“Something's wrong with the pumping station,” Tadia said. Her eye was fixated on a blinking red light. The rest of the panel was cold and black.
Irvine Cobb looked up from the alarm and out at the barren lunar surface. It had turned gray as the sun passed but it would soon be lit up in warm yellows when the sun rose.
Tadia swore under her breath. In twenty four hours she was scheduled to see her children and husband on Pisces 1, have dinner, watch the water flow from orbit into the lunar lake they had spent a year planning. Now the red light blinked back on her face, over and over, monotonous. There was no sound anywhere else in the control room. Even the heat had been turned off. They had been expecting to leave the station tomorrow.
“It's pressure seven,” she said. “We're in line for one through six but not seven. It's reading high, like an obstruction.”
Irvine had blue eyes, brown hair. His muscles filled out the flight suit. Tadia was shorter, her brown hair tied tightly above her head.
“It's a sensor error,” he said. He started jamming buttons.
She put her arm between him and the panel. “It's not,” she said. “I reset everything an hour ago.”
“Didn't we run a systems check before-” Irvine said.
“You were here. Twelve hours ago this light wasn't blinking.”
“Go through the options with me,” he said. “What if we just release one through six?”
Tadia shook her head. “It won't work. You don't get sufficient water volume for nuclear, agriculture, electrical unless you have all seven flowing.”
“How about cameras?”
She showed him the monitors above. They showed empty piping, metallic cylinders, no activity.
“So it's an error,” he said. “Faulty sensor. Let's just run it anyway.”
“You're suggesting I run water against an obstruction? You'll blow the entire system if I do that.” It was typical Irvine, impulsive, arrogant.
“What does Pisces suggest?” he said.
“I've been trying to ring somebody for an hour for an operations plan,” she said. “We can manage a delay of twelve, maybe twenty four hours. They have resources up there but past a point you start damaging the timeline.” It was a kind way of saying what they both knew, that the water on the lunar surface did not translate to water in the Pisces orbiter. Water meant heat, and light, and food. They needed the water that ran beneath their feet.
The Pisces mission was made up of colonists, pioneers, a hundred families of researchers and their children tasked with spending five years in lunar orbit to prove that people could do it. Long term the plan was to mine lunar water and minerals for use on Earth with Pisces as a staging point. The Space Agency and the Company had sent them there. Their biggest challenge was to see if life in lunar orbit would kill them. That was back when orbit was the dangerous place and the Earth was safe. The challenge was supposed to be spaceflight. No one had ever expected to not be able to go home.
The plague's first cases had started six months after their launch and erupted into a global catastrophe. They had debated turning Pisces around, going back anyway, missing window after window to get back. While they argued whole governments and societies had been wiped out. Everyone knew someone who had died. The families in orbit had fought bitterly over whether they were safer in space or taking their chances with the plague at home. They could sense the envy in the strained voices of Mission Control, normally stoic computer jockeys cursing the astronauts safe in their lunar lifeboat while humanity bled to death.
At last the Company that had sent them to the moon had stepped in. There was water on the moon, enough for years. They had the equipment to drill holes, to build piping, to pump the water into a lunar crater. They'd spent the last year building it. Without the water on the moon there was enough left to run Pisces for another six months. If they didn't pump that water they'd all be dead by then. Everyone on base was on rations. Food and power was low.
Housing, food, power generation, all of it depended on a fifty million ton reservoir of water pumping out of holes in lunar rock. With water they could grow plants, make fuel, survive until there was a better plan. But none of that was going to happen if pressure seven was off track.
“I'm going down there,” Tadia said.
“No you're not. I'm operations director. I'm not authorizing you to do this.” But he didn't have another plan. Irvine was smart but he worked for the Company. That was where his heart was. He carried the straight bearing of military brass, chain of command. Normally Tadia did too. But this was different. They were so fucking close.
“You're damaging company property,” he said. “It's ours, not yours to put at risk.”
“Fuck you and your property. My kids are up there,” she said. “I'm not letting a pile of rocks kill my kids.” It amazed her that even here, even as Earth was dying and Pisces was drying up, that people like Irvine still put so much stock in a corporation. As if stock prices meant anything at all up here.
Her son's name was Doug. He was eleven. It had been her idea to volunteer him for the years in space. For the past six months he had been rationing water and had two hours of electricity and heat a day. “You may be operations director but I'm captain,” she said. “Make whatever notes you have to in the log. I'm going to sweep up whatever shit is in the pipes.” She left the bridge and walked towards the door.
