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Science Fiction moon death and dying

A Compass in the Dark

By Phoebe Barton
Nov 28, 2020 · 2,138 words · 8 minutes


The day after my fifteenth birthday, I followed my father out of the airlock and learned how to guide lost spirits home.  It was late afternoon that day and Earth was a bright sickle in the sky, but I only had eyes for the compass.  It was an intricate thing, a silver tower still gleaming against the ashen ground, and more than once I'd wondered if my father loved it more than he loved me.

"It's simpler than it looks, kiddo," he said on our private channel.  "Give me a hand, and we'll have it in top shape in no time."

"Why us?”  Why me, I meant.  I'd rather have been back home practicing sparrow.  Iridium City had the best youth league north of Mare Nubium.  "Shouldn't the government handle it?"

"They don't care about things like this," my father said.  "No, it's worse than that.  They don't believe in spirits.  They act like they can't see them."

I didn't believe in spirits, either, and my father couldn't see that he had a daughter instead of a son.  I couldn't understand why anyone thought spirits needed a magnetic field to find their way to the afterlife.  I didn't say anything about any of that while I helped him inspect the compass.  Even then I knew what it felt like to grab on to anything that seemed like it could help you find your way.

During the day, it gets hot on Luna: hot enough to boil away all the terrible ideas that can't endure off Earth.  After the first few habitat failures, the early Lunarians learned real quick which notions still made sense and which were no better than bullets.  I've dealt with more than a few Earth tourists, and afterwards I'm always dizzy.  There's a casualness to how they carry themselves that I can't keep up with.  Once I caught a man who said he was a genius-level engineer ready to step outdoors with an undogged suit.  Lack of perspective, too; I can't count how often I've had to parry complaints about taxes and liberty and who the hell do us lunatics think we are, not living free.

I don't have to think -- I know we're kind, because the world outside is nothing but cruel.  That's why we do things like build compasses, I think.  So we never lose our way navigating between the ports we've built across all the hostile seas.

"Yes, Dad, you're right.  It's on the other side of the world."

Nobody had known about my plans except my girlfriend Lace, and if I couldn't trust her to keep quiet I couldn't trust airlocks to stay sealed.  My mother was used to me living at arm's length, and I couldn't tell if she was excited for me or just excited for the distance when I broke the news.  Telling my father, though, that had been like watching a lava tube's roof collapse.  First the cracks, then the dust falling like snow, and then a storm of rock finding its new level.

"It's a long way to go," he said as I shared coffee with him at his polished wooden table, dark and bold.  Since my childhood he'd moved out of the city, out into a lonely single-person habitat buried beneath the regolith.  I don't think I'll ever understand why.  "Are you sure you're going to be all right all the way over there?"

"It's farside, Dad, not the edge of the universe.”  It was likely the closest I'd get, though.  Compton-Belkovich Station wasn't much more than a pack of buried shacks where a few teleoperators and geologists minded the drones sifting the dirt for thorium.  "It's what I've studied for."

"They call it farside because it's far away.”  He stood to stretch and dug one hand into his pants to scratch.  He didn't wash afterward.  My fingertips felt oily.  "Do you have time for an inspection before you go?  The tower's been acting up again."

I sighed.  "Please don't do this."

"Do what?”  He sat back down, clasped his hands, stared into my eyes.  "Want to do things with my kid?"

"It's not doing anything.”  I slammed the table with my palm.  "What about all the things I wanted to do, all those times, all those chances, and it always ended up with me watching you tinker with some tower that doesn't do anything!  All that time, all that effort, all for what?"

I expected him to get angry and to shout.  I'd attacked one of the underpinnings of his worldview, after all.  But he didn't raise his voice at all.  Didn't do anything but look disappointed.

"There's more going on that what you believe," he said.  "Things are quiet on farside.  Maybe try watching and listening while you're there."

"Dad--"

"Think about it," he says.  "If you have time.  I'm sure you won't have a dull moment, watching those drones."

My tongue was bitter, not so much from the coffee as my words.  I left his house with barely a goodbye.  When the door puffed shut it was as loud as a vacuum scream, resounding in my bones and nowhere else in the universe.

I spent a lot of my time on farside listening and watching, just like Dad said I would.  Every once in a while I'd suit up to check out a drone that ate some dust it didn't agree with, and those were the best times to look up.  Out on farside, it's easy to imagine that you're alone, that you're lost, that no matter how much you wander you'll never find your way.  Luna's north star isn't bright like Earth's, but dim and easy to lose track of against an infinitely speckled sky.

But for all that listening, I didn't hear the part that really mattered.

I'd switched a shift with one of my station buddies that day, deep in farside night.  It was good that I did, in retrospect, because it meant I was safe and warm in my well-lit quarters when the message came in instead of being outside with only the stars to guide me.

It was one of my aunts.  I honestly can't remember which one.  I can barely remember what words she used; all that burned away in an instant.  I do remember, though, that each word scooped a piece out of me, until by the end of it I was reduced to a hollow person wearing a familiar skin.  I remember silence for a moment, and then an echoing wail.

