From the author: Zelah is charged with managing a group of unruly students, living in relative isolation on the far side of the Moon. When their rebelliousness gets out of hand can she restore order before disaster befalls them all? Subscribers to my email newsletter will receive this story as a free e-book: https://ecaimansands.com/newsletter-2/
Through the gleaming glass hexagons of the Moon dome office the new colony encroaches a little more each day. Vast constructor robots lay down its silicate structure. Mushroom-like, it eases from the regolith in the form of assorted boxes and domes, kicking up volcanoes of grey dust.
How I hate that dust. A decade ago Simon my husband was lost to it. We didn't know how toxic it was back then, we didn't know it would kill. Half the early miners died and we just didn't know. Its gunpowder stink is utterly repellent, yet it's a constant reminder here on the Moon.
The Moon isn't all bad though, it's decent enough here this morning in Tsiolkovsky Crater. The bamboo and glass office dome is brightly sunlit and my breakfast tastes good, sweet juicy grapes. Charlie is eating one too and I smile at Charlie.
"I wish you wouldn't feed that rat," says Anji, scowling, sweeping her unruly blue-dyed hair back off her face.
My cheeks grow hot. Charlie's not a rodent as she well knows, he's a ferret, a weasel and his soft snugly fur tickles my skin.
"He hardly eats anything," I say, refusing to look at Anji who's just polished off the last of the muesli with extra sugar. She puts down her empty glass bowl crafted from the regolith, engraved with the Tranquillity University logo. Despite her appetite she's as slender as a sunbeam. "It's not Charlie, it's us that eat too much, we're going to have to ration if we're staying here on far side."
"Of course we're staying, Zelah," she snaps. This, despite the fact that the east side near horizon is no longer visible. Just the sucking black vacuum over the new colony buildings inset with the suspended jewel of the Sun.
"The radio telescope will be dismantled whether you go or stay," I tell her. "Call the shuttle. You and Henry and the others can't stop civilisation."
She snorts and scratches at the spider tattoo on her wrist. "Civilisation. Is that what you call it?"
She has a point, I guess. Still, she's crazy, she and Dr. Henry Adams and the rest of his students, they're all of them crazy for refusing to leave far side. We’re almost out of food and we’re going to starve.
I bundle up Charlie from his nest in my lap, tickling his neck where he likes it, then let him down to bounce off in search of old socks. I shift my butt over to the nearest humming computer workstation; everything, even my middle-aged butt is light in the one-sixth lunar gravity. "Come help me calibrate the telescopes," I ask Anji. For now the metre high dipole antennas, hundreds of them, plus a few dishes, still march off into the darkness to the west.
She doesn't want to help me but she does. That's what we're up here for after all, to mind the telescopes.
We have even less food than we did two days ago and my stomach rumbles. I'm underground in the habitat tunnels carved from bare anorthosite, rummaging through the neon-lit storage cupboard, scraping the last of the jam out for morning toast. I lick the spoon clean of lovely sweet raspberries but we've already run out of butter.
After I've munched my single slice and fed Charlie his ferret crunchies I head off to the dome. Henry is still up there from the night before, apparently. I climb up the metal, clanging ladder with Charlie's beige body draped over one shoulder. Fingers still sticky from the jam. Charlie's light musky scent tickles my nasal passages.
A scene of devastation greets me at the top. Empty Tranquillity Base beer bottles, cheese and onion crisp packets, ends of reefers, even a used condom.
Charlie wriggles in my grasp but I daren't let him down in this mess. Henry's lanky self sits hunched at one of the workstations, his fingers strumming gently on his precious Sunburst Chrome Gibson Firebird. He's humming one of his old rock songs, no doubt imagining he's back in his youth on stage. His levis are showing their age, as are his once dark locks. His handsome face is lined and careworn but still catches the eye of every woman he meets. Including mine if I'm honest.
I don't look at him, instead I survey the room.
"Henry, have you any idea how bad this place looks?"
