to at least send us a message. What is that message? We are not your friends."
"I'm not so sure," Russell picked up the conversation. "The aliens did nothing but presumably observe until we approached them. Perhaps they were defending themselves and will leave us alone if we leave them alone."
"They're Fausts." Ouma expleted with complete aspersion and judgmental dump. "Dancing with forces beyond their comprehension."
"Yes." Bergman smiled immediately and with Breakaway on his mind. "A bit like us, wouldn't you say?"
"We should have kept a closer watch on her in Medical Center." Helena Russell dove into the pool of blue, luxurious, foaming self-abuse.
"To what end?" Morrow waxed genocidal, his cheeks ripening. "You would have extended her life, only so long as to gain a front row seat for the destruction of Moonbase Alpha."
"No." Petrov commented explicitly. "I disagree with your tactical assessment."
"Ah. But if they turned the Moon into a new asteroid belt--THEN WOULD YOU AGREE?" Sandra Benes railed, slamming her DC packet closed.
"We can yak about this all day and get nowhere," Michelle Cranston, pacing in front of the viewports, stopped and fumed. Pierre Danielle glanced up at her neutrally then returned his gaze to his red flimsie. "What about the mining expedition? What about rescuing them?"
"They are still alive." She went on. "Melita received a transmission from Phil and computer corroborated it.
Angelina Carter was weary and dirty...and her left side ached. Her fatigue was such that she did not have the strength, physically or mentally, to attempt to comfort a sobbing Ed Malcom. Yet, his repetitious "We're all gonna die." was getting on her nerves. The two harness bulls stared at Malcom like vultures, just waiting for the opportunity for Ed to become aggressive again and beat him into the ground. Their sadism was alarming. Ang sat on the ground against the wall with knees slightly drawn up, staring at the distressed technician. Next to her in the stretcher, Andrea Matthew clutched her hand in a semi conscious doze. The woman still cheated death and Ang was amazed at her endurance.
"So," Angelina spoke after clearing her throat. "Where do we go now? " She directed the question at Geist, Harmon and a now recovered Alan Carter, who were studying the maps in the ever dimming light of the maglights.
"HEADS UP, OAF." Carter pounced with disgust.
"You're not talking to me." Geist assumed, lowering his map with calm equanimity.
"YES I AM TALKING TO YOU." The astronaut knocked the stick from the mining chief's shoulder. "THE LADY ASKED YOU A QUESTION. IT MIGHT BE NICE IF YOU ANSWERED HER INSTEAD OF LOOKING AS BEHIND AS BARNEY'S BULL."
Harness Bull Thatcher uttered a desponding wheeze. Beside him, Specialist Harmon was using a fiber pen to sketch a graph on the knee of his coveralls. He allowed space for columns marked STATION; DISTANCE; AZIMUTH; and VERTICAL ANGLE. Then he produced an inclinometer to measure the dip--not a difficult task when one considers that the room contained more than one. The slope they were standing on appeared to be formed from an impure strain of garnet. The deep purple terminated in a black, zig-zag doorway in the featureless proscenium.
"That seems very out of place." Harmon remarked to Ang' as he scuffed his bootheel against the translucent floor.
"YOU ACT LIKE I'M THE MOON'S ANSWER TO SIR FRANCIS DRAKE." Geist pummeled. Either he was reincarnated or they had this conversation before. "WHEN WE CROSSED THAT PIT, WE ENTERED UNCHARTED TERRITORY. WE'RE NEAR THE AA REGION. SAME AS BEFORE. IF WE CAN FIND A WAY TO SHOVEL OUT FIVE KILOMETERS OF DIRT, WE'LL ALL BE HOME IN TIME TO SPLASH REHYDRATED MILK OVER MICROBIOTIC WHEATIES.
"IN OTHER WORDS--WE'RE STILL LOST, ONLY NOW OUR MAPS ARE USELESS. BUT DON'T WORRY, ALAN. I KNOW IT'S TOUGH TO GET THE BIG PICTURE WHEN YOU HAVE SUCH A SMALL SCREEN."
Too weary to argue, Carter placed his indefatigable hands on his aimless hips and stared at the ceiling again.
"Guys," Ang carefully stood up after gently releasing the distressed structural engineer's hand, "we had no choice. The ventilation shaft was a nice thought," she nodded to Geist, positive reinforcement on her mind, "but it turned out to be impractical."
"Air." Nuygen mumbled plaintively. "Air is getting thinner."
"Not surprising." The mining chief reclined against a nearby rock. "We've probably reached the limits of the biosphere. From here on out, you can expect the temperature to start dropping too."
"You wouldn't bring cheese to a rat's picnic, would you?" Carter trounced him.
"Alan, please," Angelina patted his elbow, in an attempt to stop another escalation into bickering and to soothe frayed nerves. She then averted the conversation, watching Jed Harmon, now on all fours, feeling the smooth surface of the ground.
She kneeled down and ran her hand over the smooth, cool metallic (?) ground.
"This is weird," the Technical Chief commented. "What would cause this?"
"Unknown." Harmon answered while scratching his white beard stubble. "Also enigmatic--the fact that this plate seems to be electrically charged."
He pulled the antennae with his teeth, waved it across the stone promenade again and showed the MIR results to Ang.'
"Cool." Carter approved. "Odd, though. According to our crack mining chief, there are no operations on this side of the marker. Geist, you owe your parents for making you all you can be. Send them a penny and close the account."
Angelina glanced wearily at Carter then returned the conversation to the anomaly. "Electrically charged metal is not exactly foreign to natural formations." She sat back on her heels. "But the fact that this appears to be a plate tells us that..."
"Captain." Harness Bull Thatcher called. He was standing in the doorway of the darkened cleft. "There's some sort of ventilation duct in here. He scanned the floor with his search light but found nothing. From every tuck, every recess, every plight they could hear the reflux of high intensity wiring.
After vying the situation, the pilot learned that he was too short.
"Ed." He commenced, removing a small pry bar from Ang's equipment pack. "After all of these years, I think I've found something you would be good at.
"Get over here."
He used him for a foot stool.
"I can't see anything on the other side." Carter relayed, examining the pitch black beyond the grate while he walked to and fro on the put upon technician. Applying leverage to the jimmy, he managed to loosen one corner of the plate, and then another. After popping the cover cleanly off, he tossed it to the side, almost missing Ed Malcom's skull. "Now, I'm too big." He conveyed. "Sweetpea, we need you. Mount the big butt, and aim your floodlight camera at that hole."
When Carter stepped off, Angelina stepped on after she mumbled her apologies. She shone the light in the shaft, poking her head into the darkness with the floodlight mounted to her hard hat.
"What do you see?" Ed Malcom wheezed. Ang was surprised that he actually cared enough to ask.
"Stand up a little, Ed," she held onto the sides of the smooth metal shaft for balance. He complied with a loud sigh and Ang pulled herself inside the small tunnel, Carter's objections becoming muffled on the other side. Cool air lapped at her face and she shone the light down the 2 feet by 2 feetmetal shaft. She gasped and recoiled when she saw the ending of the tunnel, leading to a manmade room.
The mummified remains of earthmen sprawled on the floor. However, the uniforms adorning the deceased clearly indicated they were members of the Tri-Continent.
"This just gets more bizarre," Angelina began after she backed out and jumped out of the ventilation shaft. Carter caught her, sparing Malcom trauma to his back.
She told them what she saw.
His name wasn't Lindenbrock and he didn't expect to uncover a Jules Vernean, subterranean universe by the time the experiment was completed.
The Moon was but a rock and their aching backs told the tale.
On Earth, Specialist Virgil Sykes achieved renown aboard an offshore derrick, pluming the depths for core samples that would vindicate his grant money and uncover clues for determining the nature of earthquakes and climate changes. Then Breakaway occurred--God reached for the nine iron and Moonbase Alpha was knocked from the driving range. Away they went--deeper and deeper into the everlasting sand traps.
"We're lowering the assembly now." Sykes' voice could be heard over the surround speakers in Main Mission.
Victor Bergman nodded approvingly while monitoring the feedback beneath the big screen.
John Koenig and Helena Russell stood motionless and corpse breathless in the center of the trench.
"We're going to do a test run." Sykes told Specialist Harkness factually. Both men stood atop the platform in environment suits. "Two thousand meters. Then we'll analyze the data."
The oversmoke was impervious. Far beneath the tower, a lunar rover scoured the mare--its headlights disappearing like ghosts in the abyss. Over a mile a way, a disgarded interferometer dome floated out of the murk along with the second story lights from the Reconnaissance Hub. The inner ring of the base seemed totally discorporated.
"Contact." Sykes relayed when the probe entered the ejecta blanket.
"The dynamo is fully charged." The specialist told Bergman who acknowledged the calibrations by placing his pen in his mouth. Standing behind him now, John Koenig turned to address those who would be awashed.
"We're going to attempt to use a photon lens to determine whether there is any life beneath the AA Region." He told the rest of the Main Mission operatives centrally.
"Originally the unit was intended to detect minute electromagnetic activity as a means to extrapolate the existence and distance of stars millions of light years from earth," Helena Russell offered Koenig the historical perspective. "Later, it was adapted in psychiatry to determine states of mental health by correlating brain wave activity. As you know, the human brain emits a faint electrical impulse. The research in the psychiatry field was a dead end because the instrument proved to be not sensitive enough to correlate mental states to electrical activity. However, it did prove useful in detecting electrical impulses of the brain and therefore life signs."
"If the experiment is successful...." The commander agreed guardedly. "We'll be able to find out whether or not the mining party survived the impact damage that was wrought by the destruction of the Baal planetoid."
"Five...Four..." Ben Ouma announced from his computer station, "Three...Two...One."
A slight rumble and nothing else.
"Sykes!" Koenig stabbed the white intercommunications stud over Morrow's shoulder. "Anything?"
A short pause was followed by the response.
"Sykes here, Commander," Specialist Sykes responded on the audio. "We thought we were picking up something but now we have nothing. The initial reading could have been interference from the charge. But, I'm not sure.
Hands on his hips, John Koenig stared critically at the floor.
"What's the story?" Giest inquired--as if he could no longer trust Alan Carter. Not that he ever did to begin with; paranoid, that he was being watched; that colloquies unseen controlled his destiny and knew his telephone number. Suddenly, everyone in the room was an exact duplicate of the original person. He was wary, the last Alphan standing.
"That's a brothel of a question." Carter admitted. "Actually, I was about to ask you the same thing. After all, you are the mining chief."
The title and butt crack. The astronaut equivocated them.
"Too true, but the mining chief wasn't in the war." Geist charged. "You were, captain sir."
"Oh no...." Ed Malcom dirged on the other side of the wall. It would have been easier for a bus to pass through the hole in a donut than it would have been for him to squeeze through the trap. So there her remained, with nothing to comfort him other than his dark thoughts of sudden death and premature burial, minus even the decorum of a final, Funyon ring.
"What OCW?" Nguyen asked curiously while reviewing the panel that Geist was leaning against."
"That stands for 'Objective Combat Weapon.'" Harness Bull Thatcher recollected. "A laser range finder tells the rounds where to explode."
"Yeah." Carter remembered all too well. "It's silicone chip warfare. One shot can mince your attack force. There must be a gun emplacement somewhere up top. This was where they monitored the threat board, controlled the barrage that brought the targets down. Hey---I don't mean sissy stuff either. I watched one of these things turn a squad of Herons into fireballs. How the Tek heads managed to plant this operation so close to Allied Block lines is beyond me."
"The old base was in Tyco crater, though," Angelina added thoughtfully, "many miles from here and bombed out near the end of the war." She concluded her brief history lesson for those who had been from Terra Earth. Terra Earth had not experienced a World War Terminus (WWT) but instead the prime communist bloc nation collapsed in the late 1980's resulting in a proliferation of dictators of small countries dedicated to "ethnic cleansing" and support of widespread terrorism. Dirty bombs and biological agents were the favored weapons even at the time of the Terran breakaway.
"However, there was an outpost in the Mare Imbrium, if I remember correctly, so I can't see how this operation would have gone unnoticed by the scouts."
"Maybe they be paid by Tri-Continent?" Nguyen offered, leaning wearily against a broken I-Beam. "Like spy? And they keep quiet?"
"I guess anything is possible," Ang shrugged, noting with dismay Ed Malcom's pounding on the entrance to the ventilation shaft. "If this is the way out, we have to figure out how to help him get through," she squinted at the dark corners, fixating on a hatch.
"Help me!!!! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeese, help me!!!!" Malcom sobbed loudly from the other side.
"How about greasing up the hog and making him nice and slippery?" Thatcher smirked while pointing to a 5 gallon drum of equipment lubricant.
"Let him rot." Phil Geist said after analyzing their situation with forensic balance. "If all else fails, he can subsist on stored fat. I'm not going to break a leg to help rescue him."
"That makes two of us." Carter agreed, preoccupied with furnishings that only an MIT geezer could love. Computers that were haphazardly networked--and reel to reel for that matter. The pillbox was obviously planted during the early days of the war. It was barely above the abacus and punch cards. The memory was magnetic core; maybe 64,000 'words' of RAM. Executables, yes, but they'd make you weep. It reminded the astronaut a lot of the firmware and donut period at the cape. "Funny, how far we've advanced." He noted. "Whine bag Ed wasn't even a glint in pop's eye when they bolted this facility together."
"It looks like it's 1950's era." Geist guessed. Computer's were not his forte. Right now, his expertise was in measuring the remaining fresh water rations, which were almost dry, by the way.
