Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Long Sleepers

Copyright 2010, J.D. Ray

Baird sat quietly waiting while death itself settled into the chair across from him. A servant delivered a snifter of brandy, which Baird took gratefully. He rolled the amber liquid around in the globe, watching the light from the fireplace as it flared in the glass, stalling for a moment lest he appear nervous as he poured the much-needed nerve fortifier down his throat. As he drank, a grim smile appeared on the lips of his companion. A voice, heavy with an accent that seemed as ancient as the hills, did its best to sound soothing. “I assure you, Mr. Baird, you have nothing to fear from me.”

Baird peered back at his host. Slowly lowering the glass from his lips, he held it in his lap momentarily, then set it on the stand next to his chair and picked up his notepad. “Thank you, sir, for that reassurance. I apologize if I seem… uncomfortable.”

“It is to be expected. You might be surprised to hear that I feel a certain bit of trepidation myself with regard to this… interview. Not for my own safety, which is not in question. It is because I have not told our story to anyone from the outside world. Well, at least not for a very, very long time.”

Baird tried to smile, though he couldn’t be sure it came across as he intended. “I suppose I can understand, sir. At least in some way.” Fidgeting, he adjusted himself in the overstuffed wingback chair. The mohair upholstery chafed through the thin fabric of his shirt. Absentmindedly he thought about his sport coat, with its satin lining, but the room was warm, and he wouldn’t want to sweat. “Shall we get started? I suspect I will have questions, if you don’t mind.”

“Questions are also expected, Mr. Baird. I will endeavor to answer them to the best of my ability.” As if to steady his own nerves, he raised a glass of some pinkish liquid and took a deep drink. Seeing the question on Baird’s face, he said, “Grapefruit juice, ruby red, with a bit of calcium for my bones. At my age, a bit of supplement is required.”

“And just what is that age, might I ask?” Baird held his pen at the ready, as if he were some reporter about to get the latest scoop on a juicy bit of gossip.

“That, my good man, is a fact I am somewhat unsure of. The reasons for this will become clear in the telling of our story.”

Taking another drink of his juice, the man, if that’s what he could be called, settled himself into his own chair, crossing his legs and leaning slightly toward the fireplace. The scene looked like something out of an old movie. All that was missing was the chime of a grandfather clock and the hoot of an owl. One of them, Baird thought, ought to be smoking a pipe.

The man (maddeningly, Baird hadn’t been given his name, and was relegated to calling him ‘sir.’) took a deep breath, made a false start, let the breath out, thought for a few seconds, then started again. Baird noted that he seemed to breathe normally, and made a note to that effect in the corner of his Steno pad.

“The history of our people on Earth is shrouded in mystery and legend. As is the case with many legends, there are some things based in fact. Other things are purely fantastical; stories told around campfires of things that haunt the dark recesses of this world. But I suspect you would be hard challenged to divide correctly the things based in fact and those made of fantasy.

“You’ve been made aware, I’m certain, that we come from another world.” Indeed, that was one of the few pieces of information Baird had been given. As one of the top people in the field of exobiology, the shock to his entirely theoretical world of finding out that, not only was life on other planets confirmed, but that complex, intelligent, humanoid forms of that life were living here on Earth was exciting and devastating at the same time. “Our world was, and may still be for all I can say, one of peace in general terms. We had nations, in the way you do today, but only a handful of them, separated by general ideas in the way a society should be governed, not by enmity for one another. Travel and trade between nations was free and open, and we had not seen war for a very long time.

“With very little of our collective energy directed toward warfare, many problems that your world faces today were solved: medicine was well advanced, energy production had a near zero cost, and, as a result, resource distribution was such that basic needs were met for everyone. People could live in relative comfort with very little effort. Imagine, if you will, being able to subsist by working one day out of five, or to support a household by working three of five. Technological advances and a societal distaste for waste meant that drudgery was kept to a minimum. As such, advances grew exponentially, and before long, we were into space.”

Baird scribbled, noting things that felt important, though were outside his field. Later he would realize that others of differing fields had already gathered this information, and that his notes did little more than remind him of how backward the society he lived in really was.

The man continued. “Relative to humans, we are a very long-lived species. Under normal circumstances, someone one my world would expect to live for around four hundred Earth years, and it was not unheard of, though not common, for someone to live half again that long.” Baird, who had been furtively taking notes, stopped and looked up at this last statement. He considered what that might mean for humans, though it was hard to predict how the Earth might support the teeming hoards that would result from people living far beyond what they did now. He made a note to inquire about birth rates.

“We will discuss later the biologic similarities and differences between our races, and I’m certain that this is where most of your questions will lie. But now I will tell you that possibly the most significant difference between humans and our people is the ability of the ge’somlun, or the long sleeping. Deprived of oxygen, our bodies enter a hibernation state that can be maintained for several days, ranging to weeks, with no resources at all. With even the slightest fraction of oxygen in an atmosphere, we can sleep for years at a time.”

