There was no second knock. The front door cracked with a strong kick and slammed open. Heavy footfalls stormed the floorboards, rushing into the house. Leo listened to the soldiers coming, hidden in the closet.
“Leonid Akulov,” a voice bellowed. “You have been selected for MERCY. Come willingly or we will use force!”
Mankind’s Emergency Rescue Company of Yeomen. The words came automatically to him as he clenched to his knees, trying to prevent his heart from jumping out.
Footsteps ran up the stairs. They entered the adjacent room, Leo’s bedroom. He heard them turning over his bed, searching his closet. Someone yelled ‘clear’ from down below.
Then the door slammed open and footsteps hammered the floor. Leo held his breath.
Light from a flashlight nearly blinded him as one of the soldiers opened the closet. It was a big wardrobe used by his grandparents once. Leo dug himself into the clothes, hoping they wouldn’t find him.
“I found him!”
His heart sank. A hand yanked him out, like a crocodile wanting to snap a joint. Before he could even scream, another hand gagged his mouth. Somebody tied his hands with a plastic zip tie. In mere seconds, Leo was captured, his mind swimming with shock and heart pounding in terror.
His life was over.
Mercy. What a joke. Whoever came up with that name must have had the sickest sense of humor in the history of humanity.
Leo sat in the waiting room, elbows on his knees and staring at his helmet. He had always dreamed that his name would be painted above the visor, but as he looked at it, he cringed. NO-2047/34R. That was his name now. For the brief time he would get to wear it, anyway.
He dropped the helmet, it’s fall echoing in the empty room, and buried his face in his hands. The reality of the situation seemed anything but real. I’m flying to the moon. They’re sending me to die.
It wasn’t fair. It was as opposite to fair as it could get.
Everyone must play their part. The words of the presidents and scientists ringed in his mind. He pitied the poor suckers who had to go and he agreed to sending them up there - it was easy watching it happen to others on the TV. But now...
“Why me?” he asked nobody.
“You’ve trained for spaceflight,” a voice answered and Leo jumped on his seat. A woman, wearing the MERCY uniform entered the room, escorted by two armed guards. She held a tablet in her hands, reading. “Chances of success are higher if we send someone trained. Though it’s a waste of human resources, the times are desperate.”
She didn’t look at him, eyes glued to her tablet. A guard grabbed Leo’s arm and pulled him up, while the other shoved the helmet in his hands.
“Come. We launch in fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen minutes! He had fifteen minutes to say goodbye to Earth and everybody on it.
“Can I at least call my family? My friends?”
“No time,” the woman replied, and walked out. The guards nudged Leo to follow. “All the people you know have already been informed. The whole world will know of your bravery and sacrifice, Leonid Akulov.”
His bravery. They forced him into it, with no choice on his part.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with everything, but it’s protocol to brief you. We have five or so minutes before we get to the launch pad anyway.”
Leo followed the woman, the two guards trailing behind.
“Six months ago, an alien spacecraft crash landed on the moon,” the woman said, still looking at her tablet. “The wreckage is emitting an extremely high dose of radiation and since it is on the side of the moon that’s facing the Earth, the radiation is wreaking havoc down here. All life and infrastructure directly in the path of the radiation wave suffers severe damage; people die, electronics are fried, water evaporates and even color is bleached out from everything.”
Leo knew all that. He’d seen it on his social media feed at least a dozen times each day.
“We cannot destroy the wreckage and we cannot nullify the radiation with the materials known to us. The fact that the crash site is on the moon makes it that much more difficult to access.”
They passed by another waiting room and Leo had a quick glance. There was a middle-aged man and an old lady, both wearing the same spacesuit that he was. Both selected.
“Burying the wreckage with lunar soil does not provide enough protection either,” the woman continued. “That is why we have decided to move the wreckage to the dark side of the moon, so that most of the radiation is directed in outer space, away from Earth. There will still be contamination, but significantly less so.”
All the governments of the world had joined together to tackle humanity’s biggest challenge yet. Why did it have to take a deadly moon for us to finally unite? It seemed so stupid. How petty and unimportant wars become when the moon, the thing that’s constantly up there, was trying to kill you.
“... the moon revolves around the Earth, we can predict the path of radiation exposure. You will fly through a zone of low radiation for the majority of the flight and then, as you land on the moon, the radiation will increase.”
He nodded. It was his childhood dream to fly to space. He read all he could about space travel and applied for a space training programme. Only now did he realize that was foolish of him.
“The flight is automated,” the woman said. “You do not have to do anything. The landing destination is preselected and the trajectory programmed. All you have to do is sit and wait.”