They'd found my father in his little habitat, dead and alone.

It didn't feel real, not even when Lace and I were rolling down Route 23.  It wasn't like a wound; the body knew how to react to wounds, with pain and anger and too-slow healing.  Nobody knew how to deal with loss.  I held Lace's hand tightly while I tried to figure it out.  Was it my fault?  If I hadn't gone to farside, if I'd stayed close to home, would I have seen something?  Noticed a fatal danger in time to head it off?  That's what a parent was supposed to do for their kid, after all; wasn't it just as important the other way around?

The Emergency Services were at his place when we arrived.  As much as they needed to be there, I hated them for it.  Their drones crawled all over the habitat and the single compass tower.  I could see its magnetic field on my suit visor, extraordinary and bright, a lighthouse for lost spirits.

"I'll be with you," Lace said.  She hadn't met my father more than once or twice.  It must have been easy for her.  "If it gets too much, let me know.  I'm here for you."

The habitat was cold inside and undisturbed, and while everything was in its proper place it felt empty.  I ran a hand along the polished wooden table's curved ridges and shuddered.  It shouldn't have been like this.  There was no sign of decompression.  and no gunpowder-dust smell.  Just the stink of death.

"What happened?”  I asked the emergencies lieutenant, underground-pale and eyes full of empathy.  "Why?"

"We think it's because of that last solar storm," the lieutenant said.  "From what we could tell, he was outside when it kicked up.  By the time he made it in, he'd already taken too much radiation.  I'm sorry, Ms. Meadows, but I'm afraid I have to ask you to positively identify him."

I fell onto a dark plain.  Of course that had been it.  He'd been paying so much attention to his compass tower that he hadn't noticed the storm warning.  Or maybe he had, and he'd stayed outside anyway.  Because he thought he could do it?  Because he didn't care?  I couldn't find answers.  There was nothing to guide me.  No matter which way I turned, there was nothing to see.

Nothing but my father's dead eyes, eyes that would never see anything again.

"It's him.”  I had to force out every sound.  "It's him."

Now I'd never know why.  I wailed there in the habitat, Lace's arms holding me up like puppet strings, lost and alone.

Here and there, if you know where to look, you'll find a few skeletons buried in Luna.  I suppose they were the ones who loved it so much that they wanted to be part of it forever.  I can understand the attraction.  When the sun shines at just the right angle, the surface turns the colour of bone.  It's a reminder of how close death is here, every minute, every instant.  Between the storm warnings, radiation drills, and the rings of point-defence batteries that encircle every city, it takes real effort to forget for even a moment.

Just like it takes real effort to understand why people do what they do, and where their fears might lead them.

"How's it going?”  Through the suit, Lace's hand on my shoulder felt more like a suggestion.  "Looks sensitive."

"Just being thorough," I said.  Dad had built the compass well.  If only he'd been as obsessive about his own maintenance.  "It's all good.  Nothing short of an impact will put paid to this, I think."

"I can go inside once I'm done, then," Lace said.  "If you like."

"No.”  I didn't need to think.  I knew what would happen.  It was hard enough already, the two of us deep in the nearside night.  Overhead the full Earth made a mockery of my loss, gleaming with life-filled light.  "I'm fine."

Lace nodded and started to dig while I went to the rover.  My father's urn was a simple, glassy pyramid.  His ashes were at the centre, shaped into a sphere.  My aunts had insisted; he would have hated it.  This is ridiculous, I could hear him say.  I'm no pharaoh.

I picked up the urn--picked him up--and nearly gasped.  He was so heavy.  But no heavier than I must have been, that first minute.  All those years, all those moments, all those stories that now nobody could tell, all of them reduced to that simple weight.

Lace was finished by the time I got back.  The hole didn't need to be nearly as deep as a grave.

"Should I say something?”  she asked.  "Should you?"

My throat was dry and my tongue was ready to crack in two.  I hadn't spoken to my father since that last visit to the habitat, since right before I'd gone to farside.  Every word was acid-seared onto my brain.

"We've already said everything that matters," I said.  "He's got a long way to go."

I lowered the urn into the hole and buried it in ashen soil.  Above it the compass stood silent, the tallest thing on a smooth plain, and whole.

The Compton-Belkovich Anomaly is a quiet place.  Most of farside is like that, after all.  It's the one place in the solar system where you can pretend Earth doesn't exist.  From Saturn, you can look back and see that pale blue dot, and even from Mirabilis you can gaze across sixteen light-years and find Sol amid the stars of Hercules.  From farside there's no hint of it, no trace.  I don't think people can take it for long when they know they're so close.

It's quiet and empty, and the pole star is dim and easy to miss.

The drones mostly kept to themselves as they chewed the regolith for thorium, and I had a lot of time between excursions.  I didn't have everything I needed yet, but I did have the most important thing.

A short walk outside the station, just far enough that it disappeared behind a little hill, a magnetic field generator shone lines of force in the darkness to guide any of the lost that stumbled by.

This story originally appeared in Analog.


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Phoebe Barton

Phoebe Barton writes stories that she does a surprising amount of calculations for.