Baird stopped writing and absorbed this. There were fish on Earth that dehydrated entirely when the lake they lived in dried out, then reanimated when the next rainy season came. But years? He wondered how many, and what effect it might have on the body. As if to answer, “Sir” said, “We can remain in this state for several of your decades at a time, given an oxygen concentration of between one and two percent. Our bodies slowly deteriorate over that time as they essentially consume themselves to keep the core alive. The healthier the sleeper is when they enter ge’somlun, the longer they can survive. I, for instance, am no longer in my prime, and could last the sleep for no longer than about twenty years. But, during our trip here, we all slept for what amounted to nearly a century at a time, and I have done so more than once since arriving nearly a thousand years ago.”

Baird nearly shot out of his chair at this. A thousand years? On Earth? Centuries at a time in space? He had been counseled by those who sent him here to accept what he was told as truth, but how could it be? As he tried to piece a timeline together, the storyteller leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “Now you start to see why I say I’m unsure how old I am.” Baird nodded dumbly. “I was a young man, maybe fifty Earth years old and just hitting my stride, as you might say, in my career as a biologist when I was chosen to join the expedition.”

“Biologist, you say?” Baird was obviously shocked. He hadn’t even considered that this man, a member of a society sufficiently advanced to achieve interstellar space travel, might have a scientific background. In retrospect, it made perfect sense.

The man smiled genuinely. “Yes, Mr. Baird, a biologist like yourself, though primarily focused on the biology of our own world and not of others. I’m told I was selected for the journey over others more specifically qualified because of factors more subjective, though I cannot say for sure. But yes, I am, or at least was, a man of science. Though the years of sleep, I fear, have taken their toll, and I am not as sharp as I once was.” Baird nodded grimly at that, beginning to feel his own age wear at him, though he could not conceive of the trial of years that must have been endured by… why didn’t Baird know the man’s name? He made a note to press the question later.

“As I was saying,” the man continued. Baird had decided to table the question of whether this otherworldly creature could truly be called a man. That was a question for philosophers, not scientists. “I was young when I was chosen for the expedition. After some consideration, I decided it was an honor, and accepted. My matron was very proud. We departed within… well, I suppose about two and a half years by Earth reckoning, which by our society’s standards was amazingly fast. The science team, as it turns out, were the last to be chosen, and many had been on the project for a long time. But I digress.

“Most of our numbers, two hundred thirty four people, were put into hibernation before we departed our world. The flight crew, of course, was not. Most of us slept for, as I said, nearly a century of your time, awoke for long enough to recover the damage done to our bodies, then returned to sleep. By my reckoning, I was around seventy Earth years of age by the time I arrived here, and still a young man, though maybe not quite as young as I would have liked to be.

“At this juncture, I should tell you about our arrival in this solar system. When our astronomers detected your world, it was through methods much like those your scientists are discovering and putting to use today. They could tell that Earth was here, and that it could and did support life as we knew it, but details about the planet, as well as the rest of the solar system, were not known. As our vessel decelerated past the outer planets, we encountered the field of material you know as the asteroid belt. Severe damage was done to our craft, and many of our numbers were lost. Many of our nava… um… ‘sleeping vessels’ were damaged, and many were scattered among the asteroids, their occupants left to slowly die in the cold of space.

“The flight crew did their best to repair the damage, and they are remembered as heroes for their efforts. We arrived at Earth with only eighty-three survivors and a ship that could not maintain a stable orbit. Shortly after our arrival here, it burned up in the atmosphere.

“Upon arrival, we were shocked to find that life on Earth had developed in a startlingly similar fashion to our own world, including a bipedal, intelligent species that bore striking similarities to our own. We could survive, even thrive on Earth, and in time found that we could integrate ourselves somewhat with the natives.

“Were you to see me now without my vestments, Mr. Baird, you would immediately see that I am not a human. My limbs are of a different proportion to my torso than yours, my genitals are internal rather than external, much like your females, and my feet are shaped differently, though you as a scientist would see that the function they serve is exactly the same. The face that you see is the product of cosmetic surgery, though the primary change was to the nose and ears, which are the immediately obvious differences between our races. Our species’ external nasal pillow is very shallow, looking more like other species of Earth, and frankly lending to the legends I spoke of earlier. Two of our surviving number were physicians, thankfully, and they developed the cosmetic procedures that allowed us to interact with humans without inciting fear. For the last several centuries, children born to us have been given the procedure at an early age so they might grow up with it and interact with the human world for their entire lives.

“By now you are arriving at the conclusion, correctly I might say, that we are not the monsters that your legend has made us out to be. Unfortunately, I must tell you now about the dark aspects of our time on Earth that brought those legends about.

“Our species developed without the relatively large organ you call a stomach. What passes for a stomach in us is little more than a wide spot in our digestive tract, and serves little purpose. As such, we do not consume solid food, and live on an entirely liquid diet. Upon our arrival here, we were startled to see humans merrily munching away on anything and everything they could get their hands on, including grains. Eating a bowl of cooked grain the way many of you humans do each morning would kill one of us in very short order.”