"More like late 60's or early 70's," Angelina marveled at the museum. "My father was a university professor who would often take me to the 'computer center'. Not computers but one mainframe computer, and program stacks of punch cards, one line of code per card."
She opened a dusty, yellow box and pointed inside. "In fact, these are the exact type of cards. What I don't get, though, is that by early to mid 80's we were beyond the punch cards using floppies. This technology, even to mid 80's standards is ancient."
"Well, the military sticks to what works." Carter lied. Some poor sucker of a technician had been forced to marry this outmoded hardware to a chic superweapon.
"Death." Ed Malcom brayed spittle on the other side of the wall. "THAT'S WHAT WORKS. WE'RE ALL SCREWED. SCREWED, DO YOU HEAR?"
He crumpled into a weeping heap.
Harness Bull Thatcher shrugged.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" The astronaut asked the mining chief.
"I don't know." Geist replied. "What are you thinking?"
"Brace yourself." The pilot couldn't resist. "I know that finding solutions to problems is sometimes more than you can handle."
"There is a point to this conversation?" The geologist doubted.
"Okay. These guys got down here somehow and I'm sure they didn't use the same lift that we did. It stands to reason there's another avenue for reaching the surface."
"Like that hatch over there?" Angelina pointed to the circular metal door covering the unknown beyond. "I'm not sure we should be opening strange doors without knowing what's beyond. Maybe there is another ventilation shaft somewhere in here."
"Look," Ahn Nguyen interrupted opening a large 5 gallon metal cylinder. Inside the can were hundreds of round red and yellow hard candies. She put one in her mouth and slurped hungrily. "Survival rations. Pure carbohydrate, simple sugar or I think you call it 'hard candy'. Good quick energy. The red one strawberry flavor." For the first time since the cave in, she smiled. "Try one or more if you like."
"Yeah, survival rations," Ang acknowledged, reading the ingredients on the cover. Sugar, Corn syrup and more sugar. "Obviously these people," she pointed to the bodies, "did not have a chance to use them. They must have died instantly."
"Look here," Nguyen became even more excited, as she pointed to a 10 gallon barrel. "WATER!"
"Oh no," Angelina mumbled as she spied Ed Malcom, with fat arms and fat head sticking out of ventilation shaft.
"Help me, pleeeease...I'm stuck and its hard to breathe," Malcom begged, completely wedged in the shaft. He spotted the rations. "Can I have some candy? I'm starving!!"
"Come on." Carter told Geist. "Let's see if we can open that hatch. They sure didn't walk five kilometers up and five kilometers down every day. There has to be a tube."
"It will be hard to access with no power." The mining chief rained on his parade.
The pilot stopped in front of the airlock and aimed his maglite at the pre-commlock, manual controls. It was nothing audacious, but the lettering threw him off. He scratched his head, ever amazed by the tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. Have a mug, Sir Walter Scott.
"What's 'offen' and 'nahe?'" Geist investigated the labels on the chrome panel.
"That got me too." Carter entertained. "It's been a while. I was stationed at the Tempelhof Air Base in West Berlin for a few months before the San Jose Meltdown. Before the mobilization against Peking. The words 'offen' and 'nahe' are German for 'open' and 'close.'"
"These rotters don't look very German to me." Harness Bull Thatcher beheld of the moldering, decidedly Asian looking visages that were staring up at them from the floor. His address was blunt. Not to worry, the pile of cloying, sated, skank stiffs that littered the linoleum were anything but offended.
"They're not." The astronaut assured him. "What gets me is that the Deutschland military was supposed to be A-Block all the way." Was it Agatha Christie who once wrote, where large sums of money are concerned, trust no one? "They had nuclear fuel cells back then." He went on, changing from this topic to one more cognate to their survival. "Petal, what do you make of this? There must be an alternate power source that will open this hatch."
"Batteries would have been exhausted a long time ago," Angelina examined the panel, then pried the face plate off the wall. Peering inside, she noted that cable bundles and wires ran upward. She also noted there was a metal wall on the other side. "Even the nuclear cells would have given out by now."
She thankfully took the water Nguyen was passing around as well as a yellow candy and shown the maglite into the access panel again.
"Obviously there is another interior room beyond this one and it appears to not be a big vacuum." Realistically, Ang would have made this discovery when she removed the access panel face plate. It would have been a deadly mistake and she quietly reprimanded herself for acting in such haste and foolishness. Her lightheadedness caused her poor judgment. Fortunately, the hydration and sugar boost was beginning to lift the mental fog. "Brute force should open that hatch manually. Any well designed hatch has a manual override."
Nobody paid any attention as Ed Malcom fell out of the ventilation shaft face first with a loud thump and resulting near quake shaking of the floor.
"We need to get rid of him." Specialist Harmon confided to Nguyen. "He's a stone in our shoe."
"Manual access, huh?" Carter's forehead broke into sedulous lines as he examined the wall on either side of the door. He dropped decade old energy supplements onto his tongue and let it dissolve. Not half bad--if you used a mouthful of bacon cubes and granulated Eggs Florentine in a toothpaste tube as a point of allegory. What he was looking for was around the bend and to one side of what appeared to be an O2 boil-off. "Thatch,' check your tool kit for a spanner with a hex end."
The Harness Bull released the transparent, plastic shoulder strap and lowered the kit to the floor.
"Even if we get in there...." Geist prophesied. "Even if we find a Hilton-style Atrium complete with key cards and itinerary--it won't do us a bit of good if we don't have the juice to power it."
Angelina glanced at Geist disapprovingly. The mood of the group was decidedly somber and some showed signs of throwing in the towel; and these were miners, some of the toughest, hardiest souls on Moonbase Alpha. Right now, Geist's leadership skills, particularly in not keeping his negative thoughts to himself, sucked.
"That's a Typhoid Mary." Carter deemed as scanned the interior of the tool chest. "Cook us up some pancakes, Geist. Spread your bad attitude like a case of Athlete's Foot. When was the last time you had faith in something? Sunday school?"
"Not even that." The mining chief replied caustically, hands on hips and bloated with expensive hubris. "I'm a card carrying atheist."
The pilot chortled as he started screws in each corner of a rectangular shroud that was mounted on the floor.
"I believe." Nguyen sympathized. "Had half-brother, Frederick. He no shave. He suffer from infected collagen. Huge warts all over his head. He break shin bone attempting to run from police. Fred a wife beater. Also threaten to burn nieces and nephews in microwave like popcorn for Butter Lover's.
"Drowned in sour mash vat in distillery where he work. Got his honest desserts."
Specialist Harmon was helping himself to another protein lozenge, but the flood of excessive information killed his appetite.
"Your sister-in-law had remarkable taste in men." Harness Bull Thatcher parlayed with jowls filled with puss and superior distaste.
"Got it." Carter said eventually, removing the shroud to reveal a metallic sprocket lever beneath the floor boards. "Here goes nothing." He said, hoping for something as he pulled the crank with both fists.
Stale air evacuated the interior of the car. The elevator's wall panel lights were dark.
"Congratulations." Geist clapped. "Now all we need is about 15,000 feet of cable and a Brontosaurus to pull it. We'll be emancipated from the bowels of the Moon."
"Phil, knock off the shit," Angelina blurted in disgust. Exhaustion, pain and her own growing sense of futility momentarily barged into her demeanor and for a split second she regretted introducing him to her best friend.
She remembered the moment vividly. Melita Kelly was taking a coffee beak in her office shortly after the Terran Alphans arrived and became integrated in the community when the workaholic Phil Geist stepped in to drop off a routine mining requisition.
He was thunderstruck and rendered speechless, something that rarely happened, upon seeing Melita. As Ang casually made the introduction, she noted the handshake lingering between them.
"Cat got your tongue?" Melita teased, charmed as he still held her hand.
"Uh...uh, no," Geist swallowed. "It's just..." He swallowed nervously again. "It's just...you're the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on."
It was a difficult line for him to get out as it came from the heart. It was also a line from a bad romance novel. Ang and Melita promptly burst out laughing. Geist turned beet red and quickly left the room, bruised ego and all. Alas, both women later apologized, with Ang taking her cue and exiting stage left, giving the two the opportunity to get to know one another better.
Obviously Melita Kelly thought Phil Geist wasn't so bad since merely 6 weeks later she became his wife.
"Look," Ang continued and back to the present reality and realizing introducing Melita to Geist was not such a bad thing afterall, "you're not too far off when you say we could use a brontosaurus to pull the elevator up. There is probably a manual crank somewhere with this thing. That would be impractical, though. There is likely some back up generators which run the computers. Now, if this operation was suddenly shut down, like it appears to be, then there could be some juice left. The back of generators had to be manually configured."
Thatcher and Harmon grabbed the crowbars and began prying off the front facing of the computer banks.
"There's an access tunnel in here," Thatcher announced, already half way into the tunnel, shining the maglite.
"Bingo." His somewhat muffled voice traveled back into the room. "We've got a couple of generators back here."
"You take that one." Carter ordered Geist while reaching for a flat end screwdriver. "Get her moving or die in the process."
"You know, you're great for a person's health." The geologist told him. "When people see you coming they take long, long walks."
But actually, he had an idea.
"If these are plug-in appliances, we're sunk." Harness Bull Thatcher agonized as he helped Ang' and Geist to uncover the guts of the double pole, double throw transfer switch.
"Shut up." Carter blurted, trying to make sense of the craze handful of black and red conductors. "We're going to make it. Keep telling yourself that or put a plug in it. There's no time for self-pity."
Ed Malcom was the only one who seemed unafflicted. He thought that he was out of this world, and really, most of the people there wished that he was.
"Unbelievable," Angelina did a double take on the fuel source. "A gas powered generator, using stuff you'd put in your car from the local Exxon. Ahn," she passed the cable to the petite geologist whose feet were protuding from the access shaft next to the lift," hook this end of it to the elevator's transformer."
"Doctor Geist." Jed Harmon interposed with an estranged look on his face. "There's a yellow warning light on my EGD."
"That's no good." The mining chief replied non-chalantly as he tried to reason how a double-dealing German would label the switches for POWER TO HOUSE and OUTAGE POSITION OF TRANSFER.
"WHAT'S THAT SMELL?" Carter asked with extortion in his voice.
"Gas." The mining chief replied smartly. "Bhopal, maybe Phosgene. It's hard to say."
He grinned and gave Ed Malcom a hearty slap on the back.
"I'm reading between twenty and thirty milligrams." Specialist Harmon squeezed his hand unit tightly. "The volume is increasing."
"WHERE IN SAM HILL IS THAT COMING FROM?" The astronaut badgered them as he bargained for their existence with a combined load circuit. "IT CAN'T BE FROM THE DIG WE JUST ABANDONED. THAT'S CLOSED OFF."
"Yeah?" Geist contradicted. "Who says?"
"What is it?" Nguyen asked in a daze.
"Our Loxx tank." Harmon explained.
"No." Geist varied as he traced one of the rubber insulated pipes to a chase in the ceiling. "I'd say it's a hybrid--Loxx and whatever was in that pit. We've got some serious hootch brewing out there. Strongly asphyxiate."
"RUN, YOU MOTHERFUCKER." Carter spat at the blank control panel.
Nguyen gave Ang the thumbs up as she wiggled out of the narrow opening. Ang connected the final pole then gripped the pull start.
The decade old generator sputtered and coughed and oil cloud, and shook awake with a loud roar. The light panels on the lift were immediately illuminated.
"It works! It works!!" She yelled enthusiastically, as Thatcher and Harmon lifted Andrea Matthew's stretcher. They piled into the small elevator and Carter closed the door as he pulled Ang inside.
The lift began to rise slowly, gears grinding and pulleys straining. Ang heard Ahn whisper a prayer and Angelina was inclined to join her.
"I don't suppose we know where we are headed," Ang threw out the statement for supposition. Suddenly, they found themselves heading nowhere as the elevator ground to a stop...and the lights went out.
"Don't suppose we do." Geist answered in the black.
John Koenig's next resolution was not to build a better computer.
The meeting had adjourned to the MPSR Room. Victor Bergman capped his pen, and stepped back from the clear, erasable board. The length of IBM register paper hung from the crease of his forearm in a ribbon. His labeling of the MARIA and the LITHOSPHERE were incomprehensible, but the meaning behind the red arrow that plunged deep into the Moon's external envelope was glaring, even to the dullest dart in the box.
The situation with Carter and Geist's mining expedition had improved--a whole one and one half percent. This was not much. In the end, tragedy was still a comedy, plus time and it would extend beyond the death of any single Alphan.
Here was the creation of a statistic.
"Cranston, are you sure about this?" The commander double checked. Morrow and his minions could have analyzed the figures but right now he wasn't talking to them.
"I'm positive." The technician avouched. "The power house verified the data. De le Bruyere noticed the same output on the lower register. Something caused the needles to jump and as nearly as we can tell, it emanated from a source that is two kilometers down."
"Pete?" Koenig asked with prevision.
"We don't have anything in that particular area." The AD replied vigilantly. "At least not that we know of, but I've seen the gauges. There was a marked increase in prodigious energy; it wasn't electrical, and it wasn't associated with any of the primary equipment we have here on Alpha."
"Victor, what do you make of it?" The commander solicited. "Could it have been the mining team?"
"The energy reading did not likely originate from a natural source," Bergman extrapolated from his register tape as Helena Russell looked on neutrally.
"So they could still be alive?" Russell asked with hope in the query.
"I won't rule out that possibility," Bergman nodded while scratching his head. "What gets me though is Pete is correct. We don't have anything in that area. However, according to the archives, we did receive sonar feedback in July 1999 which indicated hollow areas, what were believed to be a network of natural caves in the area."
