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Science Fiction Speculative

The Orion-X, powered by the latest advances in helium-3 nuclear fusion technology, is the fastest spacecraft ever made in its class. At a maximum velocity of 31,000 miles per hour, our journey to the Moon will last just eighteen hours and six minutes from launch to landing. Even so, we’re each scheduled to grab six hours of sleep at various times. It’s my turn now.

Weightlessness takes some getting use to, and we only had four months of astronaut training. So I’ll be learning some things the hard way. I waste fifteen minutes trying to secure my flight suit and comms gear. A full thirty-four minutes pass before I’m cocooned in the sleeping bag and strapped to the wall. My free arms float out in front of me, like a zombie.

I close my eyes, but my side of the ship faces the Sun. I curse myself for forgetting to close the blinds. Hot colours swirl within my eyelids and I watch Capaldi burn, over and over, as the fires consume Ground Control. I can’t stop fidgeting. I can’t stop thinking.

There’s a knock at the door. A welcome face appears in the porthole window. I beckon Commander Johnson in. “Hey, Mae.”

She just smiles and sidles up to me.

We know the rules. Alone and off comms, we can be friends. Otherwise, we address each other formally and stick to mission matters.

Johnson slides an arm through one strap to dock herself beside me.

I reach down to hold her hand. “I’m so sorry, about Capaldi. He was the best.”

Flight Director Marvin Capaldi and Johnson had been in love for twenty years, since he trained her at the US Space Force Academy. Their not-so-secret romance was forbidden the entire time. But their love was unstoppable, a force of nature. Even living at opposite ends of the solar system for five years could not separate them.

Johnson had burst into my quarters two days ago, giddy like a high school girl who’s just secured her prom date. Her big news was that Capaldi had promised to retire after this mission, and finally marry his sweetheart.

She places a hand across her heart, to feel the engagement ring that’s been hanging under countless uniforms these past nineteen years.

“It felt like, I was watching a movie,” she says, “about someone else’s life. It feels like he’s just gone off shift. Maybe it will sink in when this mission’s done, and he’s not home.”

She lets out a long, mournful sigh. “And how about you?”

I shake my head, not knowing how to put this crushing sense of numbness into words. “Any word from Ground Control?”

“Not yet,” says Johnson. “Lebedev and Klingemann are on it.”

She pauses, sensing my thoughts. “We’re searching for your father too. Prominent civilians are always evacuated first.”

“What good is a quadchopper in a lightening storm though?”

Johnson doesn’t answer. She squeezes my hand.

“We argued last time we spoke,” I say.

Johnson releases my hand and turns to me. Her alert eyes narrow. “What about?”

“Oh, the usual,” I say, then adopt a well-practised impression of my father’s broad Aussie accent. “You won’t be safe in space, girly. When the going gets tough, you’ll have one of your panic attacks. Leave it to the men, and Johnson. Isn’t it time you had a baby?”

Johnson huffs. “For God’s sake.”

“He was a demeaning, bigoted arse… but…”

“He is your only family,” says Johnson. I appreciate her empathy, but there’s no hope for my father. He’s dead too.

Johnson’s parents worked for NASA in Texas, on the legendary Artemis missions. She lost them both in 2043, when she was nine. Two more innocents caught in the crossfire of gangland violence. One brilliant, determined little girl left behind.

As the end of the 21st century approaches, the surviving human population on Earth is just over one million. I should count myself lucky I made it to twenty-seven before being orphaned.

I throw my head back, and a betraying tear escapes my right eye. Its tiny, shining, wobbling form floats in front of me. We watch in silence as it floats away, distorting our room like a fisheye camera lens.

Johnson leaps up and catches the droplet in dramatic fashion. “No loose liquids onboard my ship!”

That makes me smile, but only for a moment. “He was right. I shouldn’t be here.”

“That’s horseshit, Harper!” she says. “You’re critical to this mission, its technical architect. Without your inventions, we wouldn’t stand a chance, and your father’s company would have collapsed years ago.”

A hint of a snarl appears on her top lip, and she points a prodding finger at me. “He knows that. You gotta know it too.”