Baird peered at his host, remembering the smile from a few minutes ago. “But you have teeth. If you don’t eat solid food…”

“Dental prosthetics. ‘Dentures,’ you might say, though mine are permanently implanted. I can show you drawings of the form our mouths are in at maturity at a later time. They are distinctly different from those of humans, but not without similarities. And again, our natural form creates a fear reaction in you humans, even those who have been counseled and cautioned ahead of time. Henceforth, some of us… yea, most of us, have chosen to alter ourselves such that we can exist in harmony with our ‘otherworldly’ brethren.” He sat up straight and put an exaggerated smile on his face. His teeth were perfect and straight, those of a salesman or politician. “You see, Mr. Baird, do my ‘pearly whites’ not look handsome? They’ve been replaced a number of times over the years, much to my pain and chagrin, but artificial dental material does not stand up to centuries of use, and does not regrow, either.”

He relaxed back in the chair and the smile faded from his face. “Mr. Baird, we have come to the juncture in our conversation where we must speak of what you refer to as ‘the elephant in the room.’ I implore you to listen to this portion of my tale with an open mind and as a scientist.

“I told you that we subsist entirely on a liquid diet. As you might have surmised, there are very few naturally occurring juices that are sufficiently protein rich to support the development of a relatively large, sentient being like myself. The situation is the same on our home world as here; fruits primarily produce juices rich in sugar.” He gestured offhandedly to the juice glass at his side. “Mammal’s milk is usually protein rich, but it is unlikely that evolution would create a being that subsists its entire life on the milk of other beasts, and it is impossible for a species to self-provide nourishment. And so, the logical conclusion you’ve arrived at is correct; a significant portion of our diet subsists of blood.” He paused to allow Baird absorb this. So, the stories were true, at least to a point. A cold shudder came over Baird, even though the room was warm from the fireplace, as he thought of a whole world of humanoids sucking the blood out of… what? Each other? Some lesser beings? There had to be a circle of life, even if it was a gruesome one.

“I can see your discomfort. Please, be at ease. The situation is likely not as dire as you imagine.

“On our world, which, by the way, has a name unpronounceable to you, we have livestock whose bodies are rich in blood. They are not sentient, and are much like your cattle, though they are omnivores. Each household keeps a number of these animals, and they are generally well treated, which is more than I can say for most livestock on Earth. When it is time for the household to feed, one of the animals is captured and has a portion of its blood drained into a vessel. The wound is tended to, and the animal is set on its way. It will not be used in this manner until well after it has had time to recover and become healthy again. The Mursi tribe of Africa live in a similar fashion, by the way, and they did not learn this from us.

“When we arrived on Earth, we survived for several years on the remaining supplies we brought from home. Our vessel’s orbit slowly decayed until it was destroyed in the atmosphere, but by that time I had discovered that encouraging growth of Earth-based enzymes in our guts would allow us to digest Earth-based blood. From there, it was simply a matter of selecting livestock for us to keep.

“I mentioned that the livestock we kept at home were omnivores. Early experiments in feeding on the blood of ruminants, which are so common here on Earth, were disastrous, at least from a culinary standpoint. The blood of your average bovine tastes to us essentially like the grass they feed on. If you’ve ever tasted field grass, Mr. Baird, you will understand when I say we could not subsist that way. Another solution, as it were, was required.

“Large omnivores on Earth are not common, and rarely domesticated. Suidae are the most common, though it seems that their temperament is only sufficient for keeping as livestock if they are on a restricted diet of primarily grains and grasses. If you feed a domestic pig an omnivore’s diet, it quickly grows tusks as well as a surly attitude insufficient to the practice of harvesting its blood without killing the beast. This is unfortunate, because they are rich in blood, and it is, frankly, quite delicious when the captured animal has been running wild and eating a diverse diet.”

Like a chess player, Baird’s mind raced to sort out all the logical ends to what the man was saying. It didn’t take him long to arrive at the horrifying conclusion that was approaching like an oncoming freight train. His jaw clenched and his mouth hardened into a fine line. After a moment’s consideration, he cleared his throat and said, “So, hu… ah… humans became your livestock?”

“Many of our number argued that we should move directly to keeping the unsophisticated, backward humans as we might livestock. Remember that we arrived here in the eleventh century and took up residence in Eastern Europe, primarily in what is now Romania. In hindsight, we could have selected a more accommodating place to live, but it reminded us much of home and we could not know of the troubles that were to come.

“A few of us, primarily lead by the two physicians, argued for a different methodology. We used our technology, which was obviously not yet in existence on Earth, to make ourselves rich with material wealth, primarily gold. I am not proud of it, but we advanced the warfare capabilities of a few small nations. They paid handsomely for the privilege. We used that gold to purchase the services of the townspeople from a small village in the mountains we inhabited. We employed the services of brokers who would anaesthetize willing subjects and allow us to drain them of a fraction of their blood. We were watchful, and did our best to assure that both the brokers and the people whose blood we were harvesting were being compensated. As you might imagine, the brokers were made wealthy on their trade, but the townsfolk were similarly become an income that could sustain them in a very comfortable fashion.