He nodded and smiled politely at Pam Hayden who passed him a cup of miserable Moonbase Java. "There is nothing manmade down there though...as far as we know." He gave a particular emphasis to the last part of his statement.
Victor Bergman discovered the longer he had been in deep space, the less he knew.
"There were rumored to be Tri-Con bunkers in the AA Region." Pete Garforth remembered. There wasn't much interesting about being a veteran, but for some reason that story stuck with him. Like the shrapnel in his glute. "The sources are none too reliable. The technology didn't exist back then and it was too close to several A-Block batteries."
"COMMANDER!" Sandra Benes interrupted the discourse. "I'm receiving a signal!!" She quickly transferred the weak and static filled audio to the Dolby speakers.
"Alph.....is ..gelina Cart...do...read....e...Trapped....be...ow...adjacent to...Tricont....ase..."
The signal crackled and faded out.
"Get her back! Get her back!!" Koenig was instantly behind Benes.
"I'm trying, sir," Sandra replied, cool as a cucumber as petite fingers danced on the keyboard. Her efforts were rewarded with static and loud snow to the extent that she cut the audio from the speakers, back to her head set.
"DAMN!" the Commander blurted, hand momentarily covering eyes, then he turned to Ouma. "Was it enough for computer to locate the signal?"
The mainframe chief ripped the data free from the printer panel on his workstation.
"Almost." He replied. "Computer has provided a latitude line but no precise coordinates. The signal originated from inside the walled plain--somewhere southwest of the Rimae Plato."
"So back we go to the Greater Black Lake." Victor Bergman felt no thunderbolts.
"She said something about Tricon..." Helena Russell remembered then look at Pete. "TriContinent base." She finished the sentence with "ah ha" inspiration.
"Sandra, contact Dover." Koenig said while reaching for his commlock. "Tell him I'd like to meet with him in my office in fifteen minutes. Victor, I'd like for you and Paul to be there too."
"John, I think I'd like to sit in on this." Helena Russell tolled.
"Sounds good." The commander said as he exited the MPSR Room and walked briskly along the server deck on his way to the big doors.
It wasn't good though.
Concretely, the whole lousy billet sucked on ice.
"I think the base was blown apart." Harness Bull Thatcher told Harmon. "Ask me, Basso and Magnusson got to messing about on that mission and did something disastrous, intentionally or unintentionally."
"Thinking isn't your strong suit." Phil Geist repudiated. "I know my wife's voice. That was Melitta I heard earlier and not some blimey ghost."
"Quiet, both of you." Carter took charge, eyeballing the yards ahead. "Frank was too good a pilot. If something happened, I guarantee it wasn't his fault."
Philip Geist, Alan Carter, Gary Thatcher and Angelina Carter stood on top of the elevator, after finding the emergency hatch in the roof. A decade of dust and soot, now disturbed created a hostile environment, causing an uncomfortable coughing fit.
When they had finished coughing their lungs out, Geist shown the maglight around the shaft.
"Well, it looks like a door," Ang pointed to right to an indent in the wall. "But it is at least 10 meters up. How are we going to get up there?"
There appeared to be no access ladder rungs in the shaft. How inconvenient.
"Whew." Carter communicated while rubbing his benumbed palms together. "Hell freezes over, polar bears move south."
"Brother, I'm with you on that." Harness Bull Thatcher exhibited, impressed by the plume of crystalline breath that issued from his below zero mouth.
"I wouldn't expect this to be malfunctioning air conditioning," Ang chattered while rubbing her arms for warmth. "We can't stay out in this very long though, especially our wounded. It must be some sort of natural phenomenon...I think."
She looked down into the stalled elevator, past Ahn Nguyen who was pulling herself out of the access hole. For the moment, the breath of fresh air was welcome, especially by those stuffed uncomfortably close to body odor extreme Ed Malcom.
"I'm sure our expert on lunar sciences has an explanation." The astronaut snared. "How about it, Geist? Why is it cold enough to keep an Italian car from starting? Have we run out of biodome again."
A precious commodity, those biodomes.
"Relax Carter." The mining chief assuaged. "Just because you're a cocksure asshole, it doesn't follow that people are out to get you. I've been measuring the drop in temperature using the hand held unit. Because we're breathing normally, I think the assumption could be made that we have air.
"I say that because my lungs are still expanding and contracting. Also, I'm not clutching my throat in the throes of asphyxia, nor am I having hallucinations.
"I'm hopeful that this is also true of the rest of you. What we've run into is probably a water bearing cavity that distends from the north pole. I have no way of qualifying the last statement.
"Just call me Psychic Phil."
"Really?" The pilot ventured. "Read my mind then, Simon Turnball."
From his hard pack, Geist produced an armored cable gun. After motioning Nguyen to step aside, he removed the safety, and fired the grappling hook at a space just above the utility hatch.
"It's the only way." He told Ang,' concerned as he tested the integrity of the line with both hands. It held taught.
"I go," Nguyen volunteered. She raised her hand to everyone's objections. "No. I lightest one here. You all too heavy. I agile and lithe like Caesar the cat." She smiled.
It was true. Ahn Nguyen was barely 90 pounds, naked and soaking wet. Fully clothed and with equipment, her weight still did not hit triple digits. She dropped her tool belt.
"Have you seen Caesar lately?" Angelina was drawn into the fleeting light moment. "He's anything but lithe." She chuckled, as Ahn attached her safety clip to the cable. It would stop her from sliding down the rope as she went up. Of course, it would not help her at all if the cable snapped but Ang pushed the fatal thought out of her mind.
"Yes. He spend too much time with Ed Malcom and get fat like Budda." She laughed as she pulled herself up the cable.
"I heard that!" Malcom's muffled voice protested from below.
None of them dared breath for nearly 90 seconds, or so it seemed, as Nguyen scaled up the cable. She pulled herself on the ledge.
"Well? What do you see?! What's up there, Ahn?" Angelina yelled up from below.
"Where is it?" Nguyen bumbled around, playing torso twister while her boots dangled from the beam.
"Where's what, dear?" Geist asked, probing upwards with his maglite.
"Her hand, Dr. Stooge." Carter deduced. "HEY. AHN. I KNOW IT'S DARK, BUT WE NEED THAT OPEN SO WE CAN GET OUT HERE."
"I think hypothermia is starting to set in." Specialist Harmon said scientifically as he inspected his own limbs.
The temperature was twenty below and it felt like it.
"That's a banger." Harness Bull Thatcher complimented pejoratively. He had no feet. He had no hands. He was a disembodied head.
"Hold this." Geist said politely after throwing his hard pack at Alan Carter. "I'M COMING UP. HOLD TIGHT UNTIL I GET THERE."
Gripping the cable, the mining chief began his slow escalade along the concrete embankment.
"BEAR IN MIND, IF THERE'S NO POWER, WE'LL HAVE TO FORCE IT OPEN." Specialist Harmon recounted.
"I ALREADY THOUGHT OF THAT." The geologist heaved and groaned, the crow bar sticking from the back pocket of his coveralls as he approached the top.
Nguyen inched over to make space.
"IT'S JAMMED." Geist cursed. "I'M GOING TO HAVE TO BRUTE FORCE THE THING."
"WELL, BE SPRITE ABOUT IT." Carter bum rushed him. "IT'S NOT EXACTLY A COOKER DOWN HERE AND WE STILL HAVE TO RIG SOMETHING FOR MATTHEW."
"...what about me...?" Ed Malcom conjectured.
"What about you?" The astronaut pondered frankly and mugged him.
"Well." Harness Bull Thatcher told the technician as he danced a jig to keep warm. "What about you too?"
Ang ignored Malcom's indignant "what?!?!?" and returned her attention to Nguyen.
"WHAT'S THE STORY UP THERE, GUYS?!" she yelled, while exhaling plumes of condensation. Looking up was making her feel dizzy, to add to her now constant ache in the side and nausea. The worst thing about the situation, in her mind, was climbing the rope. She thought she was too weak.
"CAN'T OPEN." Nguyen called back.
"I figured as much." Geist said and brandished the pry bar. "The way this has been going--if it weren't for bad luck we'd have no luck at all."
Not so. The geologist put his weight into it, and the hatch thrust open with relatively ease. He peered inside.
And then tumbled over the ledge on the opposite side, screaming as he fell.
"WHAT KIND OF SNAG IS THAT?" Carter yelled up to them, intensely aggravated. "God, what a berk. WHAT DID YOU DO, GEIST?"
"HE FALL." Nguyen informed them, her eyes wide with terror.
Carter straddled the walls, almost to the point of splitting his coveralls. This was his speed, climbing the cavern with alarming industry. The faces below grew smaller as he grasped the ledge and pulled himself before the open hatch next to Nguyen. He gazed inside and was impressed by the forty below winds. Ahead was the Argonauts. He, Alan no-middle-name Carter was a Harpie, shunned at the dining table of King Phinaeus. One slip and he would join Geist in the refrigerator/Mix Master and their death would be estimably gory.
"Stone the blazin' crows...." He vociferated as the god of ice picks parted his hair for him.
What the Tri-Continent post used this for, he had no idea. Perhaps it was based on data acquired from a clairvoyant or someone who was Remote Viewing. They knew they would lose the war and that decades later, the A-Block funded and controlled Moonbase Alpha would be drifting through strange, whatchamacallit space. They knew that a violent quake would end in a harrowing attempt to protect life, limb and booty.
How picayune, their preparations to vivisect the mining party of the future with a huge permafrost funnel and fan.
"No blaze," Nguyen shook her head, completely misunderstanding slang. "Freezing cold. Very cold like ice.
"PHIL!!!" Ahn shouted into the frigid darkness, squinting while shining her maglite. Her face was frozen and even her eyeballs felt cold. She felt her lips drying from the virtually non existent humidity levels. 'PHIL!!! ARE YOU HURT?!?!"
"How we suppose to find Mining Chief if we cannot see him?" asked Ahn. It was a reasonable question.
"I'm getting feedback from his commlock!" Specialist Tim O'Connor shouted up to Nguyen and Carter, with coincidental telepathy. "If you try yours, you might be able to locate him!!"
"Does this mean the commlocks work and we can call someone on the base above?" Ang, sitting on the elevator activated hers.
"No," O'Connor shook his head. "It means that if you turned off your commlocks like I told everyone to conserve the batteries, we could use it as a locating device later; later as in now."
"I get nothing," Ahn shook her head, waving her commlock with a microscreen full of static and snow around the below zero air.
"GEIST." Carter urged again. "YOU CLUTZ, IF I HAVE TO CLIMB DOWN THERE, I'LL CRACK MENTAL ON YOU."
He toiled hard, tossing finite, one half inch rappelling rope into the tapering conoid. He could see the giant ventilator blades at the bottom, still swooshing. Impelled by some unknown power source. A great cuisinart in the basement of the Moon.
"YOU BETTER NOT BE DEAD." He warned. "IF YOU ARE, I'LL KILL YOU.
"Okeydoke,' Ang' start tracking him."
"I'm not getting any feedback from his commlock," Angelina replied, visibly distressed. "Perhaps the fuel cell is low!" She offered up the possibility, remember Geist's frantic and ultimately fruitless attempts at re-establishing communication with Melita earlier.
"Possibly, he's unconscious." Specialist Harmon examined the alternatives. "The fall may have caused a minor or major concussion."
"No." Ed Malcom proposed--making the dime with his extreme negativity and proving himself worthy of the mantle of Moonbase Blunderhead. "He couldn't hold on, fell, screamed, and got turned into guts casserole in the process.
"Imagine." He prompted Ang.' "Every bit of the fat, whacked from your body."
"Shut up, Ed," Angelina snapped, her patience with the man completely evaporated.
"You look hot, Ed." Harness Bull Thatcher digged. "Why don't you sit closer to the fan."
"I'm going down." Carter proclaimed without tang. "Thatch,' keep an eye on that check line."
"For God's sake, be careful, Alan," she shouted up as she motioned Nguyen to pull on the rope with three more maglights attached. It left the rest of the group on the elevator with one flashlight but she decided Carter needed all the light he could get.
After considerable gainsay, he lowered his left boot into the tricky, white substratum.
Ahn Nguyen quickly pulled the rope up and passed a light to Thatcher. Now she had two lights, one being a higher voltage and thus brighter light. She shone the larger light down, straight into Carter's eyes as he looked up again, temporarily blinding him.
"Oh, I sorry," Ahn apologized then moved it behind him, shining it down.
"I SEE THE LIGHT." Carter told them literally. Using the gear sling, he bounded down the sides of this natural wonder. He was the final molecule in an endless ice-cream cone. He felt like a rogue and this was his Everest, his Kilimanjaro. He was putting in his time on Mount Denali, and it was freezing his post-Baal asshole off. Several times he felt that he might slip, and once he did. Fortunately, he was righted by tag-team action from Harness Bull Thatcher, Harmon and that bitser, Ed Malcom. As the meters clicked by, the tackle began to cut into his gloves, made harsher by the bitter cold air produced by the whirling cutlasses at the bottom. "GEIST, HOW ABOUT A WORD?"
His Dumbo ears were freezing off. Last week was an inopportune time to give himself a haircut.
"YOU SHOULD BE SEEING HIM." Specialist Harmon chagrinned as it became clear that Ed Malcom was not going to pull his own weight in this adventure.
"Fess up." Thatcher prompted in a sub rosa conversation with Ang.' "He fell in didn't he? Got chopped to bits."
His spine--his nagging, anguished vertebrae. Malcom wasn't even bothering to hold the rope now.
"They didn't see any blood or guts on the blades so that's a good sign," Angelina quipped with irritation. She clipped her safety belt to the line secured to the ledge. "I'm going up."