Leo didn’t like the idea of one-time disposable rockets. As ecologically problematic and potentially dangerous as that was - essentially being shot into space like a cannonball - he had to agree that under the circumstances it was the best option. Return rockets would be contaminated. A crew would be needed for each flight and that was expensive to train. For those selected, there were no return trips.
“Here we are.”
The woman stopped and Leo looked up. The launch pad was a small round chamber with an open ceiling and there was a car-sized rocket in position. It was so small that it didn’t even need a ladder to climb into it.
“This is it?”
“This is it,” she said and glanced at him from her tablet. She offered a hand. “I would like to express my gratitude for your selfless sacrifice, Leonid Akulov.”
Her face barely bore any expression and Leo wondered to how many people did she repeat those same words. He took her hand and shook it. It would be the last human contact he’d ever have.
The woman glanced at her tablet. “We’ve still got two minutes if you want to make any last amends before you enter the rocket. I’m afraid there is a tight schedule to keep to.”
Leo felt his stomach turn. He hadn’t eaten since they caught him at home, but some bile still rose up to his mouth. The woman waved for the guards to bring him a barf bag.
He emptied his stomach into the bag, just in time as the woman nodded to the guards. They ushered him to go into the rocket.
“It’s good you barfed before lift-off.”
Leo climbed up into the rocket and the guards closed the lid behind him. It’s good I barfed before lift-off, he repeated in his mind. The last words I’ll hear.
The rocket was small and Leo felt cramped like a package sent for shipping. The tiny spacecraft shook. Dread entered his mind and anxiety kicked in. He didn’t want to go. He knew what awaited him up there. He didn’t want to be sent into death, riding in a barrel attached to a rocket. These things had a 98% success rate - for every one hundred sent up, two exploded!
The insides of the rocket were minimal, with only a display screen, door handle - which locked automatically - and seat, where Leo was strapped. He could switch the display between the exterior camera, or the progress of the flight.
Right now, it counted down the lift-off for him. He swallowed hard, staring at the numbers on the screen.
He remembered to put his helmet on. Then he closed his eyes and pretended every second was an eternity he could spend on Earth, back in his normal life.
Something exploded beneath him and the rocket shook like it wanted to fall apart. Leo felt his body being pulled down by an immense force. He wanted to tap the screen, switch to the camera view, but his arm was too heavy to lift.
The screen showed a crude model of Earth, the rocket and the moon. The rocket appeared to be rising from the ground. Lift-off successful.
Leo didn’t know how long it took, but it felt very quick to him. The shaking and the ratling suddenly stopped, the rocket’s main thruster sputtering the last of its fuel. He felt the pressure ease and tapped the screen, switching to camera mode. Despite everything, he gasped.
He was in space. The screen showed a black canvas with distant shining dots - and a much closer one, the moon. It was surreal. He felt weightless.
But the moment of rapture and bliss was quickly gone. With every second, he flew closer to the moon, closer to the deadly radiation. There was a meter at the right top corner of the screen and it displayed the amount of radiation inside the spacecraft.
It began to rise.
There was nothing he could do, but watch the number rise, as he drifted through nothingness towards his final destination. All the stories of people suffering and dying from the horrific agony caused by the wreckage’s radiation flashed in his mind. He imagined himself melting and rotting and wondered how bad it’s going to be.
No, stop it. You’ve got a job to do. You’ve been selected to help save humanity.
Who was he kidding? He was selected to die. Nobody cared about him. Nobody would see him as a hero - history was filled with thousands of people whose names were forgotten, in favor of those who came after and reaped the results of those before. He was but one of many thousands that were sent up there, to do an impossible task.
The meter flashed yellow. Then orange. And then red.
It flashed for a while, with the number rising faster. Leo didn’t dare to breathe. The air suddenly felt stuffy, the spacecraft utterly crampy and danger closing in.
The meter peaked at 9999 something and then it flashed out. The whole screen went black. It’s too much for the electronics to take, Leo thought. I hope my suit can take it.
So far, the electronics in his suit still worked. That meant the material was still resisting the radiation.
Leo sat in complete darkness, with only his heart rate and vital signs displayed on the visor of his helmet. The suit’s AI was advising him to try to relax, as stress was not good for health.
The rocket shook again, the front thrusters kicking in. The whole thing jolted violently and Leo could feel himself spinning. It felt like the rocket was bouncing on a hard surface like those rubber balls kids play with. He held tight to his seat and screamed.
Then, everything went still.
