By Laurance H. Davis III
Teleport 2018 science fiction contest- 1st place.
Lunar Orbit (2060 ad)
A gleaming trail of ice, eroded from the comet, curled down toward the lunar surface. The cratered landscape, passing slowly beneath my boots, seemed much closer than a hundred kilometers. On the surface of the comet, a mere twenty meters away, the six guidance thrusters fired short, stabilizing bursts, seemingly at random. Evenly spaced around the icy sphere, all but one had found solid purchase. T5 again teetered. Correcting with a burst of lateral jets, it then fired its primary engine to reseat its LDI. The Load Distribution Interface, a mesh covered ring, flexed under the load, conforming to an odd depression in the ice. Black splinters spun away from the ring as its graphite composite backbone snapped.
“T5‘s coming apart.” Unclipping my safety tether from the capsule, I propelled myself toward the damaged thruster. “I’ll back it off manually and set down ten meters to port.”
“Nadia,” Duncan screamed. “Are you insane?”
“I can save T5.”
I’d done enough spacewalks to know I could make the crossing, but I hadn’t considered the random bucking of the thruster until after pushing off. Poor timing and any number of struts could have ventilated my suit, or one of its huge fuel tanks might have simply booted me out into deep space. Estimating my point of impact, I searched for a suitable feature to attach my safety tether, which I still held in my hand. Spotting the steel hydraulic line feeding the nearest deployment strut, I thumbed open the clip of my tether. The floods of my helmet bathed the surface of the comet beneath T5. The depressed area was fractured, as if it had collapsed under the thrust loads of deceleration. The bottom, however, was smooth and featureless as if the crater had partially refilled with a dark liquid, which had since refrozen. Under my lights, the surface shone dark red.
“Duncan, you’re the comet expert. Why is this one red on the inside?”
“Never mind,” I said as plumes of vapor spewed from T5‘s retrorockets. I reached out to attach my tether as T5 lurched. The deployment boom struck my face shield, reversing my direction of travel. I tumbled backward, head over heels, but only once. Reaching the limit of my tether, the cable snapped taut. Arching downward at the full extent of my tether, I focused on the mesh of T5‘s LDI and managed to penetrate the large weave with my arms. Locking my wrist, I recoiled and groaned, more out of concern than strain.
“You okay?” Duncan said.
“Affirmative.” Glancing back, I checked my tether attachment. The hydraulic tubing had kinked, but it had held and didn’t appear to be leaking. “But we’ll need to make a few repairs,” I said. A curlicue of plastic wavered before my right eye. I brushed the debris from my visor, but a deep crevice with spider cracks remained. “I gouged the crap out of my visor. I’ll need to switch to my backup helmet.”
“You’re a lunatic,” Duncan said.
I laughed but wondered if he might not be right. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Pushing off, I floated toward T5‘s manual control console centered over the mesh. I swung up, over the handrail, snapping my boots into the restraints. Releasing the control shield, I palmed the emergency override, shutting down the thruster. The mesh, compressed taut over the broken ice, relaxed, gently launching the spacecraft. Taking the joystick, I backed T5 away, shifting laterally until the LDI cleared the depression. I then settled T5 back onto the surface and reactivated the autonomous controls. Purely as a habit, I said, “It’s all yours, T5. “The six thrusters had never been programmed to accept voice commands, but I’d worked with them for so long that I’d begun to think of them as people. Scanning the surface of the small alien world, I mumbled, “This is one ugly comet.”
Two years earlier, I had led the team of NASA engineers that had tested and debugged the thrusters on orbit. Their original mission had been to capture asteroid 2340 Hathor, three years after launch; however, Caesar’s Comet, C/-43K1, showed up unexpectedly on a more favorable trajectory, which shortened the mission by two years. The team of six thrusters autonomously captured the small comet by landing in opposing pairs. Each thruster had then cycled through a phase of leading and slowing the comet as they turned it toward Earth. Caesar’s Comet, the brightest comet ever observed from Earth, was thought to have left the solar system in 44 bc.
“Congratulations,” Duncan said.
“For what?” I said. “Not being dead?”
“Okay, for that too,” he said. “I meant for being the first person to set foot on a comet.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut in line. But I haven’t actually touched this thing yet, so when you come over just put your foot on it…then you can be the first. Besides, I don’t think I really want to touch this thing. This is one strange looking comet.”
“How many comets have you seen up close like this?”
“Good point,” I said, “but it still doesn’t look right.”
The comet had been in lunar orbit for eight months. Over the first few months, it shed some kind of slushy outer layer. What remained appeared to be solid, nearly spherical, but it was covered with several dozen strange looking lumps, although they were irregular enough in size and spacing to be natural formations of the ice.