"GEIST, GIVE IT A GO." Carter bellowed again in utter futility. He was less than a yardstick away from the shank of death.
Then the shadow beneath his feet revealed itself to be just that--a dusk, a shade with no substantive groundwork on which to brace his bootheels. Abruptly, the pilot slipped and slammed like a wrecking ball against the stainless steel subterrain.
"What are you blathering about Carter?" Phil Geist caviled as he sat upon the landing and rubbed his bruised temple.
"You're alive?" The astronaut voiced his disappointment. "I'VE BEEN CALLING OUT. WHY DIDN'T YOU ANSWER ME? ARE YOU DEAF?"
"I can't hear anything over that vent." The mining chief complained.
"Yeah?" Carter ascribed. "WELL THANKS ALOT DICKHEAD. NOW WE'RE BOTH BACK OF THE BEYOND."
Ang came down the rope almost too fast, landing with a loud smack from her boots on the smooth concrete floor.
"Phil, are you hurt?" She asked the Mining Chief while unbuckling her safety clip, wanting to tell Alan to knock it off but knew that was a fruitless effort.
She was quickly followed by Ahn Nguyen who lithely glided down the rope as Angelina shone the light in Geist's face, checking out the sizable knot rising on the side of his head. Geist was pale and in borderline shock. Mild head injury aside, she discovered that instead, the source of shock had to be from the compound fracture of his left forearm. The edge of his ulna protruded in a bloody grotesque mess through the torn fabric of his sleeve.
It was obvious he was riding an endorphin high as he sat nonchalantly on the floor.
"Dandy." The mining chief said caustically again. "If I was marking the books on heroism, your better half here would get an 'F.'" He ascertained most certainly. "Still, it was probably less painful than taking the mick."
"That right?" Carter fired back with triple the vitriol. "Well, I think you're dozy. I also think I should have let that contraption hoover you. Smartass."
Angelina realized her surroundings as she stood up. "Secret tunnel?" She joked but later realized she was not far from the truth.
"Another one." Geist nodded, accepting the medicating poultice offered by Nguyen. He placed it under is left eye like a steak. "These doors look newer. Maybe we'll find another lift that will carry us straight to the surface this time."
Almost as an eyewitness to hope, was he.
"Bravo." Carter applauded. "And when the hatch opens, we'll all have our insides sucked out and die horribly. Let us not forget--there's no longer a base up there.
"This is top of the line, though." He remarked, admiring the more modern features that surrounded this ingress. "It takes a commlock." He discerned, rapping the electromagnet with his left fist. "Blossom, we might be closer to home than we think."
"Maybe," she responded with guarded optimism while running her hand over the door lock mechanism. She felt the smoothness of the steel door and realized it was not completely closed.
"Home?" Ahn replied with raised eyebrow. "Alpha never home. Home is Vietnam on Earth. Or home is planet with place like Vietnam. Alpha a prison." She looked back up the shaft thoughtfully. "But it better place than we are now."
"Hmmm, obviously there is atmosphere beyond," Ang mumbled as she directed her light through the less than pinky width opening. Just for fun, she tried her commlock but there was no response.
"Ok, muscles," Angelina patted Alan on the bicep affectionately, "open it up and let's see if we find the Holy Grail or something."
An easy passage back to the base would be worth its weight in gold.
Commander Koenig sat back and glanced at the faces around the table as Michelle Cranston finished the presentation of the rescue operation.
"This is very good, Dr. Cranston, and a feasible plan." Koenig glanced down at his 'Astrophysics European Composium, 1995' souvenir pen. Ironically, there was a plethora of presentations that year regarding the value of mining Mars and Io, which had little to do with Astrophysics. "But how are we going to alert the mining party about the charges we will be dropping on their heads?"
Carter flexed his pectorals, his wedged palms gripping both halves of the sealtite. He was prepared to pit human braun against unbreakable engineering.
Then Geist aimed his commlock at the panel. The doors slid open and the light came on.
Still holding his arms in a disposition of brutality, the pilot turned slowly--looking for all the world like a dancer at the Moscow Chamber Ballet--and dogeyed the mining chief.
"Why didn't you do that to begin with?" He asked.
The Mining Chief, strength waning due to sudden loss of endorphin and the reality of agony hitting him like lightening, gasped and moaned as he let his good arm holding the commlock drop to the floor. His face twisted in extreme pain as he cradled his injured arm.
"Go fuck yourself, mate," he spat followed by a string of curses directed at his injured appendage.
Nguyen tried her commlock. No luck. Carter tried his commlock. The door stayed open. Angelina tried Geist's commlock and the doors closed.
"What?!?" Ang shook her head as Harness Bull Thatcher shimmied down the rope and landed on the floor. "Open that door," she pointed to his commlock then the door.
He pointed and it opened.
Ang gave Carter an incredulous 'what the??' look, rubbing her chin.
"Gary and Phil are from the Terra universe and so are their commlocks," Ang began to postulate. "The electrons of the metals creating electromagnet field may be slightly out of phase. Up on the base, background EM fields are negated as much as possible but down here, with the proliferation of ionic metals, it may be enough to affect the transmission frequency of their commlocks."
"Just a guess," she shrugged.
"That's nice to know." Koenig unzipped emotionally. "An unused ROW silo in the Greater Black Lake. While convenient, that will do nothing to help remove the fifty thousand tons of cement and supplemental metals that are on top of it.
"Assuming that they made it to that area--and we have no idea of knowing whether they have or not, I don't think RDX is the answer."
"Then what is?" Ben Dover inquired naively.
"A nuke.'" Paul Morrow educated him.
"No, no," Bergman shook his head vehemently. "That will do nothing but blast a radioactive hole creating a deeper crater; and there is no way to control the depth."
"That would sentence them all to death," Russell joined in negating the suggestion.
"No, that's not an option either." Koenig joined the rebuttal. "This close to Alpha, the idea of a conventional blast is bad enough. The Baal detonation has destabilized the floor of the crater. We may as well be floating on sheet ice. If we charge in there with even a suitcase nuke,' that might just be enough to open a fissure that would chug everything.
"Ah, no," Bergman scratched his sideburn, "such a blast still is difficult to control. One also has to consider the possibility of the lunar surface collapsing on top of them rather than blasting away. Again, it is a question of controlling the blast and nuclear devices are not very well tamed a'toll."
"Commander, I make no claims to proficiency." Colonel Petrov said modestly--even though he was the closest equivalent to a pyrotechnics specialist that the base had. "However, it is possible to deliver the charge in an 'impressible' location."
"How so?" Morrow disputed. "The sensitive areas would be beneath the Greater Black Lake. In an area that none of our cargo Eagles could reach."
"This is true." The colonel acceded. "The package could not be deployed in that way. Likewise, the use of a missile launcher would be ill-advised. The impact would be invariably out-of-control and disastrous for everything beyond the settlement line."
"What do you mean?" Helena Russell inquested.
"What he means...." Koenig explained, rising from his seat and moving to stand beside Victor Bergman. "Is that the charges will require a manual distribution. Someone's going to have to go in there and release them by hand."
Dr. Russell already knew the "someone" Koenig had in mind. "John, isn't there another way?" she asked softly then sighed. However, except for Bergman, no one else understood that the volunteer had been chosen.
"That's absurd." Morrow contended selfishly, with spittle. "We can hardly expect someone to offer the hard yards on a duty like that."
"No, and even if someone did...." Sandra Benes perused moodily. "To what end, commander? There's no way we could ever bore through a mile of solid rock. The underground system would collapse. The geology team would be killed."
"She's right, John." Bergman relinquished. "It's no bog standard. No matter how we slice it, Carter and the others are too far down for this scenario."
"Maybe not," Michelle Cranston piped up from behind Ang's laptop. "I just got an IM from Kate Bullen. The medical monitor signals we are picking up have been calculated to be approximately 2 1/2 kilometers below the surface, in the same Black Lake crater area. The party was originally almost 5 kilometers down. I can't explain it but somehow they have made their way up."
Koenig was in the water, all hot. He was about to consider the possibility that they could not see the thunder and lightning, that the situation was irredeemable.
Benjamin Ouma's crashing of the command conference did not help.
Koenig glanced at the printout that he was handed with heightened iconoclasm.
"Whatever we do, we'd better do it fast." He told the others, and showed the data to Bergman. "How far?"
"Sixty thousand nautical miles." The mainframe specialist replied. "And closing. At its present velocity, it will be in periapsis in less than an hour."
"The alien ship." Bergman deduced from the look on Koenig's face.
"Yeah." The commander responded quietly. "Only this time, it's heading straight for Alpha."
On the thirteenth level, the elevator came to a stop. Alan Carter loved the departure, but he hated the math.
"I take it this isn't the fishmonger's?" Harness Bull Thatcher quipped as he joined the others in aiming his maglite into the underworld. "And what shall it be this time? Might we have gas? Flame for our buns? Ice for our--fill in the blank? Perchance another avalanche and this chamber will be our tomb? The eyes glaze once, and that is our death.
"If I survive, my intent will be to light a candle to you, Emily Dickinson--laureates of the Americas."
"Think positively." Ed Malcom, the self-esteem guru of the former Earth moon advised while stuffing and packing and pigging his face with decades-old resin cakes, courtesy of the stiffs below.
"Quiet, bouf head." The bull bullied him.
"We're further along than we were before." Carter told them all as he wiped away the grime with the cup of his palm. "Take it one step at a time, and she'll be right."
"That's an intriguing statement." Geist admitted. "Especially since it's coming from someone who is accustomed to failure."
"Gentlemen, we need comity." Specialist Harmon scolded them tiredly.
"Rose Blossom, how many clicks do you figure we gained by taking that extra ride in the lift?" The astronaut asked Ang.' He was uncertain it was beginning to show.
"Well," she slumped wearily against the wall while running the calculations through her overtired brain, "We went down about half a kilometer to catch this elevator. We certainly regained that and at least another 1000-1500 meters or another 1 to 1 1/2 kilometers."
"Best guess is about 1 to 1.5 kilometers below the surface." She concluded as Thatcher pointed his commlock toward the door. Before she could object, it slid open and they were in yet another dark corridor. This time, though, the walls and floor were composed of lunar rock and regolith rather than crude concrete and steel.
Ahn Nguyen curiously examined the rock of the wall with her maglite.
"Yes, ma'am," she nodded. "That very good guess. This rock and composition of regolith consistent with depth of 1 to 2 kilometers below surface."
With bile in her throat and a pounding headache to match the ache in her side, Angelina merely nodded and suggested, "I think this team needs a rest before we move on...wherever we intend to go, that is." She made a slight motion down the dark corridor.
The rest of the group filed out of the elevator and didn't argue, dropping to the ground. Most either closed their eyes leaning against the rocks or buried heads in fatigued and grimy hands.
"Commander!" Sandra Benes bounded up the steps in Main Mission toward Koenig's desk. Koenig, Russell and Bergman looked up. "We are picking up data from the excavation parties' medical wrist monitors.
"Let's see them!" Dr. Russell threw down her statistic sheet excitedly.
Koenig offered his desk and Sandra typed a series of commands. On Koenig's monitors, quarter screen images of graphical representation of life signs refreshed with different individuals at 5 second intervals.
"Twenty two signals, sir," Benes nodded.
"There were twenty eight people down there," Russell sighed morbidly then turned her attention to the living.
"None of them are in the best of shape," she scanned the graphs. "Especially Andrea Matthew. She is barely alive." She paused. "All of them are suffering from fatigue and various degrees of dehydration."
"HOW STRONG IS THE BANDWIDTH?" Koenig resolved as he looped radically over the desk for a closer look at the monitors. "CAN WE FIX THEIR POSITION?"
"Main Mission to Launch Pad One." Paul Morrow continued seasonally at his workstation. "Close panel eight."
"Roger." Pierre Danielle replied over the link. "Panel eight closed."
"Command module RCS heaters to 'open.'" Morrow continued. "Auto A/C roll to 'off.'"
"A-1." Danielle confirmed. The system, he meant, and not his state of mind.
"Cargo Eagle Four will lift off in T-minus fifteen minutes." Umberto Garzon determined.
Morrow gazed at him uncompanionably.
"They're in the AA Region." Sandra Benes said guardedly. "We're receiving a one kilometer pixel."
"SPECIFY." Koenig dug deeper. Victor Bergman straightened his back, and looked sidewise at Helena Russell. Ben Dover cracked his knuckles compulsively and joined the others in silent vigil.
"They're not far." The data analyst said vaguely, but hopefully. "They're so close to the ROW silo, I can't believe we're not picking up feedback from their commlocks."
"NEITHER CAN I." Koenig contended as he headed back to the Trench. "OUMA, RUN A DIAGNOSTIC ON ALL INTER-BASE COMMUNICATIONS."
"We tried that earlier." The mainframe specialist protested.
"WELL, DO IT AGAIN AND CUSTOMIZE THE SWEEP TO INCLUDE SATELLITE TRANSPONDER ACTIVITY AND ALL BELOW GROUND AUDIO AND VISUAL.
"PAUL, HOLD THE COUNTDOWN."
"Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.'" Harness Bull Thatcher said appreciably. "It's still not working, but it's better than a paperweight."
No one else did, but Ahn Nguyen thought he was funny.
He showed Ang' the micromonitor on his commlock which was now transmitting a clear, RGB moonbase test pattern.
Angelina sat up Indian style from her reclined position, with Carter's thigh as her pillow. She stared blearily at Thatcher's commlock and took it. When she pressed the transmit button, the screen became static and snow, then returned to the test pattern when she released it.
