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Short Story

Darkness and Silence

Darkness and Silence

The silence.  It wasn’t the desolation that got to Kai, but the silence.  On Earth even on a fog shrouded night there was some kind of sound.  In the depths of March before the insects and most birds returned there were noises.  Water trickling down bare branches just beginning to bud.  The hardy crow calling out his defiance in some lonely treetop.  The dormant grass underfoot squished into the mud with each step.  Somehow even the fog itself had a sound.  The slow steady slithering of the thick air across the ground.

Out here at the bottom of Bailly crater there was no sound, but Kai’s own breathing in his helmet.  The training had been rigorous and thorough, but no one had told him about this.

“Charlie, take the toolbox back to the rover,” Kai took care to enunciate clearly.  Charlie’s voice recognition circuits seemed to be more and more cantankerous lately.  The bot shuddered and slowly its primary utility arm rotated toward Kai.

“Yes, sir.  I will take the toolbox to the rover.”  Charlie moved slowly his six spindly legs in a twitchy orchestra of bounces and hitches.  He was probably at least two generations obsolete, but the company prided itself on “profitability through frugality.”  Right now Kai just wanted to get back to base and take a hot shower.

“Inho, this is Kai.”  He closed the hatch and cranked the handle.  Again there was no sound.  No screeching of metal on metal.  No whirring of gears or electronic clicks as the system tested the security seal.  Just silence and his own steady breathing.

“Go ahead.” Inho sounded tired.

“I’m done resetting the computer monitor down here.  How’s it going up there?”  Kai looked up the tower before him.  A hundred meters of spun carbon fiber and aluminum fabric that just looked wrong.

It was so thin.  Perhaps two meters across at the base.  There were no guy wires to brace or support it.  And to top off the uneasy feeling was a broad twenty meter dish on an powered gimbal.  It looked like a good stiff breeze would topple it.  But, then, there was no wind here.  Kick your boot and the fine dust just hung impossibly long in the air–which wasn’t air–before settling back to the ground.  The gray beards said it smelled like gunpowder, the dust.  Kai didn’t know what gunpowder smelled like, but he didn’t mind the smell of the dust.

“Just about there.  Go get the rover warmed up.  This is the last one for today.”

“Great!  I’ll bring ‘er right over.”

“Hold it.  I said warm it up.  Not bring it over.”  Kai was hoping just once he’d get to drive the rover.  It’s against company regulations, Inho would say.  Kai didn’t care.

“When you’ve had more time on the moon than you had in the womb, we’ll talk.”

“Yeah, right.” Kai grumbled.  He hop-shuffled the forty meters to the rover.  Inho said they’d left it that far away because the electronics in the rover would throw off the calibrations in the tower.  Kai didn’t really care.  He was half asleep on the ride out when Inho was explaining what the towers did exactly.  Something about being part of a telescope or something.

The rover was a long six-wheeled machine that reminded Kai of a caterpillar.  He’d seen one in a vid once.  The hair bristling as the feet, the dozens of feet worked in unison to slowly maneuver the creature along a twig.  Kai hooked up Charlie to the power socket on the back of the rover.  For once the bot hadn’t gone wrong.  The toolbox was stowed properly.

“Son of a-” the sound of static.  Kai turned his head.  Still thinking like an Earth-bound fool all he saw was the inside of his helmet.  He hop-turned.  Inho had lost his grip somehow.  He was falling slowly.

“The safety line will catch him,” Kai said to himself.  Inho reached the end of the safety line and jerked to a stop.  But only for a brief moment.  The safety line had given way.  Now he was tumbling end over end.

“Oh, God!” He screamed in Kai’s ear.  Kai turned off his communications array.  In one fifth gravity a fall, any fall, looks too slow.  It’s like cartoon physics, a gray beard had told Kai.

“On Earth you fall at 9.8 meters per second, per second…” the old man had told him, “but here you fall at about 2 meters per.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Kai had replied, “Kind of like hitting a feather bed.”

“Ha!  Feather bed, the boy says!”  Everyone laughed at that.  “Kid, remember you’re wearing over fifty kilos of suit.  I’ve seen guys jump off rovers and shatter a leg thinking they could just hop down.  Luna is a deceptive old bitch.  She’ll kill you in a hundred ways as quick as you please.  There’s the cold.  It’s two hundred below in the shade.  Or the heat.  It’s hot enough to boil water out there.  Puncture your suit?  Even if you get the hole closed quickly enough you may have to get fitted for a prosthetic because of the decompression and cold damage.  Forget it if you crack your faceplate.”

“And then” another said just loud enough for Kai to hear, “the long nights.  It’s not natural to be dark that long.”

