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General

“I never thought I’d see this,” Eric said as the grey, pockmarked surface drew nearer.

Nell focused on the panel in front of her. “Mission control, this is Muninn. Our altitude is seventeen hundred and thirteen metres. Confirm descent trajectory.”

“Trajectory confirmed.” Lena’s voice was loud and clear over the com system. “What’s the view like?”

Five high-resolution cameras were mounted on the outside of the Muninn module. The images were displayed on small screens inside, and no doubt on dozens of full-size ones at mission control. Still, there was nothing like an eyewitness account.

Nell glanced out of the tiny window. “Grey.”

“Wish I could see it.”

Nell and Eric exchanged a brief look. The other four kept their heads down and tapped away at their consoles, occasionally checking something with mission control. Nell knew their names, their ranks, their histories. It was all irrelevant. This was not their mission. This was hers, and Eric’s, and Lena’s.

Lena’s voice came again. “Muninn, you are coming in too slow. Burn primary thrusters for five seconds.”

“Roger that.” Eric’s fingers flew over his console. “Altitude two hundred and sixty metres.”

“Initiate landing protocol,” Nell said. The extra burst of speed had taken them over a boulder-filled crater. As Eric called out their coordinates, Nell adjusted their course and the other four busied themselves with landing struts and auxiliary thrusters. All the while, Nell kept her face determinately away from the starboard screen. The surface there was as dark and lifeless as anywhere else, and that was not something she wanted to think about now. She focused on the controls.

There was a slight bump, and the Muninn came to a shuddering halt.

“Touchdown,” she said. “Mission control, this is Muninn. We have landed.”

A burst of applause and cheering came over the com system, then Lena’s voice broke in, “Yes, well done everyone. Nell, any words for posterity?”

Nell took a deep breath. “We’re back.”

She oversaw the shutdown of the engines and confirmed the stability of the landing struts, then ordered everyone to suit up. The bulkiness of the suit and the weight of the helmet were achingly familiar despite two decades of technological advances. She and Eric checked each other for leaks.

“I’m going to pull rank,” she informed the other four. “I go first, then Eric. You decide amongst yourself who’s next.”

“We’ve all done spacewalks before,” number three said.

“This is different from a regular spacewalk.” Nell engaged the airlock and stepped carefully down the ladder and into the soft dust. The artificial gravity field fell away behind her as she stepped away from the Muninn, and soon she was running, or what passed for running in the cumbersome suit. Each step became a leap and she could almost fly. She felt twelve again, and free as a bird. It wasn’t the sheer unbridled weightlessness of a spacewalk, it was more anchored. Homely.

“Nell, you’re whooping,” Lena said in her earpiece.

“Sorry.” Nell came to a stop. Ahead stretched an endless plane of grey, pockmarked with craters. It was a cold, hostile environment, bleak and desolate, and Nell was struck by the sheer beauty of it. The sky was inky black and dusted with stars. Just above the horizon hung a bright circle of swirling blue and white.

“I’ve missed this view.” Eric had come up behind her. “Hey, Lena, I’m pretty sure we can see you. We’re waving.”

“Bastard,” Lena said. She sighed. “I’ve got the images from your helmet cams on the big screen, but it’s just not the same.”

Nell wished she could stay here and look at the view forever, but there was work to be done. She sent Eric with three of the four others to unpack the habitat, while she set up the lab with number four. He was a burly man with a background in computer engineering and a tendency to swear at spectrometers that had to be recalibrated. It took several days before the habitat section and the lab were fully up and running. Once the solar panels were deployed and the water filters were installed they had a little more space to live. On the fourth day, numbers two and three reported that the atmospheric system was working but that they were still having some minor issues with the cosmic radiation shield.

“And it’s not even Friday afternoon yet,” Eric muttered.

At that, Nell couldn’t help smiling.

“Did you play lacrosse when you were young?” she said. “So many of my matches were cancelled due to radiation shield malfunctions.”

“Nah, my parents thought I was a bit young for untethered outdoor sports. But they used to take me out to explore the crater in the weekends. Those shield malfunctions spoiled everything.”

Number three was looking from Eric to Nell and back, one eyebrow raised.