"Not really," he says. "I'm blind, remember. Don't fuss, Zelah, I'm sure the kids will sort it."
"You'll break your neck just trying to navigate through your own mess."
"I'll be careful," he promises, putting the guitar back into its black case and securing the locks. His wandering eyes stare up at the glass roof like a child's wondering at the stars. Maybe he was more focused back when he was married with his young son, but not now, not after his boy was killed in to his mind that barbaric Middle Eastern war. His wife left him and now he lives for his work and for wild late night parties with his students trying to relive his glory days. Perhaps he's happy? Who can tell? He doesn't talk to me. You would think grief might have brought us together but somehow it's never worked out that way.
"Do you want something?" he says.
"We need to talk about the food," I say. "If we're staying here we need to ration it. You need to establish some rules, you need to speak to your students."
He purses his lips. "Really? They won't like it. They want to stay on the Base as do I."
"Why's it so important to stay for you? You don't care about the Moon."
"You know why. The telescopes. They're the only ones in a radio silent spot. Don't you want to be among the first to find the exoplanet containing alien life?"
I roll my eyes. "Of course I do but not at the expense of my sanity. I'm about done with the Moon." I've been about done with the Moon since Simon died, since he left me with nothing but memories and a few home holograms.
When Henry doesn't respond, I push my luck. "There are other telescopes. Tsiolkovsky’s are no longer cutting edge even if they're in the best location."
"They're good enough," he says, and it's true, our radio telescopes still do valuable work. They hunt aurora around distant exoplanets. Finding one signals the existence of a magnetosphere and a magnetosphere means the far flung world is protected from harmful cosmic rays and solar emissions. Its likelihood of harbouring life is so much greater. Such planets become the priority focus for other, optical telescopes able to spot more definite signs of life. Several radio telescopes can do this kind of work, but Tsiolkovsky’s are precious to Henry and his students.
We've had this argument so many times before. Henry turns away, hands exploring the work surface in front of him, settling on one of his many 3D-printed braille tablets. "Ask Dijo, or maybe Susie to bring me some breakfast, will you? And yeah, I'll speak to the kids about the food." He turns his attention to his numbers, a sure indication he wants me to leave.
I scoop up a few empty bottles on my way out. Anji's lurking on the ladder rungs, eyes wide beneath black mascara, startled that I’ve busted her eavesdropping.
She glances at me sideways as she moves to let me pass. Says nothing as I jump back down the shaft and release the madly squirming Charlie. Anji, she's trouble that one. Who knows what she's capable of?
"Henry? Henry! Open the door, dammit." It's been three weeks of gradually deepening hell and Henry has locked himself inside the office dome. I'm pounding my fists on the sealed hatch until they hurt. "Henry! Your students are fighting!"
No answer. Cursing, I hurry back to the hydroponic dome and climb the ladder into the garden. This second dome is structured much like the first, the robot construction vehicles just as visible beyond the glass exterior. They've drawn a lot closer in the past few weeks, the buildings just keep going up. They haven't yet encroached on the radio telescope arrays, nor the dishes, but it’s only a matter of time.
As I climb into the dome, a wall of warm, humid air strikes in stark contrast to the tunnels’ chill. Raised voices of the students are barely audible over the constant hum of air filters and liquid pumps. The jungle of sweet smelling overgrown grape vines and dangling watermelon partially blocks my path but it's easy enough to push through.
All six students are assembled in the strawberry patch. They fall silent when I arrive, staring up at me with guilty eyes. Dijo, short and a little pudgy, has a split lip and bloody gash above his eye. Mikhail, a red-headed muscled behemoth of a man, has a light scratch on his cheek. The strawberries have been well trampled. Mikhail's fist is still clenched.
"Dijo has been stealing fruit," says Mikhail, his voice tense and angry.
"I'm sorry. I was hungry," says Dijo, staring at the ground.
"We're all hungry," says Anji, kneeling, trying to salvage the few surviving strawberries. "How could you?"