“The system worked well for the better part of two hundred years. The outside world thought that the townsfolk had been made wealthy by the sale of inventions made by a mysterious resident, but they generally took little notice. Alas, secrets cannot be held long, and ours eventually got out. The Christian church took notice, and, possibly seeking a way to further their war against Islam, started rumor mongering about monsters in the night that were doing horrible things in their castles in the dark reaches of the forest. Our position with our townsfolk changed, and even though they had grown fat on our gold, with what amounted to little effort or loss on their part, human attention span is short and they rebelled against us. Fearing starvation, we pressed back in a manner that I am not proud of.

“Our numbers had grown some in the two centuries we were on Earth. The flight crew and a few others had arrived at Earth advanced in age, having been awake for much more of the journey here than the rest of us. They passed on, mostly in the first century or so, but over that same period we bore a few children, and by the end of the twelfth century, our numbers were over a hundred.

“As I said, we feared starvation, and the faction of our people who had originally wanted to enslave the humans declared our trade experiment a failure. They became aggressive toward humanity, kidnapping people and keeping them as feedstock, many of them in a state near death that lasted a few short weeks before their bodies could not take the abuse any longer. They were replaced by new abductees, and the cycle continued. Occasionally, a few of our more brazen numbers would leave a body where it would be found, drained of blood and with its carotid artery torn asunder, naturally stoking the fires of fear in our neighbors.

“Those among us taking this path had hoped to strike fear in the humans. Their shortsightedness led them to believe that fear would lead to surrender, and that humans would be their cattle after all. But, backed into a proverbial corner, humans have a reserve of will that is significant in its strength. Banding together against a common enemy, humans trapped and slaughtered our people wherever they could, with no regard or understanding for those of us who argued on their behalf. We weren’t surprised, mind you. Still, if someone is going to drive a wooden stake through your heart, it should be for good reasons.”

Baird looked up. “Wooden stake?”

“As I said, separating fact and fiction is a trial. Yes, indeed, wooden stakes through the hearts of our people was seen as the only sure way to kill us. It’s not. However, poorly executed hangings resulted in a choking that would kill most humans and only induced ge’somlun in our people. Left hung by their necks for more than a day, then cut down and buried alive in shallow graves was a horrible punishment for those who endured it. When they would awake from their slumber, buried alive, terror gripped their hearts like an iron fist. With their only salvation a tiny pocket of air provided by the coarse cloth thrown over them before the hole was filled in, they would thrash and claw at the soil like trapped animals…” The man’s voice rose with the telling, obviously under strain. Baird looked at him, understanding that this was no third party tale he was listening to, but rather the recounting of a true-life nightmare survived by someone who had lived with the scars for nearly a thousand years. Baird now understood why this man was reticent to tell his story: the memories were too painful.

“So, yes,” the man said, continuing. “After seeing a few graves whose occupants had obviously dug their way out, stories of creatures who could not die spread like wildfire. The humans’ efforts were redoubled, and our dwindling numbers went into hiding, retreating to our strongholds and sleeping vessels. In one horrific incident, a human adventurer infiltrated one of our keeps and made his way to where a few of us slept. He pried open three of our… I’m sorry to keep using the same term, but our language is incomprehensible to your ears, and I can’t think of anything else to call the navabrrltkk.” Baird did his best to phonetically capture the string of sounds that came at the end of the sentence. Whatever he came up with didn’t at all fit.

“I suppose calling them ‘coffins’ gives a bad connotation,” offered Baird, “even though it unfortunately fits with the legends.”

“Well, it this case it would turn out to be true. As I was saying, an adventurer infiltrated one of our strongholds and made his way to our vault, killing several human staff along the way. He pried open three of our vessels and drove stakes through the hearts of the occupants, killing them while they slept. Before he could continue his grizzly work, surviving house staff intervened. They were unprepared to do battle with one as skilled as he at warcraft, but in the end, they survived and he escaped. Unfortunately, word spread of what he had done, and others tried similar approaches. We increased our security, but we could not stop them all. Eventually we retreated to our most remote castles deep in the mountains, fortified them with what technology we could muster, and did our best to sleep until the world changed.”

“About that technology,” Baird asked. “As a space-faring race, I imagine you would have technology far beyond that of thirteenth century Earth. Why couldn’t you better defend yourselves?”

The man gave a grim look, almost resigned. “A few factors were at play there. I mentioned that we had not known war on our home world for a very long time. As such, our weapon technology was not very advanced. In fact, your weapons today would far overpower anything that was known on my home world at the time we left. And I doubt they’ve advanced much in the intervening years. But yes, we knew technologies that could have put us in positions of great power if we had the resources we set out with. But with the wreck of our ship came the loss of those resources, as well as the loss of the minds that understood the technology or could develop it again. Among the survivors, a few had passing knowledge of this thing or that, garnered from family connections during their youth, but no one had direct experience with it. We did what we could with the resources we had.”