“How’s the rover?” Nell asked her.

“Ready to go.”

Nell went to the com panel. “Mission control, this is Muninn.”

“Mission control here.”

“We’re all set, Lena. Except the shield. Some teething problems there.”

“Of course there are.” There was laughter in Lena’s voice.

“Request permission to approach the Copernicus Settlement.”

From the completeness of the silence, Nell knew Lena had turned her microphone off. She counted her breaths and waited. Then came the tell-tale crackle as Lena came back on the com channel.

Her voice was calm and devoid of any emotion. “Permission granted. And… good luck.”

The rover was large enough to fit four people, provided they liked each other and didn’t bring too much gear. But numbers one to four were all tall and broad - the result of childhoods spent in full gravity eating abundant Earth foods - so Nell decided that she would only take Eric and number four this time. There was no way of knowing the state of Copernicus Settlement, so they brought extra oxygen tanks and whatever equipment fit into the back of the rover.

Eric sat in the front with her with maps and discussed the route with mission control, but Nell found she hardly needed his instructions. The landscape was becoming familiar. There was what she had always called the Big Crater. Next to that were the slag heaps of the mine. She negotiated a tricky section that was strewn with boulders, and then the rover emerged onto the mining road. The squat dome of the Copernicus Settlement was just ahead. It looked exactly like it had twenty-two years ago, except that everything was dark and quiet. Eric stiffened in his seat, and Nell realised that like her, he had been hoping for some miracle. It was worse when they got out of the rover and their steps sent them bouncing up from the surface. The artificial gravity field was down.

The electrical system that controlled the main airlock was down as well, but the mechanical override mechanism still worked.

“Come on,” Nell said. She switched on her head torch and stepped through onto Gagarin Avenue. It was all so familiar and yet so wrong. Gagarin Avenue had been the settlement’s main thoroughfare. There had been plants, bright lights and rowdy miners’ pubs that the children dared each other to sneak into. There was no dust and nothing had rotted or rusted. But the plants were long dead and stood by the road like frozen skeletons.

“There’s little oxygen, but the pressure is higher than outside,” number four said.

Eric looked up into the cavernous space above them. The beam of his head torch danced amid the support struts. “No cracks in the dome, then.”

 “The climate control system is down,” Nell said. She ran her gloved fingers over a computer panel by the airlock. “All electronics must have been fried by the storm.”

Lena’s voice came crackling through Nell’s earpiece. “That’s as we expected. I never really believed the backup systems would survive. Any sign of people?”

“Negative.”

“Search the command centre.”

The command centre stood on one side of Gagarin Avenue and was the tallest building in Copernicus Settlement, with three floors above ground level. It had always been strictly out of bounds for children and it felt wrong to enter it now. They peered into the offices that lined the hallway, but found nothing but dead computer banks and abandoned knick-knacks on the desks. In one office, a chair was turned over, wheels in the air like a dead animal. The director’s room was at the top of the stairs. It was as empty and lifeless as the rest of the centre, and the computer was dead.

“Mission control, come in,” Nell said. “The command centre looks abandoned. No sign of people, or where they went.”

“Could they have gotten away somehow?” number four asked.

“Impossible,” Lena said. “Only the Discovery was there at the time, and we barely made it back to Earth before the storm hit.”

Those days were burned into Nell’s memory. The Discovery was a transport shuttle with limited passenger seating, but they’d done their best with seats torn from mining vehicles. Nell and the other big kids had spent most of the journey with their arms around toddlers who screamed themselves hoarse as they bounced down through Earth’s atmosphere.

She snapped out of it. Number four had unpacked his instrument case and was busy with cables and external batteries.

“I may be able to power up some of these computer systems,” he said

“See if you can recover the log entries,” Lena said. “Eric, Nell. Do a thorough sweep of the settlement. Building by building. You may have to widen the search later on, in case they hid in the mines.”

Nell waved Eric on. “We’ll make our way down to Tereshkova Square.”