"Let's just try to sort this out calmly," I say, patting the air in front of me. Trying not to think of Lord of the Flies.
"We should search his room," says Mikhail. "He might be hoarding more food there."
"I'm not hoarding food," insists Dijo.
"Where's Henry?" says Susie, her voice shaky as though she's about to cry. Dijo is her boyfriend. She twists her fingers through her blonde hair. Her long, flowing, hippy skirt is stained with leaves and strawberries.
"He's in the other dome," says Anji, and they all fall silent.
"Someone should call the shuttle," I say.
Anji explodes: "We're not calling the shuttle!"
Okay, so that wasn't the smartest thing to say.
Anji storms off, shoving Dijo out of her way. In the light gravity he falls, tumbling among the watermelons. Climbs back to his feet and flees, as the others drift away. I'm left alone in our so-called private Garden of Eden, staring down at the mashed forbidden fruit.
The students have set up camp in the hydroponic dome and rarely come out; Pink Floyd's "Us and Them" filters down the ladder together with the unmistakable whiff of marijuana.
I've always chosen to ignore the illicit plants grown in the garden, turning my back on telltale vapour trails in the tunnels. Students will be students after all and out here on the lunar frontier people take a different attitude to risk. If they didn't, maybe Simon would still be alive. The students' drug-taking habit has increased though, grown way past innocent experiment and addled wits. Meanwhile, beneath the office dome, Henry still ignores me, despite my continued hammering on the hatch.
"Charlie, what are we going to do?" I stroke my pet’s soft fur. Even Charlie is now causing me concern. He hangs almost permanently in a bag across my shoulder or runs beside me on a leash. I don't trust Anji, she has an agenda of her own, one that surely doesn't encompass furry little persons.
Charlie is settling down to sleep when a screech echoes down the long tunnel, jolting him awake.
"You bitch! Where are you?" Anji's high-pitched squeal. I’ve been expecting it, ever since I called the shuttle. I didn’t have any choice.
At least now Henry must emerge. His dome is the one with the airlock, so like it or not he's getting visitors. "Henry!" I rattle the hatch and wait.
Commotion issues from the bottom of the ladder shaft. Sure enough, there's Anji, Mikhail, Susie and the others, visible between my toes.
Mikhail clutches a huge metal rod. All the blood drains from my face. What does he mean to do with that?
"Zelah, come down from there," says Anji in a quiet tone of voice.
"What do you want?" I say.
"Just get out of there," she says.
Nothing I can do except descend the ladder. Mikhail's face is fixed in concentration. He grasps the rungs and climbs as I reach the bottom. Starts hammering on Henry’s hatch with the rod so that soon my ears are ringing. The hatch breaks. He climbs into the dome.
"What's up there?" yells Anji, following. I'm the last one to ascend. The office is still a mess. Nothing has changed except for one thing: Henry isn’t there.
"Where is he?" whispers Dijo.
Anji shakes her head, her face etched with concern. She wanders through the detritus, peering under workstations and poking amongst the rack of spacesuits even though there's nowhere he could be hiding.
"Henry!" Mikhail yells so loudly the glass dome reverberates. He looks confused, stands in the middle of the room, turns in all directions.
Susie covers her ears. She squats on the floor, lays her head across her arms, rocks back and forth.
Dijo sits beside her, puts his arms around her.
"He must be Outside," I say.
The shuttle is clearly visible through the dome’s glass hexagons. The airlock on the vessel yawns wide. Two suited figures step out and bounce across the landscape towards our habitat. But there's no sign of Henry.
"I'm going out to look for him," says Anji. "He might be in trouble."
"How long has he been out there?" wails Susie. "What if he's lost or running out of air?"
"He wouldn't be thinking of doing anything stupid, would he?" asks Dijo, eyes wide. "He's been pretty down lately."
"Don't say that!" yells Anji. "He's not going to kill himself! He's not an idiot!"