Baird nodded. “I understand what you mean. My father was a jeweler. I could describe for you how a wedding ring was created, and I could even make a very basic one myself if presented with the tools, but creating a kiln, crucible, and all the other necessary components from scratch would be beyond me.”

“Precisely. My father was a stonemason, and another male in my household a carpenter. They worked together to make repairs to homes or expand them as houses grew, and in my youth I worked with them sometimes. But my head was for science, and I was little interested in their work. Similarly, my matron was a woman of business. She ran the business that my father and… hmm… ‘uncle’ isn’t quite the right word, but let it suffice… that my father and uncle worked at. It’s what brought our household its income. But I didn’t want to learn that, either. It was a relief when I could go off to university. I believe it was the same for my house-sister who was somewhat older than I and preparing to graduate with what you would call an advanced degree.”

Baird wasn’t sure if he detected a disparaging note in the phrase “what you would call an advanced degree,” but decided to let it pass. Another thing had his attention, though. “What do you mean by ‘house-sister,’ if I may?”

“Ah, yes. My apologies. Our family structure is quite different than the predominant one in your society. The basic family unit is best called the household, and the head of the household is the matron. We are generally matriarchal, though politically both genders hold office. However, unlike your patriarchal society, property or wealth is passed from one’s mother. Knowing your father’s identity is far less important to us that it is to you, though it’s rare that males leave a household after siring a child, and promiscuity is not as rampant among our people as it is here. Lastly, we are polygamists. A matron might have two or three males in her household, and each of them may have a female that they are bonded with. The more people a household has, the more family there is, the better it is able to generate income and prosper. Practicalities keep household sizes to an average of about four adults and three or so children, but very large households of twenty or more adults and ten or more children are not uncommon. These are the wealthiest of families with the largest estates. In all cases, each household has one matron. In my family, my matron was my mother. There were three males and two other females in the household. My house-sister that I mentioned was the product of one of the males and the female he was bonded to. I also had a half-sister who was the product of the carpenter and my matron. We had six adults and three children in my family, somewhat larger than normal but not exactly large.”

“It all sounds very complicated.”

“As a human of Earth, you would naturally think so. To me, it was very normal.”

The interview went on for hours, with Baird asking more and more questions as his comfort level increased. His initial fear and revulsion disappeared as his scientific intellect took over. He thought of being able to travel to this far off world and spend the rest of his life cataloguing the flora and fauna found there. His children were grown and had lives of their own, and his marriage had come to an end years ago. Beyond a few friends, he told himself, few would miss his departure. Oh, but the opportunity.

But it could not be. For one thing, there was no ship to take him there, and for another, he would never survive the journey. He didn’t even know how to estimate how far it was to his storyteller’s home world or how long the journey would take even if a ship were available. But he knew of Einstein’s limits and had read Sagan’s works. He wasn’t going, and he doubted that any other human would, either. At least not in his lifetime.

The long flight home was punctuated with short naps and strange dreams of far away worlds and blood-sucking scientists. He spent the weekend sleeping little, glued to his computer, collating notes and researching related material. Monday morning came too soon, carrying with it an early meeting with those who sent him on his mission of discovery.

“Welcome back, Mr. Baird. I expect your trip was… informative?”

Baird began to laugh, then cut it short before it became maniacal. Maybe the second cup of coffee was a bad idea. “I would say informative, surprising, frightening… I could go on, but I’ll spare you.”

“I assure you, you are not the first to have such a reaction. Please believe me when I say, your safety was assured the entire time.” Something about the way the man said this sparked visions of snipers on nearby hills with crosshairs trained on the man he interviewed. Baird banished the visions with a slight shake of his head. Fantasy.

“Per your request, sir, I’ve drafted a report.” Handing over a thick manila envelope, he gave a look of regret. “I apologize that it’s not more thorough. Time was limited, and there is much yet to know. Lab samples would be helpful, as well as…”

Measuring the heft of the envelope, the man said, “Mr. Baird, I’m certain your report is better than we expected. Thank you.” Baird nodded silently as the man continued. “I’m sorry to rudely interrupt you, but I’m sure there will be time for a complete debrief later. In the meantime, I would like to discuss a career change with you. How would you feel about a job that has… ah… shall we say, a significant travel component associated with it?”