But something about them still looks too…familiar? Pointing at the red depression, I said, “What is that stuff?”
“Not sure,” Duncan said. “I guess it could be a layer of oxidized iron dust, but I’ve never seen any…blood red before. Could it be hydraulic fluid?”
“There’s nothing that color aboard these thrusters. What about a fungus or some other kind of biological growth?”
“If it is,” Duncan said, “it’ll be the first extraterrestrial life ever discovered. So no, it’s not biological. We’re not that lucky.”
“You’re the expert. My job is just to put you on the surface of this thing, which I can’t do from over here. I’d fly back over, but I’m not sure this face shield could survive another landing like my last one. Send over the arm.”
Transferring to the foot restraints on the remote manipulator, I rode the arm back to the bent hydraulic tubing and unfastened my safety tether. “T5‘s LDI snapped,” I said as Duncan brought me back to the capsule, “but it should be fine.” Reaching inside the open hatch, I secured my tether. I palmed the release of my foot restraints but remained firmly attached. Pushing off the safety latch, I smacked it again. “You’re up,” I said, drifting in through the hatch. “You riding over or flying like me?”
“Unlike you, I’m not crazy,” Duncan said dryly.
Strapping in at the console, I repositioned the arm to a more favorable angle. Duncan attached his drilling tools aft of the foot restraints, as I read the checklist aloud.
“Is that everything?” he said.
“Everything on the list, but don’t forget that drill lanyard.” While training in low Earth orbit, Duncan had lost one of his drills, which burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Stepping out on the arm, he said, “Are you ever going to let that go?”
I chuckled. “Just trying to help. There’s no atmosphere below us, so anything we drop will go all the way down to the surface. I’d hate to find out we punched a hole in that brand new emergency shelter.” I pointed through the open hatch toward the moon, where the glow of the rising sun backlit the horizon. “The sun’s just coming up. That gives us two hours of daylight.”
“Let’s go,” Duncan said. “That red ice will have to wait. Core samples first. Let’s start with that mound to starboard.”
“Which one?” I said. “They’re all over the place.”
“Surprise me,” he said.
Using the fixed camera on the arm, I position Duncan over the nearest mound, applying a countering thrust as we made contact. The additional load from the capsule nudged the comet into a slightly lower orbit, awaking the six autonomous thrusters. As a team, they nudged their payload back to its programmed altitude of one hundred kilometers.
That’s my good boys. I knew the little quirks of each, and, in a way, thought of them as my children, the ones I’d never found the time–or husband–to have.
Splitting the screen, I displayed both of Duncan’s helmet cameras. His forward cam showed nothing but deep space, but his rear cam had focused on me in the capsule. Even more boring.“No wonder I can’t get a date,” I mumbled. “How come the chicks in space flicks always look so sexy?”
“Maybe it’s because they are sexy,” Duncan said.
“It’s not fair,” I said. “I can look sexy, too…in high heels and a skirt.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” he said. “Do you even own a pair of heels?”
“I have a pair.” Somewhere.“What are you doing, now? I can’t see anything.”
“I’m drilling a pilot hole.”
“Lean over a little more so I can see the bit.” He did and the drill came into view. “Good. How deep are you?”
“Just over three hundred millimeters.”
“What do you see?”
“Ice,” Duncan said. “I did see a layer of dark gray, which might be interstellar dust, but– Whoa. Can you see this?”
“Yep, it’s that same nasty red stuff.”
“I’ve never seen–” Duncan stopped drilling and said, “What was that? Did you feel something?”
“I’m not su–” The capsule lurched.
“Get me out of here,” Duncan said.
“Hang on,” I said, retracting the arm. As it settled, the arm-mounted camera focused on a fissure at the base of the mound. I said, “What the hell did you do?”
“It’s coming apart,” Duncan said. “The thrust load from the capsule must have sheared a plug out of the ice.”
“That’s a big plug,” I said. “It’s bigger than this capsule.”
“Yeah, back me up a little more. If it floats free, we’ll get a good look inside.”
The sheared face of the plug revealed multiple layers of dark gray strata, probably deposited while passing through clouds of interstellar dust. The red inner layer, the last one visible, was thicker than the width of Duncan’s gloved hand.
“That red layer gives me the creeps,” I said.
“Maybe it is bacteria,” he said. “In some parts of the solar system comets collect dust, while in other areas they collect more water ice. At some point in the past, maybe thousands of years ago, it could have picked up bacteria or fungi that propagated over the surface before being buried under more ice. It’s likely dead, but we still need to be careful.”
“The plug has stopped moving,” I said. “Must be hung up. Give it a kick.”