Kai took two hops toward the tower before Inho hit the ground.

There was nothing to be done.  Inho was dead.  Kai couldn’t tell if it was the fall, the broken bones, or the hairline crack in the back of his helmet, but Inho was definitely dead.

Kai disobeyed Inho’s last order and drove the rover to the tower.  He wanted Charlie to go as short a distance as possible with the body.

“Carla?”

“Yes, Kai?”  Somehow the rover’s computer generated voice just made him feel even more alone.

“Please extend the long range antenna.”

“Yes, Kai.”  How do you phrase something like this, Kai asked himself.  Hello, I’m the new guy, and I didn’t have anything to do with it, but one of the most experienced selenites I’ve ever met is dead.  Not my fault.  Shit.

“Kai, the antenna is extended and the communications system is operating within normal parameters.”  Kai set shrugged out of the core of the suit.

“Thank you, Carla.  Bailly, this is Rover Four.”  Kai waited for the reply.  “Bailly, this is Rover Four.  Over.”  Nothing.  Check the gain setting, Kai could almost hear Inho say.  No, the band setting is right.

“Carla, why isn’t the communications system working?”

“The communications system is operating within normal parameters.”

“Then why aren’t we getting a signal return?”

“I’m sorry, Kai.  It appears that there are no satellites in range.”  What?  There should be at least three at all times.

“Ok, are we getting any signals from L1 or Earth?”

“Yes.  However, getting a transmission to the base at Bailly A will take time.”

“No, I just want to let someone know what happened.  Send a text to the station head at the first habitat you can raise at L1.  Ask them to contact Bailly and let them know Inho has died in an accident, and I am returning to base.”

“Yes.  Shall I set a course for home?”

“No, Carla.  I’d like to drive for a while.”

“As you wish.  Kai?”

“Yes.”

“I am sorry.”

It is difficult to grieve for someone you didn’t especially like.  Inho always reminded him that he was new.  Still wet behind the ears.  I’d passed all the company exams quite easily, Kai had thought.  Why won’t Inho and the rest just accept me?

“Kai?”

“Yes.”

“It seems the communication difficulty was due to the terrorists.”

“How many sats did they knock down?”

“Seventeen of them.”  What did they hope to gain?  Free Luna?  They weren’t even any self sustaining habitats here yet.  In the mid-90’s for closed-loop, but that four or five percent had to come from somewhere.  Earth.  Stupid to try to cut that two hundred and forty thousand mile umbilical when you’re still in the womb.

“Has the base been notified?”

“Yes.  They want you to divert to Bailey B.  Inho will be transported home from there.”

“But that’s a hundred kilometers in the wrong direction.”  Kai didn’t want to spend any more time outside than necessary.  There were two basic rules beaten into his head during training.

1. Don’t go anywhere alone.

2. Don’t go anywhere on foot.

Kai had tried to eat without any success.  Even with a blue tablet he wasn’t really able to sleep.  He kept seeing Inho tumbling.  The impossibly slender tower standing like a sentinel against the black sky.  There was nothing to do but wait and watch and listen to the last moments of a man’s life.

Kai awoke to a warning alarm.

“I’m sorry to wake you, Kai.”

“What is it?  What’s wrong?”

“I’m afraid the way ahead is outside the parameters of my safety protocols.”

“What?”  Kai rubbed his face.  Engineers.  Couldn’t they just program the rover to speak plainly.  When he got to the cockpit he couldn’t see the problem.

The way ahead was nearly flat despite a few bits of ancient ejecta that dwarfed the rover off to the left.  Despite the ‘sea of ruins’ reputation the floor of the crater wasn’t too difficult for the rover to manage most times.  Occasionally it would take itself off automatic because the way forward was difficult or confusing for its programming.

“Why have we stopped?”

“The slope is too steep.”

“Carla, it’s nearly flat out there.”

“I’m sorry, but my ground radar is showing a slope of ninety degrees.”

“Carla, that’s impossible.  That’d be a perfectly sheer cliff.  Even with the light gravity that’s impossible here.”

“I’m sorry, Kai.  I am not permitted to advance with data of this nature.”

“Fine, switch to manual.”  Kai slumped into the left hand seat.  Release the safety.  Check the transmission and grip sensors.  GPS?

“Carla, why is the GPS off?”

“I don’t know.”  Without GPS he’d have to navigate the rover across the floor of the crater some fifty kilometers without a map.  This is crazy, Kai thought.

“Damned cheap bastards,” Kai said of his employers.  “How am I supposed to navigate without a map?”

“I can contact the home office on Earth,” Carla said in her crisp tones, “and download a map of the area.  Shall I commence the download?”

“Yes.”  Easiest solution is often the simplest.  “How long will it take?”