Irvine could complain. But he couldn't stop her.
Nothing was supposed to leave the base from the low end. The egress hatch had been thrown together, bolted shut, barely a contingency. She slipped into the thick rubber spacesuit, clipped the oxygen to her back, and released the four bolted pressure valves on the single panel in the metal floorboard.
Irvine spoke to her through the radio in the suit. “Egress is sealed,” he said.
She completed the turn of the four bolts and pulled the metal handle in the center of the panel, twisting it left. A rush of air blew against her helmet. “Depressurized,” she said to Irvine. She slid down into the darkness and pulled the metal panel back against the underbelly of the base, bolting it closed. Her feet clanged against the metal ladder one magnetic boot at a time.
“I'm out,” she said.
The ladder would take her down a mile before she reached the outer lip of the plateau. From there she would have to crawl along the facing rock wall of Buxton Crater until she reached the opening of valve seven. Tadia could enter the piping tunnel from there, find the obstruction, and return home quickly.
She had never feared darkness. As a child her father had locked her in the closet, shut the door. It had been intended as fearful, military discipline, a means of control for insubordination. But she had learned to embrace it, eventually.
There was no sound now, no air to carry any sound, just the pressure, one boot at a time, each rung of the timid metal ladder the dividing line between the possibility of life and a quiet death at the base of the crater. The base emitted a faint light above her that slowly faded as she descended.
The night her father had nearly killed her mother she had broken down the locked door where had told her to be quiet. Hugo Barnes. That asshole. She had broken down the door. Then she went into the bedroom and opened the safe where he kept his stupid knife collection. She had grabbed the one he called the butterfly knife that he was always using to punish their dog. Then she had snuck up behind him while he slept, his hot drunken breath sputtering out as he lay passed out in the recliner, put the knife to Hugo's throat, put it right over the big gold chain he always wore, and she told him to leave them and never come back.
But even drunk he was so strong. He took the knife and picked her up and threw her off the first floor stairs and crushed her spine and said to her, You should never have come down here. But after he hurt her then he had left the house and her mother had called the police and they had lived. She had spent a month in the hospital but she had lived and joined the air force and gone to space because it was as far away from him as she could get.
In the blackness her foot missed a rung. Suddenly she was spinning hard, no sense of direction, vertiginous. She fell for what seemed like an eternity before hitting something hard and gasping for breath.
In the blackness she lay for a moment, amazed to be alive somehow, cursing herself for being careless.
“Irvine?” she said. Everything hurt.
“Yeah. You take a hit?” he said over the static.
“Hard,” she said. “I went off the ladder. I've still got suit pressure and oxygen. I must be on one of the outcroppings of the crater.” Buxton had thousands of tiny ledges. She was lucky she hadn't fallen further.
“I don't know how you survived that, Maggie,” Irvine said.
Maggie. “What did you call me?” she said.
“I said, I don't know how you're alive. Did you hurt yourself?”
The fall must have jarred her. She was hearing things. “No, I'm OK,” she said. “I need you to GPS me so I can figure out how to get back to the ladder and get oriented.”
“It'll take a minute,” he said. Tadia got to her feet. Her suit had a dim flashlight that barely cut through the dark but it had cracked in the fall. Tiny fingers of hazy dust swam before her.
She put her hands out in front of her to gain balance from the heavy suit. The gray wall of the crater wasn't far. But when she expected the heavy thick rock to meet her, smooth and solid, instead she was met with something cold, artificial, not organic, but also not rock. She turned her light to shine on it but the dust was obscuring her badly. It had shape and structure.
“Irvine,” she said. “Do you have any visual feed on my camera at all?”
He didn't respond. The dust cleared against what seemed like a metallic wall, or arch. All of the Company bases were on the edge of the crater, not inside. The only other possibility was the piping outlets. But those had to be still a half mile below.
Something moved under her feet and she stumbled forward again. The suit was badly topheavy but she caught herself before she fell. Sharp pain penetrated through her boot. She angled the camera down quickly and moved her hand towards the circular object. The hard axle of a wheel came into her hand.
It was unmistakably the wheel of a child's roller skate.
Maggie. The voice spoke again but it wasn't Irvine. It was a rougher, thicker voice over the radio. You left the god damned wheel on the stairs, Maggie. Her father. Hugo was wincing from his broken foot, where she had left the rollerskate out loose he had fallen and hurt it bad, and he was walking towards her now with what was left of the skate in his hand, held overhead, and she was going to get a beating with it.