“Use the arm,” he said. “Wedge the end of this platform against the sheared face and rock it a little. But go easy.”
“Pull the slack out of your tether,” I said, repositioning the arm. “If something goes wrong, release your foot restraints and pull your ass back inside.”
“Roger that,” Duncan said. “Ready when you are.”
“Hang on.” I flicked the joystick forward. Fist-sized chunks of ice launched outward as the plug broke free. It drifted upward in a lazy spiral.
Duncan peered down into the dark void beneath the rising plug. After it cleared Duncan’s head, the spotlights of the capsule illuminated the vacant chamber. “That’s odd,” he said. “It’s hollow…like a bubble. The entire thing is lined with that red stuff.”
Unbuckling my safety belts, I pushed away from the console. Grabbing a spotlight, I floated toward the open hatch. The beam of my light cast Duncan’s shadow deep into the red wound. Its smooth inner surface, unmarred by fractures, now seemed more egg-shaped than round. “What could have made that?” I said.
“Methane,” Duncan said, “or maybe some other gas released by the fungus, which is what I’m starting to think it might actually be.”
“Then the other half should have the same contour. Right?”
“Yes…if it is a gas bubble.”
Shining my beam on the plug overhead, I shook my head. “Not a gas bubble.” Something, roughly the size of the hollow in the comet, protruded from the bottom of the ice plug. A network of veins, or possibly a membrane, covered its smooth undulating contours, which glinted in my light with silvery hues of blue. A tubular, tapered structure wrapped entirely around its outer perimeter.
Duncan said, “Maybe it was made by–”
“Duncan,” I yelled as the plug drifted into the light of the sun. “Look up!”
“Um,” Duncan said. “That thing…is in the fetal position.” Looking back down into the depression, he said, “This is an egg.”
“Then those are too,” I said, shining my light over the other mounds.
“Do you realize what this means?” Duncan said. “How long before we can talk with Mission Control?”
“Another twelve minutes,” I said. “Should we go after it? Could it be alive?”
“There’s no way it could be alive,” Duncan said. “It’s been frozen solid for thousands of years, if not millions. The last time this comet passed Earth was in 44 bc, which was over 2100 years ago. That might have been its first pass, we don’t know, but the odds are it’s been in space a lot longer than that. Most comets have been around for billions of years. They don’t just pop up out of the ocean and start flying around. That thing can’t be alive.”
“Could it be from Earth?” I said. “I mean, we know an asteroid strike can launch debris back into space. That’s why we find meteors from Mars on Earth. Maybe it’s a– I don’t know.”
“A what?” Duncan said. “You have a theory. Let’s hear it. A what?”
“A dinosaur? It looks like a petrified fetus.”
“That is a theory, but–”
“Think about it,” I said. “The current theory is that an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs. So isn’t it possible the same impact launched debris back into space?”
“I’m certain it did,” Duncan said.
“Then maybe these are dinosaur eggs that went along for the ride.”
“Maybe they were already frozen solid…before the impact. Or maybe they were launched by another impact millions of years later during the ice age.”
“They’re awfully big…but I guess it is possible,” Duncan said. “Let’s get a sample and then go after that thing. We can at least tether it to one of the thrusters until NASA can get a ship out here to bring it home. It’s too big for us to tackle.”
“It’s too big to fit inside this capsule,” I said, moving back to the console. I strapped in and peered out the porthole behind me. The creature, bathed in sunlight, cast a rainbow of colors. Although it continued to drift away from us, it seemed larger and less organized. It’s breaking up.“There might not be anything left of it by the time we catch up with it.”
“Why do you say that?” Duncan said.
“It’s baking in the sun. I think it’s falling apart.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “Hopefully, there are others…still inside.”
“And you still want to drill holes in it?”
“No, I don’t. And I won’t unless NASA orders me to. I’m not sure this thing’s even a comet, but I do want a sample of that red ice. Drop me down inside…the depression.”
“Can’t say egg?”
“Not when I’m getting ready to climb into one.”
“Hang on. Up and over,” I said, lowering him inside.
Duncan attached a larger cutting head and then reengages the drill motor. Chips of red ice swirled around the spinning bit. “You’re kicking up debris,” I said as a chunk of ice careened off the open hatch.
“Negative. The chips are clinging to the surface, like they’re wet or something. Maybe friction is warming them up. See if you can get a temperature reading of the ice near my bit.”
Floating to the storage rack, I retrieved the hand-held infrared scanner. I powered it up, sighted on the depression, and took a reading. “Two point five degrees. Just above freezing.”
“That’s not possible,” Duncan said.
“Apparently it is,” I said. Another chunk of red ice floated past my gouged face shield. Leaning out, I peered above the capsule–and groaned. That can’t be real.