“I’m done.”

“Shit.”  Kai had all but gutted the central processor for the rover.  Even by isolating the drive system from the main hub he couldn’t get the power cell perking.  Just one answer.  There was a virus in the system.

The view outside the rover had slipped into night.  Normally Kai didn’t mind the darkness, but that was when everything was going well.  When Carla contacted Earth, somehow she’d downloaded a virus instead of the map.  Must be the free Luna bunch again, Kai thought.

“Hold it.”  Kai stepped over the remains of the rover’s brain.  If he could connect the communications array on the space suit to the antenna on the rover, maybe he could receive a signal.

The fan on the CO2 scrubber was still spinning, but that didn’t mean the system was working.  Maybe it was independent of the main computer, Kai thought as he wired the suit into the antenna.

“The rover is dead.  Inho is dead.  And the sun has set.  It’ll be dark for two weeks.  I’ve got just under eight hours of air in this suit.”

He felt foolish talking to Charlie in the dark, but that was the only way Kai could see to think his way out.  The bot just stood mute cycling his four primary manipulators open and closed.  Warm-up sequence part B.  Kai’s suit lights cast a harsh blue-white light on the ruddy colored spider bot and silver rover.

Kai checked the readout on his wrist.

“If I pull out the one good cylinder from Inho’s suit, I’ll get another four hours.  On the map there’s only one place I can reach in that time that has air, food, water, and a communication array.”

Kai pointed at it on the map for Charlie’s benefit.

“Rourke’s Drift.  A drilling station.  Data stream says it was deactivated for further use two years ago, but maintained as an emergency shelter.  Sounds perfect.”

“Ready for service, sir.”

“Charlie.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Is the receiver working?”

“Which receiver is that?”

“The one on the rover.”  Kai wondered if the company bean counters factored in the time wasted talking to the cheaper model bot.

“Sir, it appears that the receiver has been modified.”

“Yes, Charlie.  I modified it.  Is it working properly?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Charlie, you are to stay here with the rover.”

“I will stay with the rover.”

“You will ensure the receiver will continue to work properly.”

“It appears the receiver has been modified.  I will fix the receiver.”

“No, Charlie.  I want the modifications to stay.  You will ensure the power of the output.”

“I understand.  I will maintain the receiver.”

“If someone comes looking for me, tell them I went to Rourke’s Drift.”

“You are going to Rourke’s Drift.”

It wasn’t a question, but it almost sounded like one.  Perhaps I’m just wondering about my plan myself, Kai thought.

The radio reception had become more spotty in the last ten minutes.  Mostly the news was about the war in Asia.  Depressing stuff.  Kai wondered about his brother in Kuala Lumpur.  There was news about the latest movies and celebrity news.  Then it was back to the music.

Kai stopped at the halfway point.  Two hours of hiking with Inho’s surviving air tank had not been as difficult as he’d thought.  The little tool cart Charlie wheeled to and from the worksites looked too spindly and weak, but the spun aluminum did the job.  Kai’s perceptions were still earthbound.  An air tank that on Earth cleared twenty kilos barely measured four and a half here.

“It’s far enough away he should be alright,” Kai said to himself.  The silence was starting to get to him.  When he was moving he could focus on his footing, his direction, anything but the silence.  Now as he stood still it unnerved him.

A few taps on his wrist and the oxygen remaining displayed based on consumption in the last two hours.  Only two hours.  Hmm.  He must have been working harder than he’d thought to get this far.  No matter.

“That’s why I brought along the extra canister.”  Kai connected Inho’s tank to the auxiliary tap on his pack.  Normally, inside he would have been able to hear the soothing hiss of the air snaking its way through the suit’s system to his own tank.  However, out here there was nothing.  The only positive sign was the readout on his wrist.

Kai bent down to disconnect the intake from Inho’s now empty tank.  The static cleared and the chimes of the World News Service broadcast filled his helmet.  Must be the top of the hour.

“I’m Janis Lock.  This is WNS.  The fighting in China has intensified as Indian forces have renewed their offensive.  We’ll have a report from Chinese headquarters in Xin Bao in a moment, but first an update on the Shining Luna attacks on the moon.  For that we go to James Syd at Tycho City.”

“What began with great energy and drive for the rebels has become an ill-timed attack thwarted by Mother Nature.  Two hours ago an ESI early-warning satellite signaled an increased likelihood of solar flare activity.  Reports suggest the rebels also received this signal and have pulled back to hardened shelters as have government and corporation forces.  The flare’s leading edge will impact the moon in about forty minutes time.”

He knew it instantly.  Forward was the only decision.