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Psychic

The rain kept me indoors, and anyway, I had nowhere to go.
The city wasn't my favorite destination, but I certainly liked it well enough, particularly compared to some of the hell holes I'd been in.  The people here were open-minded enough, an attitude that pervaded the management of the company I worked for this week, and it was in the same time zone as home, so my aging body didn't rebel against the alarm as much as it might on the East coast.  But it was winter here, and that meant rain.  Lots of rain.  The locals didn't seem to mind so much; I was told that you could tell someone from out of town in the winter because they carried umbrellas.  Whether or not it was true, I just chose not to go outside unless I had to.
The hotel I was staying at was an upscale business-class property of my favorite national chain.  My frequent-traveller status with them assured me a comfortable bed and no hassles, which I certainly appreciated.  Classy as the place was, though, the mid-week entertainment at the in-house bar left a lot to be desired.  The previous night's Jazz singer had been good.  Tonight, though, it was some knock-off of The Great Karnak, complete with satin turban and gold-trimmed cape.  I sat in the back, poking at my highball with the little plastic stick it came with and thinking of Amy and the kids.
The show opened with a better than expected comedy monologue that took my mind off the rain and the thousand-mile distance to home.  Screwy get-up or not, the guy could spin a joke.  He wasn't as good as Carson had been in the same outfit, but most in this crowd weren't old enough to draw the comparison, and the schtick stuck.  After a bit, his material expended, he paused and looked at the crowd.  "Well, on to the main part of our show," he said, seeming somewhat unsure of himself.  Was that for effect, or was he new to this game?  Not sure.  He continued, "It says on the sign that I'm a psychic, but it doesn't take E.S.P. to know that none of you believe me."  A few snickers from the crowd showed that he was right about that, at least.  "Well, I suppose I should start with a good demonstration.  As you might expect, I'll need a couple of volunteers..."  He trailed off, looking around expectantly for raised hands that weren't there.  A friend of mine once described for me the art of "practicing invisibility," something I desperately tried to undertake.  Usually I liked that I stood out in a crowd, but this wasn't one of those times.
My spell failed, though, as his eyes fell on me.  "You there, in the back, bald guy with the eye patch.  What's your first name?"  Some psychic.  
"Dan," I said, hoping this wouldn't take long.
"Sam?  It's Sam, you say?"  The people at the table next to me sniggered.  I held my composure to a smile, but wanted to laugh out loud.  "That's quite a dreadful look you have about you, Sam."  Now why would he have used just that word...?  "Okay, I need another volunteer from the audience.  How about you, sir?  Will you join Dreadful Sam in this bit of magic?"  I suddenly felt cold.  That was just weird.  It took a lot to rattle me, but he just had.  Time for me to make an exit.
As I rose to leave, the psychic called, "Dreadful Sam, won't you stay and help me prove my psychic powers?"
"You'll probably never know it, kid, but you just proved it to me.  Good night."
The next morning, I sat eating a plate of eggs and hashbrowns, extra crispy, reading the sports section.  The Lakers had won again, putting them two-and-two in the semi-finals against Utah.  Saturday's game should be exciting, and I had tickets.  I contemplated upgrading to courtside; there was this broker I knew who could make such things happen.
A shadow appeared on my paper and a voice said, "Mr. Moran?"  
I looked up into a vaguely familiar face.  Where had I seen him?  Desk clerk?  "Yes?"
"I wanted to thank you for indulging me."  Indulging him?  In what?  I peered closer at him, looking into his eyes for signs of dementia.  His eyes were bright green, possibly contacts, though it was hard to say.  Ah, yes, the psychic.  I nodded a response, still crunching hashbrowns.
He seemed satisfied, and turned to leave.  "Hey, do I know you from anywhere?" I asked, curious about how he knew.  Not that he couldn't, I was just curious how.
He smiled and winked at me knowingly, "Not just yet, no," and was gone.  
You encounter strange things when you travel.  Strange things, indeed.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Shoemaker Station

Shoemaker Station is a piece I started and occasionally get back to. Keep an eye on the publish date and time to see if it's been updated. I'll try to remember to update that as I make changes, but no promises about it being obvious what I change.

There are two things you can never forget while living here; one is the cold, the other is the longing. Of course, the cold is the thing you notice first, and you notice it the most. It permeates everything to the point that even a hot cup of tea seems to have an aspect of cold. While you notice it on the ride out, you kind of write it off as a temporary thing; one facet of a trip that seems to have discomfort built in. After you arrive, you begin to realize that being cold is just a way of life out here.

The longing takes a while to get its hooks into you, but once they’re in, the pain runs deep. Every time you go outside, or even pass by a skyview port, you feel it. And, of course, the downside psychologists that helped design this place were sure that we’d want to look outside a lot, so they put skyviews in wherever they’d fit. Sometimes you forget to look away when passing one and there she is, the Great Mother looking down at you, beckoning you with warmth, calling you home to her open arms of green and blue and brown and white. Whiplash snaps your head down, your eyes glued to the floor while you go on your way, fighting back the turbid rush of angst, anguish and despair. And when the battle is over, all you’re left with is the longing. And the cold, the ever-enduring cold."

-- from Reeve McCoy's blog.
The early days of being on Luna weren’t nearly so bad. There was excitement in the air, at least wherever there was air. Everyone was bustling around, constantly building things. And there was so much to build. Everyone thought of himself as a cowboy, nailing up some part of a giant homestead, carving civilization out of living rock with nothing but his wits and a few hand tools brought from home. Reality is slightly different, but history will likely show the margin was close.