The creature’s huge wings shimmered in the warming rays of the sun. Its wide rear feet and glinting talons, hung motionless from its stout, muscular legs, but its front feet, smaller and dexterous, gripped the remains of its shell. Icy fragments, like glittering bees, swarmed around its head as it bit down on the shell with spiked teeth, longer than my fingers. After consuming the last of the red ice, the creature stretched, flexed its wings, and uncurled its slender, silvery neck and tail. Green vapors waft from its nostrils and two opposing orifices at the base of its skull.
“You better get in here, Duncan. I think my air mixture is contaminated. Do you feel okay? I’m hallucinating.”
A small flame shot from the back of the creatures head, pushing it nearer.
“What are you talking about?” Duncan said. He stood and stared back at me over the crest of the shell.
“That just can’t be real,” I said, pointing up. “You don’t see it…do you?”
Duncan leaned back and peered up. Abandoning his drill, he hammered on the foot restraint release mechanism.
“Release the safety,” I yelled, as a wave of flame consumed the comet. Duncan, engulfed by the inferno, wailed.
Dual streams of fire trailed back to the creature’s snout. Opposing flames, much smaller, blazed from the back of its head. Its eyes, large crystal spheres, roiled with fire. As the flames receded, Duncan’s air tank exploded, launching shards of debris against the capsule. Duncan’s comm fell silent.
The flames dissipated as quickly as they’d appeared. Reaching Duncan’s tether, I pulled in the slack and then tugged. His charred body swayed at the end of the arm, his boots melted around the restraints. The creature’s eyes, now clear and blue, met mine. Flames burst from the back of its head, nudging the beast closer.
“No!” I pushed back, away from the hatch. Reaching the console, I twisted the joystick, swinging the arm toward the monster. Pieces of Duncan drifted away, although the bulk of him remained attached to the manipulator. I groaned and murmured, “I will not puke in my helmet.”
Arming the hatch controls, I palmed the button. It flashed red. Safety interlocks had sensed Duncan’s tether in the opening. As I scrambled back toward the open hatch, an eye, the size of a tennis ball, peered inside. Snagging the communication console, I pulled back, out of sight.
A snout, with nostrils as large as my fist, slowly entered the capsule. Gleaming scales covered its face. The creature nosed inward until its eyes crossed the threshold. Green vapors curled from its nostrils. As if sensing a trap, it backed out.
I peered out the porthole. The bulk of Caesar’s Comet had disintegrated. A dozen massive eggs floated freely in space. The thrusters had recaptured what remained of the icy mass, now less than a quarter of the size it had been only minutes earlier. Small flames flickered at the base of the creature’s skull. For a moment, it stared at the capsule as if puzzled or curious, but then it reared back its head as its eyes again filled with fire.
It’s going to burn the capsule. I released my tether from my suit. Coasting through the hatch, I placed my boots on the hull and propelled myself toward T5. Its polished steel tanks flickered with the reddish-orange glow of the burning capsule. A white light flared behind me as a blast of heat engulfed my legs. I cringed as the capsule’s hatch spun past, impacting and deforming T5‘s fuel tank. I held my breath anticipating vapors, flames, and death. My heart drummed in my ears as Duncan and the arm spiraled past, bound for the lunar surface.
The colliding hatch rolled T5, lifting the near side of the LDI from the ice. I slammed into the mesh as T5 settled back onto the surface, pinning my fingers between the mesh and the ice. I screamed. Spun by inertia, my helmet slammed into the base of the operator console. I floated inverted above the mesh–dazed–tethered by my ensnared fingers. As awareness returned, my eyes focused on the flickering heads-up display in my face shield–and then on the gouge, which had grown twofold in length. The hiss of leaking air sent a chill down my spine.
“Mission Control,” I said. “Do you read?” The delay should have been less than three seconds, but no one replied. Shit! No capsule, no antenna. I glanced up as T5‘s high-gain antenna rotated toward Earth. “Yes.” Rolling onto my stomach, I groaned, “Turn…me…loose,” and yanked on my trapped fingers. “Aah!” They didn’t budge, although they did start throbbing.
Rolling again onto my back, I stared up at the console. The safety cover hung from its hinges, off to one side. Raising my body from the mesh, I pivoted my wrist until my boots reached the console. Twisting, I hooked the toe of my boot over the lip. Taking a few deep breaths, I visualized the placement of the joystick from where I normally stood at the console. Back and to the left. Clipping the joystick with the tip of my boot, T5‘s autonomous controls disengaged. As the thruster shut down, the mesh relaxed, gently launching the spacecraft from the ice. “Good boy,” I said, pulling my fingers free. Sensing no further input on the joystick, the autonomous routine resumed, reengaging T5 with the ice. I slipped into the foot restraints at the console and then patched my headset into T5‘s comm–with sore but functional fingers. The creature now basked in the sun, apparently content. Several of the eggs were fractured, although no others had fully hatched. “Mission Control, do you read?”