"What about the shuttle, and those pilots?" says Mikhail. "We need to deal with that. I thought we'd agreed--"
Anji interrupts, glaring at him. "You handle the shuttle, Mikhail, you know what to do."
"What? What have you agreed?" I ask. What's she up to? What are they all up to?
"Yeah, I'll handle it," says Mikhail, ignoring me, still gripping that steel pipe as though he means to use it.
"What are you planning?" I ask again.
"Stay out of it, Zelah," says Anji, pulling a space suit from the rack.
So, the students are going to do something stupid and as usual they won't listen to me. Only Henry can sort this out. More than ever we've got to find him.
"Dijo, help me with this suit," says Anji.
"You're not going out there alone," I say. "I'm going with you."
"Whatever," she replies.
If Henry is out there--and where else could he be?--he must have suited himself, not the most sensible action even for a sighted man. His suit has its own modifications, but it’s his state of mind I’m worried about.
Susie helps me with my suit, then takes charge of Charlie. Unlike Anji, she actually likes him, and Charlie likes her too. She secures my helmet and checks for leaks as the suit pressurizes. It's claustrophobic and there's a stink of cleaning fluid but at least the suits are lighter than they used to be and more manoeuvrable with little motors whirring in the joints.
We waddle to the airlock.
"Okay, lock us in," says Anji, as we step inside. Mikhail secures the titanium hatch. Even through the suit I can hear him punching buttons.
The unmistakeable hiss of air signals chamber depressurization. Anji and I attack the external airlock wheel, hauling it anti-clockwise.
At last the round door swings open and we step out onto the lunar surface. My boots disturb the lethal Moon dust. The monotone landscape stretches ahead before ending too soon at the near horizon. Above us hangs the inky vacuum and the cold glare of the Sun.
It might be deadly but it's still a magnificent sight. And eerie. Every time, I catch my breath. Out here you're that much closer to the universe. This is why Anji and others like her fight to keep the dark side desolate, untouched by human hands. There are plenty of bare rocks beyond Earth, yet precious few habitable planets. If I was going to make some kind of futile protest, it wouldn't be in support of the dead grey Moon.
"Come on, let's get the rover," I say.
We trek around the dome and leap into the seats. Strap in and steer north, bouncing over the landscape at top speed.
"Where is he?" mutters Anji after we've gone a couple of kilometres. Her gloved hands tightly grip the front rail, she leans as far forward as her restraint allows.
"Let’s try west," I say, turning the rover. We skid around in a wide arc, kicking up dust. I keep driving, west and then south.
"How much air do you think he has?" says Anji.
"About three hours," I reply. "Assuming he performed all his pre-EVA checks."
"I bet he didn't," she says.
"He probably did," I say, though in truth, I bet he didn't too.
We keep driving and scanning the horizon. He must be out here somewhere. He can't have just vanished.
"Look! What's that?" Anji points off to the left where a white something sits on the monotone landscape. It's not a moon rock.
The rover slows and yep, it's Henry, dust showering over his suit as the vehicle halts beside him. He's sitting in the regolith, just staring, not moving.
"Henry!" I yell.
Anji butts in, "Henry, are you okay?"
"Hello, Zelah," he says. "And Anji too. You didn't have to come."
"Of course we did you insufferable, infuriating, nuisance of a man!" I yell. "Get up. Come on. Get moving."
"Not yet. What's the hurry?" he answers casually.
"We've got a situation back at Tsiolkovsky. At least, I think we have. Anji's not telling me the full story."
"Oh?" he says. "Anji?"
Anji remains silent.
"Spill it, woman!" I screech, losing patience.
She shoves me and I hit the dust. Maybe I deserved that.
"What's going on?" says Henry. He probably heard my gasp as I fell.
"Nothing," says Anji. "We were going to seize the shuttle, that's all." She squats beside him. "We can get supplies from near side and bring them back. Then we can stay with the array."
"Oh that, yes. Mikhail told me you might try some such ruse if the shuttle was called. I told him it was a bad idea. I guess he didn’t listen."