Tereshkova Square, where Gagarin Avenue crossed Shepard Street, had been the bustling hub of Copernicus Settlement. It was the place they gathered for lunar festivals, where changes in the shuttle service where announced, and where the kids would play lacrosse and football when the radiation shield was down and they could not go out onto the fields. Gagarin Avenue and Shepard Street divided Copernicus Settlement into four quadrants. Three of these contained a mixture of shops, businesses and houses, while the fourth was made up of mining facilities.

Nell and Eric worked methodically, searching each building as they worked their way steadily towards the square. The houses had dark windows like eye sockets in a skull, and all contained the same utilitarian furniture. Each house had a hydroponics cellar, now completely overgrown by plants that had withered and died when the water and nutrients ran out. Next to the doors were empty wardrobes where the spacesuits had hung. It was Eric who found the writing first. It had been scratched into the wall of one of the houses on Glenn Street.

“Lena, are you getting this?” Nell swept her torch across the words.

We'll go no more a-roving by the light of the moon

“Whose house are you in?”

“Johan Pauling’s,” Nell said. “He taught me English and history.”

“He always was a poetic bastard.” Lena’s sigh was audible even over the com link.

They found more writing after that. Sometimes scratched into the walls, sometimes smeared onto tables with engine grease. In one house they found a message embroidered onto a scarf in rough stitches. Once the electronics were destroyed, the inhabitants of Copernicus had gotten creative to make up for the lack of pen and paper. Some had written little snippets of poems, but mostly the messages were variations of Farewell and I love you. By silent agreement, Nell searched Eric’s old house and he searched hers. They did Lena’s together. Each held a little Farewell and addressed them by name. Apart from the messages, there was nothing.

“They had time to prepare.” Eric’s voice was taut. He had only been eight at the time. “The storm didn’t kill them instantly.”

“Come on,” Nell said. “Don’t cry in a spacesuit. You know what a bugger it is to clean the tears and snot.”

He gave a weak laugh and she led him away from their old street. They had nearly finished two of the quadrants and the vast emptiness of Tereshkova Square loomed ahead. To one side stood the Armstrong School, where the eighty-odd children in the settlement had gone for lessons.

“Our paintings are still there,” Eric said. He shone his torch over the school windows, which had been decorated by swirls of bright colour and little animals rendered with great enthusiasm and varying degrees of amateurism.

“Yours, maybe,” Nell said. “I was a bit past the arts and crafts stage.”

Like the streets outside, the school was empty and full of ghostly memories that lingered just beyond sight. The torchlight danced through empty hallways and classrooms. One of the walls of the assembly hall was covered with painted farewells.

Number four’s voice crackled in Nell’s earpiece. “I’ve managed to restore some of the data.”

“Can you patch it through to our helmets?”

“Yes. It’s just a couple of seconds, though.”

Nell pressed a switch and a grainy, distorted image appeared on her helmet screen. Despite the poor quality, she had no difficulty recognising the woman. Neither did Eric.

“That’s Mayor Landau,” he said.

“- nothing more to be done.” The Mayor’s voice was tinny. A burst of static drowned it. They could make out odd words. “Children”, “square”, “message”, and finally, “die on our own terms”. With that, the screen went out. Nell stared at where the Mayor had been and her own reflection stared back.

“So where did they go?” Eric said.

“Where would you have gone?” Nell’s voice was barely a whisper. She was sure it would crack if she raised it.

“Not into the mines.”

“No. Not underground. They didn’t give up life on earth to die in a mine here.”

Eric’s eyes widened in sudden understanding. “The spacesuits were gone!”

She asked number four to meet them at the main airlock. They drove the rover a little distance beyond the settlement, where there were some low hills.

“How do you know this is the place?” number four asked. Eric tried to explain it to him. That up here the settlement was hidden from sight and it was just you alone with the universe. That you could turn one way and gaze at the impossibly blue earth, or turn the other and lose yourself in the vastness of the Milky Way. How could an earthborn understand?

Nell stopped the rover and they walked the last few hundred metres. She held Eric’s hand awkwardly in her own as they crested a ridge. Ahead on the slopes were the people of Copernicus Settlement, who had come out here to die.

October 13, 2019 12:57

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1 comment

Cam Croz
03:55 Oct 24, 2019

This is really good! I enjoyed reading it! (Also the end!!! So amazing!😲)

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