She breathes in deep, then out, calming her temper, and resumes her place beside me. “Hell, without those Moon Drones you created, this ship would still be powered by rocket fuel, causing yet more pollution and taking a damn sight longer. And without your mining bots, men and women would still be risking their lives in the toxic, open air.”

It was a team that built those things. The team we left behind to die.

Johnson squeezes my hand. “You think differently, Harper. You see problems and solutions that others don’t. Who knows what obstacles we’ll find that deep in the Moon’s crust? We need that big brain of yours on the ground, and underground. Mission Leader Harper Gold, you are God damn essential.”

I look straight into her sincere brown eyes, at her focussed, earnest expression, nod and smile back. Johnson is one of those rare people who can inspire confidence and belief in anybody, in any situation. A natural born leader, one in a million.

Being a living legend helps. She was the first human to step on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Not the first woman, not the first black person, just simply the first. For someone like Johnson, there are no glass ceilings she can’t smash through, no inequalities she can’t level.

“He argued I could perform my duties just as well from Earth,” I say. “Uploading code fixes, running data analysis, even controlling the drill — I could do all my work remotely in near real-time. He said Nkosi would make a stronger, more steadfast mining mission leader.”

Johnson shook her head. “The mission governance board rejected that proposal months ago. Nkosi, a convicted murderer as Mission Leader? Honestly!”

She looks around the locked cabin and double-checks her headset mic is off. “I lobbied everyone, including your father, against him even coming aboard at all, but your father’s money won the argument.”

“It always does,” I say.

Johnson huffs. “Why can’t the damn man just trust his own daughter?”

“He says I’m indecisive,” I say, before realising her question was rhetorical. “That I hesitate when key facts are unknown. He says I’ve missed opportunities in the past by not following my instincts.”

Quick as a flash, she pivots to float directly before me and looks me straight in the eye. “Stop looking at life through your father’s lens.”

Johnson’s statement hits me hard. I don’t respond.

“Harper, I’m sorry. I was out of order to speak along those lines whilst you worry for him.”

I take her hands. “The truth hurts. Whether he’s dead or alive, I’ll be living in his shadow, always trying to prove myself to him. Somehow, whatever I do, it’s never enough. I’m never good enough.”

“You’re an amazing young woman,” says Johnson. “Your father… your father is a survivor and the backup ground control sites are doing everything they can to find him. I promise you that.”

I smile back to reaffirm our friendship. Although a spotlight on my shortcomings isn’t what I needed, Johnson is grieving, and she’s always got my back. Of course, she hasn’t dropped by for idle girl chat. A flight commander has to ensure that all mission assets are fully operational at all times, especially the human ones.

We first met during the Helium-3 Moon Drone programme ten years ago, not long before the Climate Wars started. Johnson led all cargo missions to and from the Lunar Colony back then, and delivered the first iterations of those awesome machines.

I was the only teenager at the Moon Drone launch event and spent most of my time alone in a corner, trying to beat my Rubik’s cube personal best time. Until Johnson came over. She looked stunning in a full length midnight-blue ballgown, which sparkled under the makeshift chandeliers her crew had erected in the aircraft hanger. With her tall athletic figure and stiletto shoes, she towered above everyone, until my drunken ogre of a father arrived.

The creep looked her up and down, like a butcher inspecting the marbling in a side of beef. “You look good, for your age.”

She gave him a cool, hard stare. “You look good too, for a fossilised dog turd.”

Her crewmates cracked up. But of course the famous Jack Gold, the impenetrable narcissist, laughed the hardest. Johnson just gave me a wink and held out her hand.

I spent the rest of that wonderful night with her. We stole snacks, and she told me of her most daring adventures in space. She even taught me how to dance Samba. We became firm friends that night. She’s my mentor, my hero, a surrogate mother to me. And I’m the closest thing to the daughter she’ll ever have.

“I’d best go check how the men are getting on with contacting GC,” says Johnson.

“Shut the blind, will you?” I say. “Thanks for the visit. Love you.”

She blocks out the Sun I’d been yearning to see for so long, then floats back to plant a kiss on my forehead.

* * *

Ten restless minutes later, I call time on trying to sleep and bumble my way out of the sleeping bag.