Serenity Station, named for its location on the Mare Serenitatis and not the state of mind of its crew, was the job shack for construction of Shoemaker. Serenity, unlike Rome, was built in one day, in one of the most incredible fits of organized chaos in the history of the human race. A total of six cans, the nickname for the refitted big orange heavy lifter external tanks, were landed in frames on the mare, the large plains on the moon that early astronomers thought were seas. A bulldozer, landed earlier, pulled them all in to a tidy little row in the bottom of a crater, side by side like tuna on a fishawk’s table. They were coupled together with prefitted airlocks, two between each, to create one giant habitat. Access tubes were erected at each end, and the whole thing was buried like a tomb under three meters of regolith, the powder fine soil of the lunar surface, protecting the occupants from solar and cosmic radiation.

Eighteen people are stationed at Serenity, men and women from five countries, each of them an expert in their field. Each person also has a high level of skill in at least two other areas, creating system redundancy even in the people. With 136 square meters per floor, two floors per can, there is plenty of room to spread out, even with all the space dedicated to construction-related gear. One can, the common area, has only one floor, but the ceiling is five and a half meters up, giving way to some much-needed headroom. Early on, a game was made of trying to jump up and touch the ceiling. This went on until Robinson, an athlete in his college days, cracked his head on the ceiling, passed out and crashed to the floor. Even in seventeen percent gravity, a five meter fall hurts. Station Commander Flores put an immediate halt to “such foolishness.” Later he admitted that he’d tried three times to make the jump and never once got close.

The human race has a lot of experience constructing cities. One thing that had never been tried, though, is building one from the inside. On the moon, not only is there no air to breathe, but a little bit of sun, with no atmosphere to buffer it, can be the end of you. So people spend as much time as possible indoors. Forays outside, difficult at best when considering getting in and out of a space suit, are as few and far between as people can make them. Better to send robotic golems or teleoperated waldoes to do the work; better to stay safe and cozy at your workstation, never far from help, well within reach of a samovar full of tea.

One of the more interesting jobs during the construction phase, when you considered its place in the whole scheme, was running the tube maker. Somewhere upstream in the process, regolith is scooped up like so many cubic meters of powdered sugar, run through a separator and fed into a mill. One of the products of the mill is a fine wire made of a mostly-aluminum alloy and the basic construction material on Luna. The tube maker carefully winds the wire around a sliding hoop, welding each pass to the previous one, slowly creating construction tubes for use around the station. Running the thing is a slow and monotonous job of mainly babysitting the machinery, leaving plenty of time for reading or contemplating one’s navel. But it’s also interesting because it’s one of the few jobs where you can watch something being created, seemingly from nothing, that is an obvious part of station construction. Tubes are used everywhere, from habitat shells to cookpots. When pressure is your friend, “round keeps you ‘round,” as they say.

Even more interesting than watching the tube maker was watching Jeanie Holm operate it. It wasn’t for her beauty, which took a trained eye to see, nor for any particular grace in doing the job, though that she didn’t lack. The thing that drew people to watch her was the personality that she found and reacted to in that machine. “Tuber! You piece of crap, quit with the attitude. I get enough grief from the rest of the crew here, I don’t need you talkin’ down to me, too.” Jeanie’s accent, American Southern, started to peek out when she was upset about something, which was often by most standards. The odd thing was that “Tuber,” a name given the machine by Jeanie and adopted by everyone in the station, had no voice input or response mechanism. In short, it was deaf and mute. Jeanie blithely ignored this small piece if information, preferring to yell at the machine the way she did her stationmates, which was loud. Interestingly enough, the machine somehow seemed cowed by the experience.


Spinning, Jeanie held up a halting hand. “Don’t ‘Jeanie’ me, Reeve. You stay out of this.”

“I just wanted to know if you were getting hungry. What’s he doing to you now?”

"He's got an attitude today. Every time I make an adjustment, something else goes out of whack. What time is it?"

"It's almost thirteen. I'm hungry, let's go eat."

Later, in the relative quiet of the canteen, Jeanie seemed to settle down. "So, what's this I hear about reconfiguring the power system?" she asked. "What's wrong with the way it's laid out now?"

Reeve McCoy, the station's power systems engineer, paused for a moment before answering. "Well, that's an interesting question. It seems that we're getting new panels on the tower; some new, more efficient cell type that increases efficiency by twenty percent or so."

"Okay, so we're getting more power. Why? We've got plenty. And why does more input require a retrofit of the distribution hubs? They were overbuilt to begin with.  I suppose it's some politico's boondoggle, spending unnecessary money."

"More good questions. I wish I had actual answers, but all I'm doing is following orders from Planning. One thing I can tell you, though, is that they want new taps, one off of each hub. And they're big ones; big enough to power a duplicate of Serenity."

* * *

Two days later, Reeve's phone rang. Jeanie's ID was on the display. "Heya, sweetie, what's up?"