The Chief of Technical Operations took the result of this action into consideration then acted upon an idea.
Press and hold for a second, press and hold for a second, press and hold for a second was followed by three short taps of the transmit button. She repeated the sequence of three longs and three shorts. She stopped, hoping for answer, then began the sequence again.
"Its the only Morse I know," she shrugged. "I'll let you know if, uh, when they answer."
"Sir!" Sandra Benes blurted in excitement. "I'm getting some sort of signal from Gary Thatcher's commlock!"
Koenig was instantly behind the data analyst, staring into the monitor of intermittent snow and static filled screen breaking the image of the Main Mission Wallpaper.
"Morse code," Sandra analyzed expertly, following the sequence of interrupted video frames. "SOS." She interpreted. "The old naval call for help."
"What is it saying?" Helena Russell was abashed.
"It's been a while...." Koenig trailed farcically to Victor Bergman.
"You were at Annapolis." The astrophysicist suggested. "Carter did a term at Eastman's."
"Sure, but it wasn't my forte.' That's why I turned to the hard sciences." The commander revealed as he reached for the keyboard.
"You cut me with words as hard as steel." Bergman replied with grume.
"Dot-dot." Harness Bull Thatcher watched the flashing, bergamot light on his commlock, which Ang' was holding. "Dash-dash-"
"Dot-dot." Carter finished for him. "That's a 'query.' Sun Flower, someone caught your last message."
"TELL THEM I CAN'T BREATH." Ed Malcom scrounged and supplicated himself. "TELL THEM, I'M DYING. PLEASE GOD, HELP ME."
"Sit your arse down, you black-hearted bludger." Harness Bull Thatcher said, deeply scorned by the technician's lack of courage, self-respect and effective mouth wash.
"Right." Boots gritting through the subterranean lake bed, Carter moved in closer over Angelina's right shoulder. "Peck back at them. Send dot-dash-dot-dot. Dot-dot. Dot-dot-dash-dot. Dash. Dot-dash. Dot-dash."
"What kind of nonsense is that?" Geist blurted with chicane. His injuries were turning green and he hated life.
"If it works, I'll tell you." The astronaut promised.
Angelina was already tapping the dots and dashes per Carter's instructions. In the background, she saw Ahn Nguyen grasp Phil Giest's shattered arm while Tim O'Connor clamped him around the chest to keep him still.
She pulled quickly.
Geist screamed and cursed violently.
"A freight car in the Greater Black Sea." Sandra Benes interpreted the return message. "A shaft."
"John, they're in or near that waste disposal installation." Bergman knew. "To get to them, we'll have to blow the cap right off of it. No two ways about it, and if we're not careful, we'll puncture the biosphere and the entire party will be blown out into space."
"And if we're really fortunate, we'll do even more structural damage to the base than we've already sustained." Paul Morrow cut in, pausing from the action of his checklist.
"There is a way to keep them safe while we blast as well as minimize risk to the base," a voice spoke up from the balcony. The elder scientist, a German chemist by the name of Dr. Hermann Schneider, carefully climbed down the stairs and approached Koenig and Bergman.
"Go on, Hermann," Bergman took the cup of Vitaseed offered by Operative Pamela and turned pensively toward Schneider.
"During WWT, Germany was not exactly, er, completely loyal to the A block," Schneider began quietly.
"Fucking krauts," Lars Manroot spat with fury, standing and ready to bound over his desk.
"SIT DOWN!" Koenig reprimanded. He had heard the rumors; they all had heard the rumors and hundreds of thousands had lost their lives to double agent treachery. Manroot's entire family had been among the casualties. "And?" Koenig pressed.
"We helped the Tri-continent build a base on this moon, a secret base that very few people and only the very top leaders knew about." Schneider went on, genuinely remorseful about the past. "As I recall, there is a room that is sealed, which would protect them in the event of a blast...a fall out shelter."
"WE CAN'T TRUST THAT." Morrow burned beneath his gooseneck lamp.
"WE CAN'T AFFORD NOT TO TRUST IT, WE'RE OUT OF TIME." Koenig resented him back. "Ouma, how long until the alien ship arrives in lunar orbit?"
"Thirty minutes." The mainframe specialist estimated.
"They'll reach Alpha long before we've had a chance to liberate the mining team." Bergman said reliably.
"And then?" Morrow insisted on knowing.
Koenig ignored him.
"Recycle the countdown to T-minus twenty minutes." He said. "Paul, relinquish your post. Let Astrin handle the launch. I need you with me on the cargo Eagle to handle the RDX. I'll let Carter know about the existence of the blast shelter.
"ALERT CONDITION YELLOW." The commander went on with great unpopularity.
"You'll need a Medical team," Helena Russell stepped up to the task. "Once you blast your way in, we'll save time if there is an Eagle, us, already in the vicinity."
"Right," Koenig agreed. "You can bring along two people. Otherwise, we'll put a separate Medical Eagle on the Pad for lift off after we have blown the charges."
Dr. Russell nodded then turn on her boot heels and walked quickly out of Main Mission.
"Victor...." Koenig drug--almost literally, physically seized the professor and pulled him to one side. "You're in command. If I don't make it back.... You know what you have to do. Make every attempt to communicate with that ship. Who knows? You may be pleasantly surprised. It may end in a one way ticket out of here, and that's not bad."
"It will be alright, John," Bergman assured paternally. "I believe if they were hostile, the aliens would have shown their true intentions by now and already made a strike. Beyond that, I'm not sure what their intentions are but we will continue to establish friendly contact."
"In the event they're unkind...." The commander acknowledged genuinely. "Defend the base."
"Of course," Bergman nodded sternly. He was not a military man. However, he was also seasoned enough to know that those with bad intent were rarely, if ever, swayed from doing evil. "We'll be fine."
"A fall out shelter?" Angelina repeated Carter's words as he interpreted the message.
"You don't suppose that fall out shelter was what we left, you know, with the stiffs?" Jed Harmon asked with accentuated depression.
"I doubt it," Ang shook her head. "Those people died almost instantly." She remembered the way the bodies were sprawled. "They all did seem to be heading toward the elevator, though."
"Where could it be, then?" Tim O'Connor asked, peering down the dark seemingly dead end corridor with his maglight.
"How about there?" Phil Geist, completely horizontal on the ground and in a feverish sweat, pointed weakly up at the roof of the tunnel with his good arm.
Three meters above him, a dark, round hatch which resembled something that might be found on a submarine was marked with the old black and yellow geometric shaped fall out shelter symbol from the cold war era of the 1950's.
"...logic number two on." Umberto Garzon led them to the end of the clock. "And locked."
Controller Zed Astrin--high blood pressure all a blossom--dropped his red flimsy on the desk and reached for his cold coffee. It was a cold, cold day.
"TOWER CLEAR." Astronaut Pierre Danielle called over the shake, rattle and roll as Cargo Eagle Four lifted off from Launch Pad One, leaving the turntable lights in a fog of . In the CDR's couch, John Koenig sat in his hard suit, monitoring the health of the service propulsion quad, which neared firing.
"Sixty-six hundred alarm off." He verified.
Beneath the frozen wastes of the Greater Black Sea, the mining team hurried into the concrete hindgut of an enemy blast shelter. Geist was the last, and insisted on pulling the hatch closed with the only arm he had left that was not suitable for bionic replacement.
The valve closed slowly.
The metal, tauten.
Larger than Anguis, the alien spacecraft's oval-form bough gradually disappeared into the spectral, shadowy overtop on the far side of the Moon. Inertia propelled it across the plaster-like, northern bed of Crater Messala-A. Darkness depleted its superstructure as extraterrestrial energies repelled posterity. The foreordained engine baffles were the last to vanish in the marsh of dead dreams as it moved closer to the frontier.
The bedimmed lights of Moonbase Alpha.
"I can't breath...." A hoarse, bargaining Ed Malcom surrendered more of the precious flow from his nostrils, and his big, obnoxious, damn mouth. His palms were pressed against Nguyen's ears, as if to sandwich them.
"Good, I hope you die then." Carter replied--sweating, but not suffocating. He was sitting in one corner of the Deutschlander bomb shelter. The interior was formed from treated, oak 2' X 4's that were surrounded by a concrete buffer. The buffer was, in turn, reinforced by a twelve inch fender of crust, backstopped by a 5000 gallon volume of water. The remainder of the pillbox was encased in a shock absorbing sheath of Wolframite, which the astronaut associated with steel and turgid horror movies.
"How much longer do you think we have?" Harness Bull Thatcher inquired. The falchion walls made him feel like a cadaver on a slab. "Before everything goes 'pop.'"
"Not long." Carter told him, and checked his commlock again.
"I'm so glad." Phil Giest allowed. His skin was blue, and livid with shock. His eyes were bloodshot roadmaps. Foam slobbered from his mouth and down Ed Malcom's back. "Then too, one cannot help but wonder if they're jerking us around."
"What the devil are you talking about?" Carter rubbed his own aching, riled temples.
"Maybe that planet was suitable for colonization." The dislocated mining chief suggested. "They're evacuating the base, and leaving us to rot in this hole."
He extended a reasonable, liverish palm.
"Why would they do that?" Specialist Harmon remarked with exhausted, disapproving innuendo.
"Because...." Geist said. "They want to be done with us...with our begging and importuning. Why don't we drop dead like good, little chaps."
"Aren't you supposed to be in a coma or something?" Carter professed. "Your pain is great. You ought to go ahead and pass out. We'll handle things from here."
Ahn Nguyen pushed Ed Malcom aside with disgust. "Take hands off me," her face twisted with a grossed out expression. "You coward. Why you not prepare to die like a man?"
Malcom was near the verge of wimpy tears.
"Maybe Geist is right," Thatcher spoke in a low and threatening voice for the express purpose of rattling Malcom's cage. "Maybe they did leave us in here to die. To rot. Each breath getting heavier and our heads getting lighter. To rot. Perhaps madness will claim us first. I can already feel the air getting heavy with expelled carbon dioxide gas."
"Yes...." Geist gulped. Even as he prepared himself for the charnel pit--the hellacious farm of living his life out with one paw, he still had it in him to fuck with Ed Malcom. "As do I. The partial pressure is all over me. Like a dog. I remember reading somewhere that the term of asphyxia is directly related to how many Pop Tarts you shove down your throat. If your waistline is fifty inches, you live fifty minutes--etcetera and so forth."
His eyebrows were raised viaducts.
"That's fat." Harness Bull Thatcher replied with admiration. "The research, I mean."
Angelina shook her head and instead marveled at Andrea Matthew. The woman was beyond ashen in color yet she still had some strength. The Technical Chief felt the last of the woman's strength as Ang held Matthew's vein and muscle laden hand. Andrea spent her free time in the gym, lifting weights and sculpting her body into a form with merely 15% body fat. Angelina watched as the woman breathed with effort, her six pack abs clearly defined under her tunic, laboring to keep her diaphragm moving.
The woman's superior physical condition was probably the reason she was still alive. Still, the woman's life span could safely be measured in minutes not, rather than hours.
"If they don't come for us soon," Angelina whispered to Alan. "She'll die."
Ouma waited for the electronic strum and operandi to cease. His panel returned to normal, except for the breach of paper that dangled from the printer like a bill come due. The thought passed through his mind that he really did not want to look at the revised ETA that he had just put through the calculator.
"Professor, I have that update you requested." He said anyway, off the cuff. "The alien ship's forward momentum has increased. It will pass directly over the Main Mission tower in just under fifteen minutes."
Bergman perused the data with a poker face. "Sandra, any response to our attempts to communicate?" The professor asked, turning with paper unfurled in his hands toward the woman.
"None, professor." The data analyst answered solemnly from her station. The shadow of the gooseneck lamp darkened the upper part of her face while the light shone directly from her mouth down. I have tried every frequency and the Berenecean translator at every conceivable amplitude. There is still no response."
Bergman glanced at Petrov, who was leaning against the window sill, staring intently at the ship which was just visible with the digital binoculars. He gave Bergman a noncommittal look.
"Astrin, Yellow alert." Bergman nodded.
"Eagle Three, panel forward. Digital high gain select." Controller Zed Astrin told Pilot Penderecki.
"Copy." The strike leader replied over the intercom, though 'strike out leader' would probably be a more accurate description of the duty that had befallen him. "Delta initiated."
"All ships are ready for launch." Umberto Garzon said irrevocably. "If they lift-off now we can meet them half-way."
The seconds seemed like hours as everyone in Main Mission was frozen and completely focused on Bergman. Kate Bullen had the urge to sneeze but she held back, not wanting to break the silence. The professor had joined Petrov who handed him the binoculars. Bergman stared at the distant ship then answered.
"But sir!" Garzon objected. "We will have a greater advantage and there will be less damage to the base in the event of a confrontation if we go now. We must launch!"
"If we launch now we will surely have a confrontation. The condition of 'in the event of' will no longer exist. We still have time." Bergman returned to watching the ship.
Petrov didn't like hearing that.
Helena Russell helped Commander Koenig secure his chest pack and connected his oxygen supply to his suit while Paul Morrow assisted with the harness.
"Get in and get out, John," Russell said what didn't really need to be said.
Koenig was testing his harness when Paul Morrow--an extremely, indefatigably cautious Paul Morrow--emerged from the rear of the equipment bay carrying a polymer utility case in both hands. The lid of the package bore the diamond-shaped, orange warning label marked DANGER while the left side was highlighted with the Hazmat tag for INFECTIOUS SUBSTANCE. Laboratory rats were coaxed into spending time with nitramine products. It made an excellent rodenticide. Also, beyond its ability to tone the enemy populace, it was wonderful when used for heating fuel for food rations.