I open the hatch to the vast, cavernous hold, and the insistent alien hum of a thousand power units charging greets me. The robots’ green and amber charging lights flicker on and off in synchronised waves, flowing up and down the full two hundred-foot length of the chamber.

In the flashes of light, giant drill heads and saw tooth excavators cast menacing shadows and silhouettes. Johnson says the sound and sight of it all gives her the creeps. But I love it. These machines are my babies.

I expect to find Burnsy there, diagnostic pad in one hand and a cup of synth tea in the other, humming rugby songs to himself. The robots are his babies too. We built them together, back in Australia, aided by forty other seasoned robotic and software engineers. The team my father said we had no room for, as he dragged me screaming up the airship cargo ramp, and the Great Firestorm engulfed them.

My father was right — there was no room, because he’d rescued all the mining machines instead.

I drift down to the workshop benches. Sure enough, a dark figure is hunched over one.

“Hey Burnsy,” I say.

“It is me,” says a deep, gruff voice. I gasp as Nkosi’s scarred face, stripped with black tribal tattoos like permanent war paint, emerges from the shadows.

His bright amber, cat-like eyes fix upon me. His large, powerful physique dwarfs my own. My heart pounds in my chest.

“Oh right, seen Burns?” I say, my voice raising to a squeak. I try to act calm, like a baby gazelle who’s just stepped in front of a sleeping lion.

His top lip curls in disgust. “No.”

We keep the Cargo bay lighting low to avoid adding to the heat already generated by the charging equipment. But over Nkosi’s shoulder, a single lamp illuminates the mag-bench. Even by this dim, green light, I catch the unmistakable glinting streak of a long rifle barrel. A disassembled laser sight, trigger and other parts are also stuck to the mag bench. It’s a high-calibre hunting rifle, a big game poacher’s weapon.

Nkosi is South African, of Zulu descent, in his late forties. He killed the last wild rhino in the world with this same gun, aged fifteen. That’s how he earned the nickname he loves: Rhino’s Bane.

I enable my push-to-talk microphone. “Nkosi! Why the hell are you building a gun?!”

He just keeps staring at me unblinking, like a predator assessing its prey before the pounce. Alone and vulnerable, the merciless intensity of his warrior eyes shatters my nerves. My spine tingles, my breathing falters. The only sound in the world is the thud, thud, thud of my racing heart.

“Commander Johnson speaking. Harper, where are you?”

“I’m in the, the c-cargo bay.”

Johnson’s face lights up the holoscreen above the mag-bench. Her virtual presence gives me strength. “Nkosi is assembling a rifle, Commander.”

She turns on the main lights. “So I see. Apart from two cosmonaut survival pistols, no other weapons are in the ship’s manifest. Nkosi, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“We need protection,” he says.

I scoff. “From what, Moon dust?!”

“That’ll do Harper, I’m asking the questions here,” says Johnson.

Nkosi snarls. “From scouting parties.”

“But we’re going to the dark side,” I say. “How will the Colonists ever get there from the near side? The max range of their cruisers is 300 miles. It’s ridiculous!”

“Harper, enough!” bellows Johnson. “You and everyone else will respect the chain of command upon this ship. Is that understood?!”

“Yes, Commander,” I say, taken aback. Johnson is strict, but usually fair. “I’m sorry.”

Johnson takes a moment to breathe in deep, then out again. “Nkosi has a point.”

I look wide-eyed at her face, then turn and give him the dagger stare. Nkosi just sneers back. Smug bastard.

“The Lunar Colony broke off comms with the Alliance last week,” says Johnson. “We received solid intel that its new Head of Security, an Englishman called John Burton, has gone rogue and the Governor is missing. We also have evidence that they’ve adapted their cruisers for far longer expeditions.”

I stare at Johnson open-mouthed. Why am I only hearing this now? Why was Johnson so harsh with me?

“Show me this Burton,” says Nkosi.

Johnson shakes her head. “That’s classified. Somehow, the Colonists know we’re coming and why. They’re furious we’re not sharing the lithium.”

The Colony’s been trying to expand their farms for years, but solar energy has its limitations when the lunar nights are two weeks long. Post-war, power storage is now a major issue for everyone too. Earth’s mineable sources of lithium are now either depleted or destroyed in the nuclear conclusion to the Climate Wars.