As if hearing my transmission, the beast turned to face me.
“Welcome back, Nadia,” Mission Control replied. “You had us worried. It appears we’ve lost your data downlink. Since we still have comm, it must be a glitch on this end. How was the dark side of the moon?”
“It sucked,” I said, backing T5 away from what remained of the comet. The monster, its eyes again aflame, arched its neck as it retracted its head. “No. Please.”
“What’s going on?” Mission Control said.
I closed my eyes as the heat engulfed me. But then the glare in my eyelids began to fade, so I twisted the joystick, spinning T5 on axis. Pushing the stick forward, I glanced back. Unburdened of all ice, nine additional eggs floated in the void between the remaining thrusters.
“Nadia, do you read? Talk to us. Tell us what you need.”
“I need directions to that emergency shelter at Tranquility Base,” I said, dropping toward the lunar surface.
“There are maps in the capsule’s database,” Mission Control said, “but we can put one on your monitor if that helps.”
“I don’t have a monitor…or a capsule. Patch into my helmet cam.”
“Nadia! Where are you? Where’s Duncan?”
“He’s dead. I’m flying T5 down to the surface. Find someone who can give me verbal directions from the video feed of my helmet cam.”
I looked back, expecting to find the beast on top of me. The creature wasn’t chasing me, although the other thrusters were–and closing. “Not good,” I said as they flashed past. T6 turned, aligning its LDI with T5‘s, precisely as programmed. I backed off the throttle as the other four moved into their assigned positions at three, six, nine and twelve o’clock. This will never work. To land on the lunar surface, I’ll need to set down on the LDI, which the others are programmed to oppose. If I back down with them hovering overhead, I could climb down the hull and jump, but I’d land in the exhaust plume of T5’s primary engine. Dead either way.
“Mission Control, kill the autonomous routine,” I said. “I’m flying the stick, which prioritizes T5, so the others are following my lead, regrouping in front of me. It’s going to be a train wreck when I try to land. Kill the routine!” But then what? Crap! “Wait. Mission Control, DO NOT kill the routine. That’ll shut me down, too. Initiate follow-the-leader subroutine six…zero…eight.”
“Understood, Nadia,” Mission Control said. “Initiating subroutine six…zero…eight.T5 has the lead.”
The thrusters backed away. T1 fell into position behind T5, and the others followed in numerical order with T6 bringing up the rear, far enough back for T5 to slip in line should the lead change.
“Good boys,” I said, throttling up. Glancing back, the glint of blue chrome caught my eye, although it remained well behind T6. “Mission Control,” I said. “What about that navigator?”
“Jack Simpson is on his way. Tranquility Base is roughly five hundred kilometers ahead of you. Correct five degrees to starboard. You’ll fly right over it.”
T5‘s console was designed for basic line of sight navigation. Lacking instrumentation, I estimated the correction. “How’s that?”
After the three second delay, Mission Control said, “That’s close enough to get a visual. What’s going on up there?”
An orange light flickered in my peripheral vision. I froze but cut my eyes. Flames billowed from the back of the creature’s elongated skull. Slowly, it pulled ahead of T5. Snorting a small burst from its snout, it matched my speed. With its unmoving wings fully extended, the beast coasted, flameless and graceful. The tip of its long tail spiraled, circumscribing a small circle. Articulating its long, slender neck, it scanned the lunar surface below.
“Nadia! Speak to us. We’ve lost all telemetry from the capsule. What happened?”
I turned my shoulders, capturing the image of the beast with my helmet cam. “He happened.”
Much more than three seconds later, Mission Control said, “He?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m pretty sure that’s…he stuff back there.”
“No consensus on this end,” Mission Control said, “but we all do agree you need to lose that thing before you reach Tranquility Base. The hull of that emergency shelter is made of very thin aluminum. It was designed to keep air in, not dragons out.”
“Dragon? That’s a dragon?” I said.
“Call it whatever you want, just lose it.”
“Roger that. I wonder how well that thing can maneuver its big body with that scrawny neck. Find me a twisty canyon through that mountain range ahead. Let’s see how it likes the taste of moon rock.”
“Nadia, this is Jack…Jack Simpson. I’ve studied this terrain in detail but don’t trust my assumptions when it comes to elevation. I could be off by several meters. Correct your heading fifteen degrees to starboard. You should see a mountain pass dead ahead.”