Kai took off at a dead run.  However, it was an Earth run.  By the second step he pitched dangerously forward.  He’d forgotten his center of gravity, even in the 1/5th version here, was nearly at his shoulders because of the suit.

“Shit.”  His knee dug into the regolith, and Kai reached out his hands to slow his impact.  He tensed his muscles.  If his faceplate hit the regolith too hard, he wouldn’t have to worry about the flare.

There was no sound.  Just a grunt as he jarred his shoulders and wrists with the impact.  A small dust cloud rose up around him.  You fool, Kai thought.  If you try to force it, you’ll only make things harder.

Kai got to his feet.  He set off again towards Rourke’s Drift.  This time he started with a steady pace.  Hop, hop, hop.

Solar flares were the biggest fear of the gray beards.  You can’t see them.

The rover was shielded enough for anything but a Class D flare.  “D for death,” they had taught him.  He could have refilled the suit tanks easily with the reserves on the rover.  But there wasn’t enough water.

Some flares lasted days or even a week or two.  The water might not last.  All Kai could do was go forward.

D for death.

Kai thought of his home in the forest with his parents working in the flower beds before the house.  His brother in Indonesia.  Rising in to the sky before his eyes as he thumped along in the darkness he could almost see the new building completed.

Between hops Kai began a final message to his parents.

“I’ve always tried to do my best.  Father, I know you didn’t approve of my coming up here…”  Then it occurred to him that if he did get caught outside the shelter of Rourke’s Drift the suit’s electronics would get fried.  Any messages would get fried along with him.

The readout on his faceplate indicated his heart rate was ninety percent of maximum.  The air burned his lungs.  It felt stale.  Dead.

His heartbeat drummed in his ears.  The air’s bad.  It’s poison.  The air of a dead man’s tank is going to kill me.  Now that’s some sick irony.

“Father, I’m sorry.” Kai gasped aloud.  Kai knew he’d never make the safety of shelter.  He had too far to go and too little time.

Kai slowed to a walk, then stopped completely.  The heart monitor gradually slowed to sixty percent of maximum.  The suit was working hard, but the inside of his faceplate began to fog slightly.

The radiometer began ticking out its ominous beat.  If it stayed at this level, he could make the abandoned mine.  But the odds of it remaining a class A were miniscule.  They wouldn’t have even mentioned it on the news.

Kai slowly renewed his march.  The radio relay from the rover had gone out completely sometime during his mad dash. He trudged in silence except for the radiometer.   It picked out a faster tune as his neck began to spasm.

Inho had made a simple mistake.  His grip failed.  The safety line should have held, but it failed.

“I should have listened,” Kai said aloud.  He felt nauseous.  The taste of bile in his throat made him pause a moment.  He took a sip of water from the relief tube.  If he vomited inside his helmet, he would at best be blind.  At worst he could asphyxiate.

With the symptoms and the radiometer’s readings, he guessed his bone marrow was toast.  His internal organs were blasted.  If there were a full-up radiotrauma center in the next crater, he might survive.  But there was nothing but darkness and silence.

“I’d better sit down” Kai said, “before I fall down.”  He slumped to the ground and propped himself up on a rock.

“I’m not ashamed of coming up here, Dad.  I don’t want to die.  But then Inho didn’t want to die either.  It’s just a fluke.  I hope someone gets this message and passes it on to my folks.  I love them.  I just couldn’t bear to listen to it.  It took so long for him to fall.  I mean I had time to think about it.  Back home it would have been fast and… well, it would have been a shock, but quick like.”

A coughing fit silenced his monologue and Kai could taste the blood in his mouth.  It wouldn’t be long now.

“I should have listened.  I owed him that much.  I just hope someone gets this message.”

“Your final report, Detective?” the lieutenant glanced up from the screen.

“Yes, sir.  Accident.”

“Really?”  He leaned back in his chair.  “Unrelated to the Shining Luna attacks.”

“Inho Waziki fell to his death when a safety line failed.  They were repairing a part of the deep space inferometry system.  Kai Rand was outside when the big flare hit.”

“Damn.  What a way to go.  Must have hurt like hell.”

“If there’s nothing else, sir?”  The detective nodded toward the door.

“Yes, I suppose that’s all.”  The detective was nearly at the door when, “Detective, was there nothing else?”  The detective stopped short of the door.

“Sir?”

“Nothing from the video or data recorders from the rover or their suits?  No nothing?”

“The flare, sir.”

“Nothing made it?”

“Just darkness and silence.”

[Note: this story began life as a “what if” question.  What if Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” were set on the moon?  Radiation is still the most dangerous threat to long-term habitation beyond the surface of the Earth.  Neither the moon nor Mars possess a strong enough magnetosphere to protect someone on the surface of either.]

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About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...

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