“And in an unsanctioned referendum,” says Johnson, “the Colony has voted in overwhelming favour of independence from Earth.”

“The gun stays,” says Nkosi.

Johnson nods. “Get some target practice in the Moon’s lower gravity once we’ve deployed our field base. You’ll enjoy the extra range, but keeping your footing firm from the recoil is the challenge.”

Nkosi’s wicked smile gives me the cold shivers again.

“But I’m downright pissed at this insubordination,” says Johnson. “Nkosi, this is an official warning — put one more foot wrong and you will receive disciplinary action. Clear?”

“Clear, Commander,” says Nkosi.

“Harper, you have command of mining operations only. Disrespect an instruction on my ship again, and I will assume total authority. Is that clear?!”

My bottom lip quivers. “Yes, Commander.”

“And you’re both supposed to be asleep in your quarters. Only Burns is supposed to be in the cargo bay, running diagnostics. Mission Specialist Burns, do you read me?”

No answer. She enables his headset mic, and we hear snoring.

Morgan Burns!” roars Johnson.

“What the?! Err… what’s occurrin’, Commander?”

Johnson shakes her head. “Explain yourself.”

“Nkosi and I swapped sleep shifts,” says Burnsy. “Bloody knackering this space travel malarkey.”

Oh Burnsy! Trust a miner to keep digging the hole.

“Nkosi’s suggestion, I suppose?” says Johnson. “No need to answer that! What a God damn unruly bunch you tunnel lovers are! Harper and Nkosi, back to your quarters now!

“Yes Commander,” say Nkosi and I in sync, glaring at each other. My heart is still pounding, but now from anger rather than fear. Anger with Johnson for belittling me and for siding with Nkosi. Anger with him for threatening me and the mission. And furious with my father for ensuring that Nkosi is here at all. A father should protect his child from harm and fear, not be the cause.

“And Burns, pull yourself together and report to the flight deck this instant,” says Johnson. She cuts the video without waiting for a reply.

Nkosi, just three feet from me, turns the mag-bench power off and the rifles parts become suspended in space. With the same lightning speed and precision as on Earth, he assembles the weapon in a rapid flurry of angry snaps and clicks.

Then he wheels the completed gun around and points it at my forehead. He cocks his head to look down the laser sight barrel and flicks the safety off. I hold my position, more out of blind fury and disbelief than conscious courage. I can’t be sure the chamber is empty. He pulls the trigger.

My whole body flinches. Nkosi lets out a bitter laugh, then shoves me aside as he pushes off back towards the living quarters, rifle in hand.

“Sleep tight, woman,” he calls back.

“Why don’t you take that gun and stick it up your arse!” I wish I had a more original comeback. I wish I had been braver. One shot from that elephant gun would have pierced the hull and killed us both. Nkosi is mean, but not stupid.

Floating there, alone for a time, I let the waves of synchronised charging lights wash over me. Our world of eight people is seven too many. Machines break down, but they never let you down.

November 02, 2023 05:19

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5 comments

Michał Przywara
20:51 Nov 02, 2023

Some great sci-fi here. Focusing on very human issues, like worrying about dead or missing loved ones, is immediately relatable, and it opens the door for some seamless world building - and what a dark, depressing world it is. Humanity is all but wiped out, the planet is on fire, and we still find time for violence towards each other. Well, maybe it's not all bleak. The mission they're on sounds like it might be hopeful. "Trust a miner to keep digging the hole." :) Some good relationships too, particularly the personal/professional one b...

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M.A. Grace
23:27 Nov 09, 2023

Hi Michael, thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments as usual. You are rather insightful on the comparison with how the father treats the MC. That comes out in the wider work. Best, Martin

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Karen Corr
12:35 Nov 02, 2023

I never thought of teardrops floating in anti-gravity. It opens a world of possibilities. Thank you, M.A. (:

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M.A. Grace
13:24 Nov 02, 2023

Run with it! Thanks for reading and your comment. Funny we both posted stories referencing Titan this week.

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Karen Corr
15:34 Nov 02, 2023

Great minds think alike! 😊

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