And for fireworks, of course.
"Here it is." Morrow said, unsatisfied by this outcome. "Ten thousand g/cc's of Research Development Explosive. As prescribed."
The commander looked on the package respectfully as Specialist Warwick lowered the orange helmut onto the neck dam of his suit.
"It's an extra large molecule." An undeliberate Ben Dover told Koenig. "This is the timer." He said, holding up the figure eight remote. "The bundle is not armed. Punch the red switch and you've got two minutes to get out of there.
"It's phantom powered." He revealed and clipped the transmitter to the shoulder Velcro on Koenig's suit.
"The resulting wall cloud will incinerate everything within five hundred meters of the blast." Morrow elaborated. "No second chances."
"I intend not to need any second chances," he revealed truthfully, " and get it right the first time."
"Commander, we'll be over the Greater Black Lake in one minute." Pierre Danielle told them over the intercom.
"Close out the AEB." Koenig replied. "Decompression procedure."
He lowered his visor, and took the case from Morrow.
"The ship has stopped," Ouma swiveled himself in his chair. "It is 100 kilometers from Moonbase Alpha." He sighed in frustration. "I don't get it. Why don't they just attack us, if that is their intention."
"Perhaps that is not their intention," Bergman stated with unnerving calmness.
"It is as if they are just coming for a closer look," Sandra volunteered. "You know, just to observe."
"Why would they do that?" Astrin challenged with doubt.
"Why not?" Bergman responded, again from behind the binoculars.
The cargo Eagle had no passenger module. Only a molded crane mount that was situated beneath the keel, amidship.
The outer hatch opened and John Koenig stepped slowly into the starlight, grasping one of the EVA handles for support. Inside his helmut, he could hear the return of the Pliss jetpack he was wearing. Spacewalks were like jumping into a pool of Novocaine. In spite of the alien behemoth, which was clearly visible beyond the dead rise of the service module, a certain counterfeit serenity obtruded upon him. This is not to say that the vessel did not look notorious even at this distance, nor was it any less considerable to see it stopped dead over the black and white stripes that ran perpendicular to Plato's floor.
In the lightlessness below, the summit of the ROW silo was a rusted annulet that awaited a footprint.
Koenig moved awkwardly in his hard suit and reached for the safety belt that was attached to the drive train.
"I'm on the falls...." He announced over the demodulator in the command module.
"Understood, commander." Pierre Danielle relayed back while reaching for the miniature lever that controlled the boom. "Stand by for lowering."
Beside him, in the LMP's couch, Paul Morrow was more gladsome than his big ego would allow him to admit. Standing upright at the rear of the cabin, Helena Russell, Ben Dover and Specialist Warwick were spellbound.
The line moved downward in a lazy, laggardly lentissimo.
In the rump of the fallout shelter, Ed Malcom crossed his fingers. He had no idea as to why.
Phil Geist took it as a sign that he was spasmodic.
Ahn Nguyen sat quietly with eyes closed and mouth moving in silent prayer. Her supplication was noticed by Angelina, leaning against Alan Carter and still holding Andrea Matthew's hand. Matthew's hand was limp, since the woman had lapsed into a coma but Ang still held onto it anyway.
Somehow, she thought that by holding on to her, she would hold onto her life a bit more.
Jed Harmon sat with weary head dropped between knees. Now would probably be a good time to dust off the cobwebs of his memory from grade school Sunday school class at the Triple Rock Baptist Church in Henderson, Georgia and mentally recite a prayer or two.
It couldn't hurt.
"THE CABLE HAS JAMMED." Koenig described over the Eagle's loudspeakers with impatient tension.
Paul Morrow looked unamazed as he favored Russell, Dover and Warwick with snide accusation.
"Say again commander?" Pierre Danielle called, cranking up the volume needlessly.
He heard him the first time, but he would not--could not--believe the instant bad kharma they were enjoying.
"I SAID THE CABLE HAS JAMMED." Koenig repeated himself. "I'M STOPPED HALF WAY BETWEEN THE STORAGE FACILITY AND THE EAGLE. I'VE TRIED RECYCLING THE SYSTEM. IT IS NOT MOVING. I'M JUST HANGING HERE IN SPACE."
In Main Mission, a breaking point Zed Astrin emitted a groan that was underscored by extreme hassle.
Umberto Garzon slapped his workstation hard with the stack of bogus equipment checkouts that he was holding.
Bergman slowly lowered the binoculars, meeting Astrin's gaze.
The composite ramparts of Moonbase Alpha was vulnerable amidst the titan stars, and the alien discus was there to prove it.
John Koenig bandied hurriedly with the rebellious slidewire--in outer space, this was akin to line dancing underwater. It wasn't happening, and his time was effete.
"What's it all about?" Carter said--angrily beaming at the hotel brand New Testament that Specialist Harmon was quietly supplicated to.
"I can tell you what I'm not doing." The technician replied. "I'm not wondering about things in the future tense."
He hoped that his attitude would not demoralize Nguyen and Ang.'
"I TOLD YOU, WE'LL MAKE IT OUT." Carter ingeminated defiantly.
"I DON'T WANT TO DIE!!!!" Ed Malcom cried out miserably. "OH GOD!!! OH GOD!!! OH GOD!!!! HELP ME!!!!"
"SHUT THE FUCK UP, LARDASS!!" Harness Bull Thatcher answered in response followed by a forcible shove to the floor. On the way down, Malcolm's melon head hit squarely into an structural support beam, opening up a gash in his head.
"YOU'VE MORTALLY INJURED ME, YOU SONAFABITCH!" Malcom screamed, jumping to his feet with fury and blood smeared teeth. He charged Thatcher, who deftly made a defensive move causing Deadhead Ed to trip. Ang saw it coming as Malcom began to go airborne, and she threw herself over Andrea Matthew as a human shield.
Or rather, a human cushion, as Malcom landed hard on top of Angelina's back. A wince and gasp of pain escaped her lips before she violently elbowed Malcom in the ribs, as the whale rolled off, wailing in misery.
"We're killing ourselves...." Specialist Harmon realized as he turned away from his contemplation of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. "It won't be the quake and it won't be oxygen deprivation."
The everlasting truth of it all--their human flaws had consecrated the Moon breaking free from Earth's orbit. If their situation did not improve, they would inevitably flaw their way to a blunt grave.
"We have seen the enemy." Carter recalled his Walt Kelly readings. "And he is us. That's a clever one."
He clocked Ed Malcom anyway.
"WE'RE GOING TO TRY ROUTING YOU TO ANOTHER BUS." Paul Morrow transmitted the message from the command module of the cargo Eagle. Holding the miniature maglite in his mouth, the controller grabbed the panic handles and pulled the shielding away from one of the sloping, starboard modules that were labeled SYS.
"We could always set him down on the roof of the silo." Specialist Warwick figured.
"THAT WOULD AVAIL US NOTHING." Morrow argued as he skimmed the rocker paddles with frenzied fingers. "HE HAS TO ENTER THE TANK AND RELEASE THE CHARGE FROM THERE."
"Enter the tank?!?!" Helena Russell repeated with sheer disbelief. She didn't recall that piece of information being shared with her. The doctor blinked with a neutral expression, staring at the image of Koenig dangling on the line.
"What if you were to lower him in then raise him out of the tank?" She suggested to Pierre Danielle.
Ed Malcom sobbed, cowering in the corner, but no one paid attention. The shiner and swollen right eye was a testament to Alan Carter's formidable reputation with the left hook.
Angelina felt horrible with pounding head and painful side. Whatever the poorest performing technician in her group did when he landed on her made the ache worse in intensity. She had no sympathy for Malcom. His whining was irritating her. Her humanity and patience were waning. For a split second, she fancied herself rising from the floor and floating toward Malcom. Dressed in a flowing white gown, she would gently take his face with the caring touch of Florence Nightinggale herself into her hands. She would look tenderly at him and her words would soothe him.
"There, there," she would whisper softly with compassion. "It will be alright, Edward. You will see."
Then.....her eyes, iris and whites would turn black as Malcom would scream in terror. She would grasp his nose and with the ease of turning a well oiled door handle, she'd twist his head off his neck.
Ang closed her eyes to clear her head as Harmon rechecked the seal to the hatch.
"We'll be out soon," she spoke after clearing her voice in false confidence, attempting to assure herself as much as everyone else. "It won't be long now."
Not long, but maybe not ever.
"...we must be exacting...." Professor Victor Bergman said placidly, irritatingly--rubbing his palms together in a mantra of even cool over Astrin's shoulder in Main Mission.
"...there is a sweet spot of sorts...." He pushed them again over the cargo Eagle's relay. "It's about incident intensity...pulse width...."
He was making Pierre Danielle nervous, and all he had to do was maintain his holding pattern. Sweating and feeling as though a pair of pliers were being applied to his nostrils, Morrow ignored Bergman and continued narrowing down the choices beyond the sandwiched aluminum insulation.
"THAT'S IT." He declared angrily--eyes wide over the honeycomb sheathing.
John Koenig was moving again. The cable descended with such rapidity, he feared that the line had been broken. Then, just as briefly, he felt his boots make contact with the mound of grit that capped the silo. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for foolhardiness, and brain damage. The utility case containing the demolition grenade was welded to his glove like a birth defect.
"I'M DOWN." He told Morrow as slack began to twine over the roof of the facility. "STOP THE CRANE."
"Copy that." Pierre Danielle replied, and pushed the control lever into the upward position again.
Stepping towards the approximate location of the marine hatch, he commenced the slow process of shoveling away the debris with the heel of his boot. The crank was buried so deep, he ultimately had to set aside the charges, and move the remainder of the substrate away while on his hands and knees.
"I'VE LOCATED THE ENTRANCE TO THE CATWALK." The commander informed them. "AS SOON AS SOON AS I'M INSIDE, I'LL CONTINUE TO THE FINAL LEVEL AND DELIVER THE PACKAGE."
"PROFESSOR." Benjamin Ouma rushed to Level-B where Bergman stood waiting, and handed him the latest, unfair, impossible printout. "COMPRESSION WAVE, ROLLING SURFACE."
"The area is the due north of the Mare Imbrium. Vicinity, Plato." Sandra Benes supported his data and clicked her keyboard mouse to expand the flow visualization on her monitor.
"ETA?" Bergman bounded toward Sandra as fast as his senior citizen bones could carry him, which, for a man of his age, rivaled any 20 something.
"Paul," Bergman's remarkably calm image appeared on the pilot monitor. "There is a compression wave heading in your general direction. Magnitude 5.0-5.8. The commander has less than 7 minutes."
Morrow glanced at Russell with inconvenienced dread.
"JOHN!" the physician pulled her commlock from her belt. "You have less than 5 minutes," she purposely shortened the time, figuring he would exceed it by a minute but no more than 2. "There is a lunar quake headed straight toward us."
By fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) coincidence, Ahn Nguyen noticed a rippled in the beam of the maglite. The ripple was caused by movement of fine particles. Jed Harmon glanced at her the instant her jaw dropped.
As an experienced geologist who was more than familiar with the fickle moods of the body of his mistress, Luna, he knew what was coming.
"Oh. No." Ahn shook her head in denial. "Not now. No. Now is not good time."
No truer words were ever writ or spoke.
"YOU GOT THAT STRAIGHT." Phil Geist jerked forward, ignoring the pain that broadcasted to him from the smashed tendons in his arm. "IT'S AN ESPECIALLY BAD TIME, CONSIDERING THAT THE DOOR IS STILL OPEN."
Carter turned away from Ang,' and Harmon's devotions and saw with wide-eyed, breath squelching panoply that what the geologist said was accurate. The buckler was closed but the crank lacked that extra bit of UMMMMMMMMPHHHHHH' that would make the shelter airtight.
"WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?" Ed Malcom blubbered.
"OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,' WE GOT TO FIX THOSE BOLLOCKS." Harness Bull Thatcher grabbed for his life, joining Carter and Geist who was ready, willing and able to trade the last of his strength for a greater reprieve.
"IT'S STUCK LIKE GLUE." Carter vociferated as his face turned a perilous red.
Hands--those of an astronaut, a miner and a security guard--all united and grasping the metallic grip in the attempt to cheat the double crossing, cozening, big empty death of space.
The alien vessel was moving again.
High over John Koenig's bouncing, buffeting helmut, its foam hull closed over the red and gray scud of the Baal debris field like a curtain. It was a masterpiece of cultivation, not engineering. Carbon and kevlar fibers confederated with incredible superscience in a resinous mix. Even at a distance, it was obvious how the resulting cavities could allow for various chambers, crew quarters, and magazines which might or might not flame Moonbase Alpha with romantic, murderous ordinances.
The shockwave first stroked the Pico Heights. The high vibe grower harsher and more virulent by the second until an exploding gush of rock and ignition dust collapsed onto the surface. It was some kind of decapitation, minus the blood that only humans could provide.
Within the ROW silo, a cumbersome John Koenig watched as a squall of slag--most of it weighing more than he did--poured through the maintenance opening to blitzkrieg the rescue attempt. By now, the demolition package was hanging about his neck, for reasons of convenience and security.
He wasn't sure if he liked the idea or not.
"TWENTY METERS." He measured his progress and could swear that the clamor of rocks was increasing in volume.
The quake reached the moonbase network and the entire complex did the Cha-Cha-Cha.
Bob Mathias took a nap on the hard linoleum, when all he really wanted to do was make it from one end of the pathology lab to the other.
Here is Eagle mechanic Yul Ostrog. Watch him as he flies like a bird, a plane against the nearest commstation in the VAB's plasma research unit. His evening shower, but with scorching, depolarizing currents of DC power.