I made the correction as I dropped toward the flat expanse of the small desertlike mare. “Talk to me, Jack. What’s my altitude?” One. Two. Thre—
“Just under two kilometers.”
I dove toward the surface.
“Pull up,” Jack said. “Hold it there. You’re just above one kilometer. Remember your speed. You’re pushing five hundred meters per second. Two seconds is all the margin of error you have.”
“Which means he has that much time, too.” I dove lower.
“Easy,” Jack said. “The surface will come up fast.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
“Level off,” he said. “The canyon narrows beyond those peaks. At your current velocity, after about five seconds you’ll need to make a sharp turn to starboard. Then a turn to port after three seconds, followed by another to starboard almost instantly.”
“Starboard, port, starboard. Got it. I just hope his brakes are as bad as mine.”
The canyon was wider than I’d hoped. Banking into the first turn, I easily cleared the outer wall. Halfway into the second turn the passage narrowed. With my eyes focused on the encroaching rock wall, I failed to notice the steep incline of the canyon floor. Banking again to starboard, I saw nothing but rock and pulled back hard on the stick. Climbing, I tweaked my trajectory toward a dip in the outer wall–which I almost cleared.
The drooping quadrant of the broken LDI clipped the rim of the canyon, cartwheeling T5. My chest slammed into the console, pinning the joystick at full throttle. The added thrust buckled my knees as it launched T5 out over the open expanse of Mare Tranquillitatis. Supported only by my foot restraints, I fell backward, folding at the knees. T5 tumbled out of control. Upside down, I groped for the mesh of the flailing LDI, which now dangled from only two of its four deployment actuators. Lacking input on the joystick, the autonomous control reassumed command, arresting the fall of the gyrating spacecraft. With T5 hovering fifty meters above the lunar surface, I pulled back up to the console. Although light, gravity had again become a part of my world. Once on my feet, I found T1, T2, and T3 hovering nearby. T4, also with a broken LDI, still wobbled from a similar spill. “Where’s T6?” I said, but then it cartwheeled over the rise. Before T6 fully stabilized, flames appeared above the rim of the canyon.
The dragon slowed, blazing first from his nostrils and then from the vents in the back of his head. The flames pulsed as he hovered and then settled onto the rocks. Articulating his long neck, he scanned the horizon. After a final snort of green vapor, he turned his attention to the formation of battered thrusters hovering above the mare.
“What are you waiting for?” I screamed. “Get it over with.”
“Nadia,” Jack said. “Are you alright?”
“No. That bastard is just toying with me. I’ll never lose him.”
“Relax, we have a plan. You’re only a few minutes away from the shelter so just keep going, one eighty from your current orientation.”
I pivoted and accelerated.
“Slow it down by half. We need about five minutes to patch into your controls.”
“Roger that,” I said, backing off the throttle. “What’s the plan?”
“We’re going to fly T5 remotely. We won’t assume command until after you’re over the target, so the three second delay won’t be a problem. There’s a small crater near the shelter. We want you to hover inside, just above the floor. That should position you out of sight, below ground level. After we take command, we want you to jump and hide in the crater. With a little luck, he won’t see you leave the spacecraft. But if he does, we think you should play dead. We’ll fly all the thrusters out across the mare. He should follow them. T5 has the least amount of fuel, but we can still fly them all for another fifteen minutes, which should give you enough time to make the short walk to the shelter. After that, we’ll have to set them down to conserve fuel, so we can put you on orbit when a rescue ship arrives. Hopefully by then, he’ll have moved on.”
“I like it. T4 and T5 both have damaged LDIs, so they won’t survive the landing.”
“How much further?” I said.
“Two minutes,” Jack said. “Is he still following you?”
I crabbed the thruster and glanced back down the line. Copying my maneuver, the other five also crabbed, revealing a distant glint of blue chrome. “Affirmative.”
“The Apollo 11 landing site is coming up. Adjust your heading by five degrees to port as you pass over the old base. You should then have a visual on the shelter and crater. How’s your air supply? We’re seeing an off nominal reading. You should have almost three hours left, but we’re not seeing anywhere near that amount.”
“I cracked my face shield…so yeah, I’m low.”
“You can refill your tank and repair your helmet with the supplies in the shelter, but you’ll need every drop of air in your tank to get inside, so don’t waste any time.”
“Understood,” I said, slowing above the crater. “You guys ready to take over? I’m settling into the crater now.”
The dangling LDI touched down first. The ring slid sideways until striking the rebound mass in the center of the crater. The broken outer ring flexed under the weight of the thruster. “Crap.” If that thing snaps T5 will drop like a rock on top of me. I estimated my current elevation at twice my height. “Okay, Jack, T5’s all yours.”