My mouth opens. How can he be so blasé?
"Henry, please. You need to do something to stop this madness." My fingers flex uselessly inside my suit, my blood pressure rising even higher.
"They won't listen to me -- will you, Anji?"
Anji says nothing again.
"Of course they'll listen. Anji's listening even now. Those students worship you. We all... we all do." My voice is a shrill whisper. If only he would listen.
My head pounds. It's so hot in this suit.
"Give me a minute to think," he says. He lowers his gloved hand and digs it into the regolith. "I really don't want to leave, you know. See this?" He scatters Moon dust. "Do you know what this is?"
"Rock. Silica. Toxic. Deadly. The result of billions of years of meteoric impacts--" My voice sounds weary even to me.
"Not all of it," he says. "Some of it is terrestrial. Some of it is my son." He drags his hand once more through the lunar surface. "His ashes. I scattered them out here when I first came to far side, it's what he always wanted, to visit the Moon. So I brought him here and I like it here, just walking and contemplating the Moon dust. I like to imagine he's walking here with me too."
A muffled sob comes from Anji. "Come home, Henry!" she wails.
I put my gloved hand on her arm. Despite everything, she's just a kid infatuated.
"Henry, listen to her," I say. "Come back to us. Get up, not for me but for her and the others. Your son has gone, just like my husband. He died five years ago. He's not here in the dust, this dust it's evil, it kills, it killed my Simon." I pause to take a deep breath, he has to listen. "Your son was never on the dark side of the moon."
Gently, I take him by one elbow. Anji takes the other. "Will you come? I've brought the rover."
At last he gets up. Somehow we get him on board and back to the dome. By the time we've wrestled him and ourselves out of our spacesuits he's looking a little more grounded. His students crowd, hugging him and slapping him on the back.
"It's gonna be okay, man," says Mikhail. "Everything's gonna be okay."
But behind him sit two scared looking pilots dressed in full suits except for missing helmets. Their bulky arms and legs are tied to workstation chairs. Things aren't quite okay, not yet.
"We just came to pick you up," says one of the pilots.
"I'm sorry," I reply, standing before them, both hands on the back of my head. "We're gonna sort this."
Henry whispers to his students over on the other side of the dome, his soft voice barely audible. "It'll be okay, kids," he tells them. "There are other telescopes to hunt for aurora. The Moon will be developed, no matter what we do. Give it up, let's go back to near side."
He's done it, of course. The students listen to him. Mikhail comes over and helps me untie the pilots. They stretch their arms in an attempt to get the blood flowing. He gives them back their helmets with their gold-plated visors. Everyone else has gone to pack their bags.
Once they've all returned laden with luggage, Anji says, "Really, one of us should stay, just until the telescopes shut down." She's helping Henry get back in his spacesuit.
"I'll stay," I tell them. "I have a few things things to sort out."
No one argues, no surprise there. I'm not sure where I've belonged exactly since Simon died -- but it was never here.
Susie says goodbye to Charlie and some but not all of them hug me too. Mikhail and Anji don't hug me, that would be false. Instead we nod and shake hands.
One by one their helmets are secured. I carry out the essential pressure checks. They all troop into the airlock and out onto the surface.
There they go, following the two pilots back to the shuttle.
"Well, it's just you and me now, Charlie." I open up the strings on his sleeping bag. He bounds free with his favourite rubber ball, chasing around the dome in light lunar gravity.
The Moon has its good points, low gravity being one of them, but for the most part it's brought me nothing but sadness. I'll give it some thought but I'm sure I'll decide to return to Earth when I leave here. I'll visit Simon's memorial plaque on near side. One more time, then I'll leave for Earth. Get a job somewhere sunny, a mountaintop observatory, perhaps. Not too high, where there's birdsong and flowers on bright summer mornings. Naked sunlight falling on my skin. Somewhere far from unhappy memories, away from choking layers of dust. Somewhere far from the dark side of the Moon.