Main Mission. The MPSR Room. Specialist Tanaka was monitoring sensitive satellite, flight control software. Then he was doing the herky-jerky--propelled back into the auditorium to land against Pete Garforth's workstation where the light was uneven and strobing like an eidolon of bad sleep.
It took everything that Controller Zed Astrin had to keep standing up.
In the reception area of the Technical hub, Caroline Kennedy watched with dismay and irritation as her coffee capsized on her newly typed and printed status report.
"Oh for God's sake," Bram Cedix, sitting in a chair on wheels, rolled backwards from Joe Erhlich, who looked up from his power report, seemingly inconvenienced.
As the shaking grew in fury, both men came to the sudden realization the quake was not trivial...and dived under two empty desks for shelter from dropping objects.
Too weak to even stand without weaving, Angelina watched the struggle of man against nature as three men pitted brute strength against a metal hatch, warped by a shifting foundation. She heard something 'pop' in Gary Thatcher's shoulder but he merely shifted his weight, as his face contorted in pain.
It was better to have a ligament 'pop' than their ears...then their lungs.
She concentrated on the locking mechanism of the hatch as the 3 men continued to strain in futility. Angelina Carter would not die in a hole on the moon, she determined. They would make it out alive and she would see her son again. She stared at the hatch calmly with a mixture of will and prayer aimed at the lock.
The latch closed with a mechanical 'click' as Geist fell over to the floor, on the precipice of the unconscious again. Thatcher fell to his knees, gripping his raw shoulder and Carter leaned against the closed hatch, red of face and drenching in sweat.
The silence in the room was eerie as Carter consulted his commlock.
The bilge of the monster ship moved like a manta ray over the extended installations of men. It's shadow plunged the vacuum-screen walls of Moonbase Alpha into a dark blue, narcotizing seazone. An enchanted dream factory on the rim. It's frame line was maroon to orange. It's revolutions brought it to a brief halt over the command tower triad where the darkened vision ports of Main Mission were illumined fitfully by the red dwarf that glowed at its core.
"IT'S RIGHT ON TOP OF US." Zed Astrin bellowed over the loud harmonics which were probably part of some physics-crunching, extraterrestrial propulsion system. Over the speakers, the network was jammed from operatives clogging the ether with estimations of damage and consequences unseen.
"IT'S TIME." Bergman joined the scatter and wow.
"JOHN, DO YOU HEAR ME?" The professor skreaked at Koenig, who had reached the end of the wayward fishing line. "RELEASE THE PACKAGE--RELEASE THE PACKAGE."
And so he did.
Somewhere in the underworld below, an agony cloud of non-radioactive flame consumed both sinkhole and silo alike.
The jetstream from Hell rode to the surface.
Specialist Warwick craned his neck up and bent backward, grasping the charred boulder for balance.
"Right," he pointed his maglight at the blackened hatch. The cooling system in his suit wasn't functioning very well and he was perspiring like a pig. "Let's try to get a seal around the hatch."
He stepped inside the tough yet flexible tube which would provide a conduit of pressurization and atmosphere to Eagle One on the surface. Warwick estimated about 10 feet of tubing left, just enough to join the area of the hatch.
Above Eagle One, the colossal alien space hung unnervingly motionless.
John Koenig re-entered Main Mission, still wearing his pressure suit. He handed off his helmut to Lars Manroot and accepted a prophetic towel from Kate Bullen.
"Anything?" He asked quietly, inclining to see the image of the extraterrestrial barge on the big screen.
"No." Bergman said sullenly, shaking Koenig's hand and tipping a nod at the confidence crushing COMSAT transmission. "It's been quiet as a church."
Through the opposite archway, Paul Morrow and Helena Russell appeared and moved to relieve their operatives, Zed Astrin and Dorothy Sullivan at their respective stations. Russell lifted a wary eyebrow at the snow-covered, Winter Wonderland circuits that monitored the geology teams' vital signs.
"It may be nothing." Sullivan speculated. "Interference from the blast."
"Computer says that two million gross tons of lunar soil was displaced in the explosion." Benjamin Ouma strained over his register tape verdict.
"The updraft should have been enough to expose the rescue shelter." Bergman told them.
"In theory." Ouma posited negatively.
"A well-wrought 'theory.'" Paul Morrow corrected, endorsing Bergman in the final hours of strife.
The corners of John Koenig's lips turned upwards in an almost grin.
The seal light turned a bright, teal color.
Specialist Jackson nodded at Warwick and turned away from the rubble.
"Commander, the hook-up is complete." He said over the static and crackle of the command tower surround speakers. "The extraction tunnel is in place."
Koenig drummed his fingers against Morrow's workstation.
Bergman looked away at the mainframe deck in a pretense of business.
"Don't move anyone who is unconscious until Dr. Mathias and the medical team get there," Russell interjected into the intercom.
In the rescue Eagle, Anne Delline, MSRN, looked up briefly from organizing the tray of gauze and tape as Jerry Parker, medical technician, dropped another bundle of blankets onto a gurney.
"I'm stowing the pins...." Warwick informed them, and grasped the metal valve. "And I'm removing the hatch."
A rhombus of chill flood light moved downwards over the superheated walls of the chamber, moving over Andrea Matthew's trembling, convulsing--but totally alive--facial features. As Warwick shone his maglite into the capsule, the grime of Angs' face grew out of the dim murk, as did Carter's and Specialist Harmon's--both men were blanketed in rust.
Harness Bull Thatcher began to cough on the new fumes.
Wracked with extreme hunger and tertiary fear, Ed Malcom had fainted dead away.
"RESCUE ONE TO MOONBASE ALPHA." Jackson relayed triumphantly. "THE INTERIOR WALLS ARE INTACT, AND WE HAVE LOCATED THE GEOLOGY TEAM."
Or rather the survivors of the expedition, but at that moment, the repercussions of addition outweighed subtraction and a weird universe seemed right.
Carter relaxed on the rocky floor--seeming to pose beside his partner in destruction--his co-master in disaster. Phil Geist grew extremely calm, regardless of the symphonic agony that was crashing cymbals and percussion instruments in his bad arm.
He accepted the astronaut's high five and winced not too badly at the pain.
"Rescue One to Alpha," Jackson called out over the loop. "The survivors have been loaded aboard. There are 22," he reported and then made a respectful pause.
Koenig glanced at Morrow then Russell and Bergman. Twenty eight original members minus twenty two survivors gave the first grade math result of six dead.
"Launch in 30 seconds. ETA to Alpha, 7 minutes," Jackson finished his report as Carter stepped into the Command module and for the first time saw the enormous alien ship.
"Yeah," Jackson continued to the Chief of Reconn, his boss, "it hasn't moved an inch since we came out here for you guys."
"Things are a crook...?" A grandstanded Carter summarized unpropitiously. "In Muswellbrook...?"
They were screwed.
"UNFORTUNATELY, I DO NOT HAVE THAT INFORMATION." Sandra Benes lashed out at Umberto Garzon, switching from tab to tab on her monitor index with stress and spleen. "THIS DATA DOES NOT MAKE SENSE."
John Koenig stood poised beside Victor Bergman. His analytical, gradually replaced with impatience and even worse, antipathy.
"We'll be fortunate if the rescue ship makes it back at a'toll.'" Paul Morrow described with vehemence.
"How do we know their intentions are hostile?" Helena Russell turned toward Koenig and Bergman.
"Nobody said they were," Bergman replied with guarded neutrality.
"If they're going to make a move...." The commander moved past Helena Russell and gripped the LD station with irate hands. "Then why the Hell don't they? What are they waiting for?"
"WE ARE NOT 'WAITING' FOR ANYTHING, COMMANDER KOENIG...." A seraphic voice came to them from beyond the solar winds.
Whatever it was, it sounded annoyed.
The underground fuel cells were annexed, the lights in Main Mission dimmed. From the upper, left hand corner of the balcony, golden sonics coalesced into an orb-like shape that scintillated and dazed in a dusk of distrust. A diagram--a celestial tarot of otherworldly creatures swirled counter clockwise on the industrial gray tile. Truman Starns stood firm, never leaving the observatory though he was only meters away from the bright, alien timber.
Conjuring his ilk, John Koenig stepped forward into the trench.
"WHO ARE YOU?" He directed.
"THAT IS UNIMPORTANT." The fiery modulation told him.
"Perhaps not to you," the Commander retorted, his voice edging in annoyance. "But it is your ship which is above our base. We have attempted to communicate with you several times yet you chose to ignore us....until now."
He realized he was sounding too irritated, perhaps even arrogant, and relaxed his tone.
"Why are you here and what do you want of us?"
"WE REQUIRE NOTHING FROM YOU." The vox told them. "OUR INQUIRY IS COMPLETE. IF YOUR EARLIER COMMUNICATIONS APPEAR TO HAVE BEEN IGNORED, IT IS PROBABLY BECAUSE WE DEEMED IT UNNECESSARY TO RESPOND."
"What do you need?" Helena Russell tried rephrasing the question.
"WHAT DO YOU HAVE?" The user-interlocutor denigrated them--its aura of superiority unaccorded.
Speaking only for himself, Umberto Garzon was thoroughly humiliated.
You have your place, the sentiment seemed to go, and that place is in space, ferret face. It was an enigma, inside a riddle, beset with insult.
Against the rail, Truman Starns propped a leisurely arm. The audaciousness, the unmixed temerity of that last statement unarmed him, left him with a mouthful of puke.
"Rescue Eagle One has landed," Sandra Benes reported from her station, keenly await of the spectral being on the balcony behind her. She did not flinch. At one time she would have been terrified, perhaps shake in panic and fright. Instead, she found herself slightly annoyed at the alien's penchant for word games and verbal dancing.
Koenig nodded, visibly relieved, then returned his attention to their guest. "I suspect if we had anything you wanted," he began, "you would have taken it by now." The commander glanced at Russell who was biting her upper lip. "So, why are you here?"
"I FEAR WE HAVE NO RESPECT FOR YOUR EAGLE FIGHTING CRAFTS AS WELL." The tonality answered Petrov's unuttered muse first. "IN FACT, THAT WAS OUR FIRST INDICATION THAT YOUR FIREPOWER FELL SHORT OF THE TASK FOR WHICH WE FELT OBLIGED TO CONGRADULATE YOU.
"BUT AS I SAID--AS YOUR RACE GOES, AND TO QUOTE ONE OF YOUR OWN ANALOGUES: 'THE WHEEL IS TURNING, BUT THE RODENT IS DEAD."
The terrible, snotty snort filled the control theater.
The colonel looked over Koenig's shoulder, smiling vengefully. It was a gesture that looked dramatic, but otherwise, amounted to nothing.
"WE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE COMPASSIONATE--BUT NEVER, EVER MENIAL--OF US TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR BASE WILL BE SPARED THIS DAY. THE PLEASING, TOTALLY DESERVED SELF-QUASH OF OUR ENEMY HAS LEFT US IN A POSITION TO SHOW MERCY.
"EVEN FOR ROOM TEMPERATURE INTELLIGENCES SUCH AS YOUR OWN."
"I'm not going to take much more of this...." A spat-upon Paul Morrow admitted openly to Koenig.
"It's revolting." Victor Bergman allowed. "John, the unabashed, Dionysian egoism. Obviously they were at war with the race that lived on Baal. Now that they're vanquished, these creatures have arrived to subject us to their repulsive boast."
"Like having your tart on a funeral coach." Morrow stood, leaning over the Remote Pack so as to offer Koenig an alternative point of view. "They think we have no choice but to listen."
"And they would be right." Umberto Garzon recognized the rat's maze for what it was.
Koenig relaxed, only slightly. It suddenly occurred to him that it was their very presence which destroyed Baal. They had unwittingly tipped the scales of a war in favor of this alien, destroying its enemy.
This race was "thanking" them by sparing their lives.
He glances at Garzon and Morrow with a look of suppression and they both backed down.
"We are grateful for your mercy," Koenig replied, sounding genuine. He was too weary to battle and retort with smugness. He was appreciative that they weren't creaming them rather than valiantly going into battle. Perhaps advanced age translated into patience and wisdom.
"Is there anything else you require?"
"NO, BUT IN PARTING, I HOPE YOU WILL ACCEPT OUR TRIBUTE."
"Tribute....?" Victor Bergman said, confused. Behind him, a brain drained Kate Bullen stood on Level-B holding a dumbfounded clipboard at her hip.
They thought they were all rum-dumbs'; sixty-nines. Umberto Garzon was sure. He knew he didn't like them.
"DURING OUR BRIEF STUDY OF YOUR RACE, WE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXAMINE THE GREAT EPICS THAT ARE STORED IN YOUR DISAPPOINTING LOGIC CIRCUIT." The voice explained enthusiastically and Benjamin Ouma flinched as if skewered. "OF ALL THE CULTURES WE HAVE ENCOUNTERED, LET IT BE KNOWN THAT YOUR WORLD IS THE ONLY ONE THAT EVER MADE US TO FEEL...JUSTIFIED...."
The fire in Truman Starns eyes began to ease. The deep, stellar shadows on the balcony returned as the source faded to unreality.
The alien spacecraft slid forward into the ultrablack. Leaving behind, the expanding, magic mushroom vapors of a dead world, it climbed upwards over Frigoris, past the settlement line and leaped the centuries as it curved its way back into theoretical space.
"Three phase power restored, commander." Pete Garforth said as the transformers surged again.
Paul Morrow did not look any happier in the stark whiteness than he did in the moody half-light. Kate Bullen said nothing, but instead, re-entered the trench with her square clipboard. High above, on Level-D, Truman Starns stared down at them, and through them. He had no idea what to think.