He kept his eyes closed until a warning light flashed inside his helmet. The radiation levels suddenly spiked, the AI warning him of prolonged exposure. He saw the door of the rocket swing open, and reveal the moon’s surface.
I’m here, he thought. I’m actually on the moon!
The boyish dream inside him resurfaced for a brief moment, but then his instincts kicked in. He had a job to do and everyone on Earth, his friends and his family, depended upon him.
Leo pulled free from the safety straps and crawled out of his rocket. As he climbed out he looked around to get his bearings. The sight shocked him.
There were hundreds of rockets just like his one scattered all around. Most of them landed in one piece, but there were some that were smashed on the ground.
It was like a scene from a college beach party, where beer cans and plastic cups were scattered everywhere. Only here, there will be no one to pick the trash. No one to collect the dead.
Leo steeled himself. “Show me the location of the wreckage,” he said to the suit’s AI. Another radiation warning flashed, but he ignored it. The visor displayed a minimap.
The trajectory of the rocket sent Leo as close as possible to the wreckage without exposing him to too much radiation too soon. He noticed a small rise in the topography and headed in that direction.
Every now and then he looked up to see if there were any other rockets coming in. The task at hand was so huge that people were constantly sent to the moon, one at a time, to move the wreckage just a little closer to the dark side of the moon, piece by piece.
It was insane. Who would be so mad to come up with such a plan? But it was the only way. Electronics didn’t work, so they couldn’t use robots. The suits, made from cutting edge materials, provided some protection but it didn’t last long, and couldn’t shield the delicate electronics.
He climbed to the top of the rise, breathing hard, not from strain but from anxiety. Walking on the moon surface wasn't tricky for him, as he trained for it during his space programme.
From the vantage point he could see far over the moon. As he looked up he could see Earth, a blue marble in the distance, half covered by darkness. It seemed so small and fragile from here. So peaceful and so beautiful.
But his appreciation of the home he will never again set foot onto was cut by another horror. Looking in the direction where he came, he could see a trail of disposable rockets going as far as his eyes could see. That trail led to the crash site of the alien spacecraft. The Yeomen have managed to transport the pieces of debris for 10 miles already, which was a huge feat.
If you ignored the body count, that is.
And if you ignored that there was still 167 miles to go.
Not far away from the line of disposable rockets, there ran a line of bodies, nearly parallel. Men and women, wearing the same space suits he wore, who were sent up here with the same task he was. To do their part in ensuring the future of humanity.
Leo’s heart pounded in his chest. He didn’t need the AI’s navigation to tell him where to go, he could just follow the line of corpses. He could see the front of the line, to where the last person managed to travel. Looking at the horizon, the dark side was impossibly far away. How would this plan ever work?
Step by step. Everyone had to do their part.
Leo clenched his jaw and descended the small rise and came to the farthest body. There was something in its hands.
A black piece of metal. A part of the alien wreckage.
The display screen shut down and the AI’s electronics were finally fried. Leo could feel the suit’s heaters stopped working. He forced his mind not to think of anything, only the task at hand. Pick the piece and carry it as far as you can.
He felt tiny needles piercing his body through the suit. His eyes started hurting and for some reason he couldn’t look directly at the metal debris.
Leo knelt beside the last fallen Yeoman, grabbing the metal without looking directly at it and pulled it from the Yeoman’s grip.
It was heavier than he expected. The moon’s gravity was only one sixth that of Earth’s, but this piece was as heavy as a bag of cement, though much smaller. As soon as his gloved hands touched the metal, Leo felt them stabbed by ice daggers.
He nearly dropped the piece, but managed to hold on with a pained grunt. He had to lean it against his stomach so he could stand up, but the pain was unbelievable. Leo fell to one knee, dropping the metal.
It feels like I’m freezing from the inside.
His hands were numb and tingly, his stomach twisting. Leo took quick breaths and tried again.
He managed to stand up, just barely. The metal bombarded his body with that alien radiation, which was so strong that it could kill people back on Earth. And he was holding it in his hands.
Leo grunted and made a step forward.
I can make it. Step by step. To the dark side.
He took another step. And another. And another.
He shut out his thoughts, tricking himself into thinking he was just taking out the trash. He’ll be back in no time.
The pain made him shake, his eyes burning with dryness and his lungs punctured by tiny projectiles.
Leo screamed, flexing his muscles, clenching to the ungodly metal and heaved himself forward.
He took one final step and fell to the ground, the metal beneath him. It hurt so much… He could barely breathe, let alone move, his body suddenly not responding to his mind.
He glanced behind. The last corpse was just a few feet behind. He could still read the number on its helmet.
Seven steps closer, he thought and it was the last thought he had.