“Taking command,” he said. “We transferred your comm to the high gain antenna on the shelter. Good luck.”
Patting the console, I said, “Thanks T5. You did good. Take care of yourself. “Releasing my foot restraints, I stepped off, pushing away to ensure my backpack cleared the deck. “Nice and easy,” I said, feeling the gentle acceleration of the moon’s gravity. Landing on the steep inner wall of the crater, I pushed off. Bounding downhill, I toed a small boulder and stumbled. Unable to find purchase in the flowing rubble, I fell forward, slamming my face shield into the rocky debris. Stones clattered against my helmet, but even they didn’t mask the deafening hiss.
“It worked,” Jack said. “He’s following the thrusters.”
“I’m in trouble. Cracked face shield. Loosing air.”
“Cover the crack with your glove and get moving. The Apollo crews found bouncing highly effective.”
Pushing up, I stood. Pain flared in my right knee.” Damn it. I screwed up my knee.”
“Hop,” Jack said. “It’s just as fast.”
Balancing on my left leg, I leaned forward, bent at the knee, and pushed off. Landing more than halfway up the slope, I pushed off a second time, clearing the crater. On the curvature of the horizon, I spotted the gleaming shelter. “That’s a very long short walk,” I mumbled. My chest burned after only a dozen hops. “I don’t have…enough air…to make it.”
“Yes, you do. There’s still air in your tank. The crack is bleeding off the pressure in your suit. It’s the same as loosing cabin pressure in an aircraft.”
“I can’t…catch…my breath.” Stumbling facedown into the lunar dust, I huffed into the blackness of my face shield. My breathing eased. “Jack! Compressing the crack into the dust slowed the leak. I don’t hear the hiss anymore.”
“Don’t move,” Jack said. “He’s back. Check your rear helmet cam.”
“My heads-up display’s not working. What’s he doing?”
“He seems to be…thinking? He looks down at you and then stares off at something…probably the shelter. He just keeps looking back and forth, as if he’s trying to make sense of what you’re doing. I’ll try rebooting your video cards.”
Several seconds later, the dragon’s giant blue eye appeared in my heads-up display. His face grew small as his head reared back, revealing a mouth overflowing with teeth.
“No!” I screamed, pushing up. With bounding leaps, I moved toward the shelter, gasping harder with each jump. “Swimming…in syrup. I…can’t…bre–”
* * *
“Nadia! Wake up! Nadia!”
“What?” I said, opening my eyes. Facedown in the dust, only stars were now visible in my heads up display. “Jack?”
“Get inside,” he said. “Now! You’re technically out of air. Move!”
“It’s too far. I just want to sleep.”
“It’s not too far,” Jack said. “You’re already there. Nadia! Wake up!”
“Reach out…above your head. Pull yourself up on the hatch. Do it!”
“But–” I said, finding the structure within reach. I glanced up, got my bearings, and then reburied my face shield in the dust. Taking a deep breath, I pushed up, palmed the entry button, and tumbled inside. Standing, I fisted the “CLOSE” button and stagger back. I slid down the wall, gasping for air. The weight of my helmet seemed to double with each wheezing breath. Spotting the pressure indicator above the hatch, I yelled, “Come on!” I then pawed at the release of my helmet, knowing I’d soon blackout.
“The pressure’s close enough,” Jack said.
My helmet fell into my lap as the light above the hatch turned green. I huffed. “It…stinks…in here.” Sprawling out on the deck, I mumbled, “Need…a minute.”
* * *
I awoke, starring into my helmet cam.
“Welcome back,” Jack said over the shelter’s intercom.
“Hope I didn’t snore,” I said. “How long was I out?”
“Just over an hour,” Jack said. “How do you feel?”
“Alive. And hungry.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“Thanks, Jack. I would have died out there if not for you. I remember falling, but I don’t remember getting up and hopping the rest of the way.”
“That’s because you didn’t,” Jack said. “Your boyfriend carried you…in his teeth.”
I laughed. “Yeah, right.”
“I’m not kidding,” Jack said. “Take a look. He’s right outside.”
Rolling onto my belly, I crawled to the wall beneath the porthole. Slowly, I stood. My bluish-chrome dragon seemed to be grazing on the lunar landscape. Beyond him, twenty-one others of various metallic colors, nosed the dust and rocks as if searching for snacks.
“Like cows in clover,” Jack said. “We’ve yet to see any signs of aggression.”
“I certainly saw some. That blue one fried Duncan.”
“Might that have been an accident?”
“I don’t see how. Duncan was standing right there, plan as day, in its…nest. Crap!”
“That’s our theory, too. Your buddy thought he was protecting his siblings.”