Compulsively rubbing his left cheek, a mashed Victor Bergman looked like he had been caught in a psychic temblor.
John Koenig turned and mounted the steps to his desk, removing his commlock from his belt before taking a seat in the white, leather highback.
Angelina Carter carefully shifted, guarding her healing left side, as she made more room for her son on the bed. He was engrossed in a pictorial book of Jupiter and its moons, courtesy of the Voyager2 probe photographs.
Her saga over the last 48 hours was as follows. She was rescued out of the fall out shelter with the rest of the geology team. A slow leak of blood from a hole in her spleen was detected as a result of her examination in Medical and it was subsequently repaired by Dorothy Sullivan, MD via laproscopic surgery. Not that she was alone: she had plenty of company since Medical Center was full.
Andrea Matthew, surrounded by her body building buddies, was propped up in bed and alternately chatting and dozing comfortably through a morphine haze. In the adjacent ward, Phil Geist protested like a macho man as Melita fussed over him, his arm secured in a cast from shoulder to fingers. His roommate, Ed Malcom, repeatedly pushed the nurses' call button. He wanted his dinner and he wanted it now. Geist was throwing him increasingly irritated glances.
Ed Malcom would complain.
How could this have happened? Being dropped--released, by a lazy SAR Team as they retrieved his unconscious carcass from the Tri-Con bomb hutch. Malcom was wroth. He had every intention of filling John Koenig's office with acid and multiple personalities.
Funny thing was, the commander already knew that and could care less.
Alan Carter, from his uncomfortable hard, white plastic chair next to Ang's bed, looked up as Koenig and Bergman stepped into the ward and approached them.
"WE'RE FINE DOWN THERE...." Coop' began arguing with Carter immediately.
"DON'T SUGAR ME UP, YOU ROTTEN GREASER-" The astronaut intermitted.
"...THE VAB IS SECURE, AND WE'RE RUNNING THE VECHICLE PREPS AND MAIN BOOSTER CHECKOUTS JUST FINE ON OUR OWN." Coop' said louder.
"-I'M NOT HANGING IN HERE." Carter warned the division manager finally.
"That's not what I heard." John Koenig heckled. "Mathias said he's got you for this much." He held up five fingers. "You're stuck. Forget it."
He snickered in perfect, pontifical unison with Coop.'
Ang glanced sympathetically at her husband. She knew he hated being confined as much as she did. But multiple hairline fractures, including two in his skull, made it necessary to keep him in for "observation." Initially Mathias told him 3 days. Carter argued with him and Mathias upped it to five, citing "irrational" behavior warranted extended physical and psychological observation. Ang told him to be quiet before his sentence was extended even further.
"Look on the bright side. How often do you get a vacation, Alan?" Ang attempted to soften the blow.
Some vacation: confined to Medical Center with Ed Malcom and Phil Geist's as "roommates", among others. He couldn't even stay in the same room as his wife due to the fact there were other females sharing the same ward.
Helena Russell entered the ward, pushing a cart filled with pharmaceutical clones. She stopped periodically to refill color coded safety bottles with limited inventory.
Victor Bergman cleared away his preoccupation and nodded at Carter's handheld I-VIEW.
"Looks like you've been listening to the news." The professor said, rolling his eyes.
On Moonbase Alpha, the network updates were the only reliable ones. If they came out of ANS and Balls Crater, they fell short on facts.
"YEAH, AND THEY SAID IT WAS BAD." The pilot blew.
The word 'bad' was actually a trivialization. The nightmare had only begun with the loss of Basso, Magnusson and then Vesta Basso. The catastrophic totals were still being counted.
"EVEN IF IT IS, THERE'S NOT A THING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT." Coop' reminded him. "SO SHUT UP AND TAKE YOUR PILLS."
And with that, Helena Russell offered Carter a paper soufflé cup containing a codeine tablets.
"It's better with water." The physician said unassumingly as the astronaut dry crunched his drugs. "Though I have to admit...." She began, moving a stethoscope aside so she could cut the plastic shrink wrap on vials of Meperidine syrup. "After hearing what I heard in Main Mission, I think I'd feel tempted to fly out there and attack them."
"I-Oh," Nicky Carter spoke, sounding out the words on the book. "Gan-ii-mee-dee."
"Ganymede," Angelina corrected. "Ganymede is the biggest of Jupiter's many moons. Io is about the size of our moon."
Nicky gazed at her thoughtfully for a moment then turned the page, returning to his book.
"I heard they seemed to have a pretty high opinion of themselves," Angelina joined the conversation. "Although, their arrogance isn't exactly something new to us. We have more than demonstrated our inflated sense of superiority as a race. Humility is not something that has been abundant in human beings throughout our history."
'And likely the very reason they where imprisoned on their own moon wandering the interstellar wilderness,' she thought remorsefully but did not verbalize.
"I'm not proud." Carter disputed. "And if respect for those bludgers is what you're driving at, creampuff--they'll get Buckleys or none. Eagle One and her prime crew are floating around out there in that vapor cloud--blasted to pieces, and probably from artillery that was fired from that ship. Don't you think it's awfully convenient--how those wackers managed to show up just in time to see their opponents cooked in some 'natural disaster?'
"Well, I've got some swamp land for you."
He nodded fraternally at Geist before Anne Delline closed the curtain on them.
"It doesn't matter to me whether you respect them or not," Angelina replied wearily. The great spot of Jupiter stared back at her like an eye, as Nicky traced the shape in the picture of the book. "The point I was trying to make is they were arrogant to the extreme and in that respect like us. I can point out several examples in our own history, not the least of which is the reason behind our being blown out of Earth's orbit and out here in the middle of nowhere."
It irritated her that she was on the receiving end of mankind's last act of excess pride.
"You're not being accused of anything directly." Victor Bergman buttonholed the pilot. "Broadly speaking--generally speaking--human beings as a race have shown a certain propensity for insolence and swagger. Then too, we're not born into ideal conditions. Even Ghandi said the strongest might weaken, and the wisest might err."
"What's the plan then, Victor?" Carter waxed contumelious again. "Should we be ashamed? Would I be a more advanced person if I hung my head low? Just kind of staring at the concrete in a noble state of inferiority; keep turning the cheek and let the universe kick me in the ass--every day...every goddamn day....
"That dog don't hunt."
"No," Angelina shook her head. "We don't turn the cheek. We can't. But at the same time, we can't believe we're gods, infallible. That attitude alone will get us killed before any other sinister force out here."
"That's certainly true," Helena Russell nodded, opening a plastic container of soy milk and pouring a small amount into a burnt orange mug. She smiled and offered it to Nicky. "We can be our own worst enemy."
"Yes." Koenig agreed partially. "I also think it's correct to say that we really can't have any conflict unless we, ourselves, are the aggressors."
"You mean most of the time or part of the time?" Carter blurted. He wished he was on Gan-iii-mee-de.'
"All of the time." The commander replied, knowing that it was a conservative expression.
"I think there's something to be said about guilt-by-imagination." Victor Bergman judged, grasping casually the unused saline stand beside Angelina's bed. "I think the being who spoke to us in Main Mission was a scoundrel and a liar, personally. Scientifically, and morally, our participation in Baal's destruction is anything but a fait accompli.
"I think we were there, and it was convenient to assign blame.
"So...." He clapped his hands together. "That's what they did. It's probably one of their reasons for not decimating Alpha."
"They needed a scapegoat." Koenig pondered. "Preferably one that is alive and kicking--all the better to carry the burden of wholesale genocide that was fostered by them."
"I think so." The professor answered comfortably.
The commander wished he was on Gan-iii-mee-de' too.
"We're not all bad, though," Helena Russell continued, watching Paula Ryan, RN, hook up a fresh IV bag of lactose on Andrea Matthew. "I for one am impressed at our human spirit. Our geology team, for example. The courage and determination you demonstrated in your fight for survival is admirable."
Angelina blinked. The doctor was viewing the world wishfully philosophical again.
"Well, Helena," Ang leaned back as Nicky leaned against her. She ran her fingers through his soft, white hair and noted he would need a haircut soon. "The truth is that toward the end, we were about to kill each other. Our patience with our situation and each other was worn out. Yeah, we were becoming our own worst enemies."
Ed Malcom interrupted her thoughts with his whining. His soy derivative, imitation beef flavored soup was cold and he wanted more crackers.
A dilating Alan Carter looked as though he was about to give birth to a hippopotamus.
"Our proper bliss...." Victor Bergman trailed.
Helena Russell contemplated Angs' revelations of alacrity and cowardice. It drove her deep.
"Hey, John." The professor smiled tentatively in the face of a warped ethos. "Have you ever stopped to think where we'd be if we hadn't put up walls and fences? Around ourselves I mean? Life in a kingdom of denial has definite advantages."
"Advantages?" Angelina wrinkled her brow in confusion. "What kind of advantages? I mean, if you consider no growth, stagnation, an advantage..."
Her head was already hurting from too much thinking.
"Lysander of Sparta." Bergman enumerated. "A terrible, awful chap--right in your own backyard, Ang.' Let us not forget Mao Zedung, and The Great Leap Forward. How many people expired from starvation? Thirty million? And we're not even counting his deliberate killings. Then we have Stalin--his home town had the right name, didn't it? Gori? Forget the scorched earth policy--how about those overstuffed gulags, packed high and deep with Nazi corpses.
"Pol Pot put to death two million Cambodians in a period of eight months. A rotter, if ever there was one."
John Koenig sat on one corner of Helena Russell's desk, his right hand tucked beneath his black command sleeve.
Carter took the education unintently, but still heard more than he wanted to.
Helena Russell deposited her blood pressure cuff on the blotter and seated herself at her workstation behind the commander.
"Alan?" The professor prompted. "You know."
"Do not." The pilot replied.
"I think you do...think of the aboriginal history...."
"They marched over the human bones." The astronaut confessed morbidly. "And smelled like evil roots, or some sillyass thing like that. After 120 years of colonization, they were almost extinct--hunted, poisoned and blown to smithereens by European settlers."
"But the commonwealth prospered?" John Koenig knew this in verity. Why? The government was still incumbent before Breakaway. So much for every dog having its day.
"Undoubtedly they did." Bergman excited.
"Oh, I get it. If we led life in the kingdom of denial, we wouldn't be on Moonbase Alpha sans Earth," Angelina answered, now completely depressed.
Her sadness was punctuated by the fact that her son never breathed real air in his limited life span. Every breath he took was recycled, refiltered. His skin was never exposed to sunlight and he was very fair skinned. Even his bone density, like that of all the children born on the moon, was lighter than the other Alphans from Earth. As a result, he was becoming taller and thinner than his parents were as preschoolers. If the physical changes were so quickly noticeable, the psychological and sociological changes would be even more readily apparent. He seemed to be completely "at home" on Moonbase Alpha. In one generation, human beings were already beginning to "adapt" to living in space.
In her mind, it sucked.
A pervasive patina of bad chance and hazardous averages fanned the flames black. Victor Bergman wanted to apologize for the thoughtlessness of his analysis. But it was too late. Insert the foot and you have a mouthful. A calcimine Helena Russell needed aspirin--don't worry, just leave the bottle. Alan Carter wanted to upchuck, scorning the astral collection and five thousand years of recorded, human stupidity. Self-loathing had arrived like a deviant.
"None of that matters." A startled commander told them all, with eloquence and heart. He thought they knew.
Amidst the algae and murk, there was consequential life.
"What happened to those despots on Earth, or what will become of the aliens aboard that ship. We can't control the past or the future. All we have is the present." He said with clarity.
"One that will be filled with choices?" Helena Russell ventured.
"Hopefully, the right ones." Victor Bergman concurred poignantly.
"And not like the aliens on Baal," Angelina added, somewhat bolstered by the turn of sentiment and the renewed air of hope.
All they had was hope.
"They'll have their day of reckoning." Koenig surmised. "Or...they won't. Either way, their fortunes, misfortunes and crimes of war have no bearing on us. Our path is different. Our job is to find a home."
It was a lonely syllable, but one accented with tremendous feeling.
Outside the vision ports, the debris faded to gray before disappearing in the almost corporate veil of darkness. The satellite that once orbited the planet Earth drifted a billion astronomical units further; and then another trillion, exiting the nucleus of all creation. Then an additional quadrillion and a quintillion--the odyssey of time without coda; magnificent, horrifying desolation but not without love and prospect. In space, no one can hear you scream, but it also a place of belief. Their elusive star--wandering through googles of empty, insanity provoking limbo--planes turned white from the aftershock of exploding soup.
Beyond the efflorescence, there would be infinity, and vigilance unceasing.
"No alibi will save you from accepting the responsibility."
"Life is a promise; fulfill it."
"The universe expands and contracts like a great heart.
"It is expanding, the farthest nebulae.
"Rush with the speed of light into empty space.
"It will contract, the immense navies of stars and galaxies,
"dust clouds and nebulae
"Are recalled home, they crush against each other in one
"harbor, they stick in one lump
"And then explode it, nothing can hold them down; there is no
"way to express that explosion; all that exists
"Roars into flame; the tortured fragments rush away from each
"other into all the sky, new universes
"Jewel the black breast of night; and far off the outer nebulae
"like charging spearmen again
"No wonder we are so fascinated with
"And our huge bombs: it is a kind of homesickness perhaps for
"the howling fireblast that we were born from."
"The Great Explosion"
Written by Tgarnett25 & Moonbasealpha_s1 of Space:1999 The Classic Adventures
BASED ON CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS CREATED BY GERRY AND SYLVIA ANDERSON.