“Tadia,” Irvine said, and she jolted back into her mind. Whatever she had been holding was gone. “You there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I've found some-”
“Never mind, You're way off course. I've got a reading. You're not even in Buxton anymore. Somehow you fell into Wilamette Crater. I don't know how you got in there but you're going to need to look for a way to climb back out.”
Wilamette. That was the place where a couple of the miners had gone snow blind. It was the word they used when the darkness and the isolation played too many tricks on you, like mountain climbers that get disoriented when all they see is white everywhere. Bucks Haleigh was one of the tragedies. He was a good guy, but he had gotten confused drilling over here and not made it back.
But snow blinding happened when you were out for hours and working alone. It wasn't a good explanation. She didn't feel panic, but amazement. If there had been a wheel in her hand it was gone now.
The metal wall shimmered under her hands, rippling like a shiny bubble, rebounding with her touch.
“Tadia,” Irvine crackled over the radio. “Your vitals are all over the place. Your blood pressure's off. You need to get out of there.”
“I'm fine,” she said back to him. “But what do you think I'm seeing?” She tried to direct the camera to the metal wall.
“Seeing?” he said. “I just see the crater.”
“You know the miners used to say things about A-E down here.” At various times some of the workers had spread stories or hallucinated seeing living things in the crater. There had been no less than five separate investigations into five different purported species, which were known colloquially amongst the colonists as A through E. But no one had ever made any substantial proof of anything as complex as even a bacteria on the surface.
“They spread the rumors that the little green men are mind controllers, psychics, leprechauns, I dunno,” Irvine said. “You seeing any little green men?”
“I'm not stupid,” she said. The metal wall wasn't a delusion even if it wasn't coming across on camera clearly.
She stepped closer and brushed the dust from her face shield. It wasn't metal at all, it was siding, alumnium. White plastic. Impossible. The same color as the Dayton house, where I grew up.
And below her hand, a doorknob, a door. Her front door.
She turned the knob and stepped into a dark space.
Irvine was still breathing over the monitor. “Listen Tadia, I've got to talk to you. Right now.”
She kept moving forward into the dark. The air inside had a familiar smell. Baked chicken, green beans, like at Thanksgiving, like childhood.
“Listen. A through D species were crap. We knew about that,” he said. “But E- species E wasn't crap. The Company found them in Wilamette Crater. We don't understand what they are but they definitely got ahold of Bucks and messed his mind up somehow. We never told anybody that he lost it before he died. I'm breaking protocol by telling you this but you're getting the same brain frequencies like he did. We think those things maybe induce some kind of hallucination to defend themselves.”
“Nothing I'm seeing here is a hallucination, Irvine.” She stepped into what looked like a living room. There was shag carpeting and brown wood paneling. When she turned to look behind her, the door she had come through remained open, and the dark moon dust of the crater seemed to be blowing in.
“Shut the door, mommy.” A familiar voice. Dougie. Her son. He was sitting on the couch, undisturbed, wearing his overalls, playing with a plastic toy.
“Dougie,” she said.
Irvine's voice still penetrated the helmet, an annoying reality. “There's more. We think they know about our plans to flood the crater. We've been getting penetrating attacks in the computer systems over the last month. Tadia, we kept all this because we knew it'd make people panic. They attacked us to defend themselves. They're killers, Tadia. I'm telling you this so you can get out of there.”
Dougie walked up to her. She hadn't seen him in a month. His shaggy brown hair smelled like mud and dirt, not like the sterile hallways of Pisces. Never ever should she have brought him to space. No child had any business up there. They should have gone home and suffered with everyone else on Earth. They should have died with the rest of humanity.
“We've got plenty of water here, Mommy,” Dougie said. Tadia's eyes glistened with the sound of her son's voice. “Stay here with me.”
“No,” Irvine said over the radio, “don't”-
Dougie put his hand up to her helmet. She bent forward to him.
“I'm scared,” Dougie said. “Stay here with me.” His little hands unlatched the two latches on the side and pulled the helmet over her head and removed it.
Gasping for air, she looked forward. The helmet clattered to the floor.
In the growing darkness she saw Hugo, coming towards her, carrying the butterfly knife, his hot drunken breath warm on her, and without speaking, her mind filled with his voice, the singular words, final words: You should never ever have come down here.