“T5 had already crushed one of them,” I said. “One of the eggs had collapsed, which was why T5 was unstable. But why’d he burn our capsule?”
“Do you mean the capsule that might have looked like a hungry monster…with an enormous gaping mouth…and a claw, which happened to be stuffed inside one of their eggs?”
“That’s the one,” I mumbled. “And that’s why he didn’t torch me when I transferred to T5. He wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was thawing out the rest of his brood.”
“That’s also what we pieced together from the videos we downloaded from the thrusters. By the way, the boss wants to talk with you when you get back. Something about that stunt you pulled the first time you transferred to T5.”
“I knew I’d get spanked for that one. What’s my big blue friend eating out there? Dust?”
“They seem to be eating select rocks. It’s hard to tell for certain from here, but spectrometers on Earth are detecting an increase in free olivine, so we think they might be foraging for that. If that’s what they need, they went to the right place. The moon’s full of it.”
My dragon nuzzled a small boulder out of the lunar dust. Scooping it up with thin dexterous lips, he crushed the stone in his jaws. Errant bits of debris clattered against the shelter’s hull.
“Easy, big boy,” I said.
The dragon turned, stared at the shelter. Seeing me in the window, he snorted. Green vapors curled from his nostrils. He shook his head and resumed foraging.
“Nadia, meet Julius,” Jack said. “We named him while you were asleep. But he’s your boyfriend, so feel free to give him any name you’d like.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. “Julius is perfect,” I said. “Jack, where do you think these guys came from? I mean…what are they doing way out here?”
“That we’ll never know,” Jack said.
“Oh…I don’t know about that. I have a few months to kill. Maybe Julius can teach me how to speak…dragonese or something. He seems intelligent enough.”
“Good luck with that.”
“I’m serious. Did you notice how he reacted to my first transmission from T5?”
“We did. He seemed to hear you. The comm team is reviewing those videos now. They’ll need a few days to generate some theories, but I suspect they’ll want you to run some tests.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Is there a spare transmitter up here? One I can tinker with?”
“Several,” Jack said. “But even if you do figure out how to talk to those creatures, they’re newborns. They won’t know where they came from.”
“I guess that’s true…if they are newborns. But maybe those weren’t eggs. Maybe they were a form of spaceship or capsule. Or…maybe they’re newborns that retain the memories of their parents. Anything’s possible. Hell, I’m still alive…on the moon…with dragons. I guess it’s just my lucky day,” I mumbled.
“Maybe so, but apparently just on the moon,” Jack said. “Someone trashed your front lawn last night.”
I laughed. “And how would you know that?”
“I live three doors down from you.”
“No shit?” I said. “You’re the guy that drives that silver Porsche?”
“I was the guy,” Jack said. “Now my ex-wife’s boyfriend drives it. She got it last week in the divorce.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “I really liked that car. It would’ve looked good on me.”
Jack laughed. “It certainly would have. I guess I’ll have to look around for another one. What’s your favorite color?”
Julius raised his head, gazed at me. I smiled and said, “Metallic blue.”
* * *
The Yellow Sea (44 bc)
An arrow found the last male’s heart. The young man’s aim had been true and his arrowhead keen, but only fate could have guided the tip to the old wound where the scale had not fully regrown. Thinking of the female and their unborn brood, the male returned to the depths where their kind had prospered for thousands of years. But they were the last and could no longer survive on Earth. The journey would be treacherous, and she might not survive, yet the male urged the female to return to the home of their ancestors. In the cold embrace of deep space, their unborn could endure all but eternity. So as she rose in flames from the Bohai Sea, the male spread his wings and lay back in the gently rolling waters. With tears in his eyes, he watched her blaze skyward, until his pierced and broken heart fell silent.
* * *
“The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar(1599 ad)
Laurance is the author of two science fiction novels published by Double Dragon Publishing in the spring of 2017. Outpost Earthis the story of an alien civilization stranded on prehistoric Earth. Planet Ninetells the story of a rogue planet drawn into the sun and man’s attempt to help the doomed inhabitants. Laurance’s third novel, The Race, was published by Hoffman and Hoffman in the summer of 2017, is a women’s historical novel set in 1939 and is the second book in the That Boyce Girlseries. His dystopian short story, Shoot Him Daddy, was published in Metasaga’s anthology, Futuristica Vol. 1 in 2016. That Last Summer, a short young-adult tale, was published on-line in Red Truck Review’s third literary journal in 2015. Laurance had three flash fiction stories published in the Aspiring Writers 2014 Winners Anthology. He has been recognized by the Writers of the Future Contest, multiple times, with Honorable Mentions and as a Semifinalist. Laurance retired as a mechanical engineer to write full time in 2017 and lives on the east coast of Central Florida.