"Well..." she said, sounding tentative. That was entirely out of character for Jeanie. "The strangest thing just showed up in the order list for Tuber."

There was a pause long enough for Reeve to realize that he was supposed to ask a question. He went with the obvious. "Uh... What's the order for?"

"Three G-type air lock kits. Can you believe it?"

Another pause. "Um... No...?" Reeve asked, knowing he was lost. "Aren't they doing some construction at L-5? Some sort of hab expansion or something? I know I saw it on the forum."

"Reeve, you idiot!" She didn't really mean it, he knew, but there was enough of an edge to her voice that it cut anyway. "I said these were G-type airlock kits. Doesn't that sound strange to you?"

Getting exasperated with the situation, but knowing how these discussions could escalate, he went for the soft approach. "Jeanie, did I ever mention to you that I was an electrical engineer?"

He could hear the distinctive clank of a bulkhead door opening and closing, footsteps, and heavy breathing on the other end of the phone. In Lunar gravity, movement on foot happened in slow motion as muscles designed for six times the gravity struggled against deep-seated memory regarding moving balance. Once you got the hang of it, you could cover a lot of ground in short order, especially indoors where you didn't have the burden of twenty kilos of space suit to deal with. The door to Reeve's space slid open, and there was Jeanie, looking flushed. Reeve put down the phone. Without a word, she thrust a slate into his hands. By its battered frame and broken corner, he knew it was hers. A design document for an airlock was on the screen. "See? G-Type. G is for gravity. Unless there's something I really don't know about the L-5 station, there ain't no gravity up there."

"So, then, what are the airlocks for?"

"That's what bothers me," she said. "I don't know. Everyone on this station has been involved in every space-based hab design since we launched. No one knows this stuff better than we do, living it every day. And it has to be a hab, otherwise you don't need airlocks. So, what are they up to?"

The following day, with Jeanie in tow, Reeve made an attempt at casual conversation with Commander Flores. "Good morning, Paolo. How are those arsonists treating you?"

A knowing smile crossed Flores' face. Not to be baited, he said, "Good morning, Reeve. Yes, the Botafogo are doing well this year. They've only lost one game, to Flamengo, and won handily last Saturday. Oh, and I'm sure you're aware that they absolutely crushed your American 'soccer' team when they played last month. Oh, yes, I believe you owe me dinner for that." As Flores looked at Jeanie, hovering furtively behind Reeve, his smile faded. "What's going on?"

Reeve, with an exasperated glare at Jeanie, abandoned his stealthy approach. "We were wondering what you could tell us about the super-secret hab being built."

Jeanie and Reeve stared at the commander. It was as if he was working through a conversation in his head, and Reeve was fairly sure he knew how it was going. Paolo Flores hadn't been assigned as station commander of Serenity because he drew some short straw in a lottery. In fact, though Flores himself had little to do with it, the selection process was an arduous one with many casualties along the way. In the end, one of the qualifications that got him the job was his ability to understand people, a rare trait among his ESA and NASA contemporaries, particularly for someone with his technical background. "What I can tell you, unfortunately, is not all I know. For now, suffice to say that a data center is being constructed in a secure location near here. That's all I can say now, but I can assure you it's the truth. Please, though, keep this to yourselves. No one on this station is by any means stupid, but most are content to focus on what they're doing so they can finish and go home. You two seem to have... curiosity." He looked as if he was going to say more, then thought better of it. "Enjoy your day, people. News will be forthcoming when the time is right. For now, paperwork beckons my attention."

Back home, Reeve McCoy liked to walk when he had thinking to do. The tougher the problem, the further he'd walk. Once, while in high school, fretting over troubles with a girl, he'd walked for ten hours straight, stopping only once for a light meal at a food cart. His pace was steady when he was deep in thought, and he later estimated that he walked over thirty miles that day. After his third year of college, when he needed to decide for sure which way his education and career were going to go, he put on a backpack and started to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Starting at the Mexican border in May, five months and over 2600 miles later, he arrived at the Canadian border, cold, wet and exhausted, but ready to meet the next phase of his life.

Living on the moon, going for a walk to be alone was a little more difficult than putting on a good hat and a windbreaker and heading out onto the streets of your neighborhood. If one wanted to go out and about, they were accompanied by the bulk of a spacesuit and the constant chatter of Mission Control in their ears. Still, the harsh Lunar landscape provided at least some familiarity with his Desert Southwest upbringing, and McCoy was in good enough shape that the suit, with all its trappings, was little burden. Advances in life support systems provided twelve hours of operation under modest exertion, though almost no one ended up staying out over three or four hours at a time.

Filing a plan with Mission Control was a requirement for anyone going outside. Reeve filed one of his well-known "survey plans" that the people at Control not-so-secretly referred to as "navel survey missions." Ninety minutes out, ninety minutes back, with a thirty minute margin for error left just enough time to clean and stow his suit, shower and get dressed before the cafeteria opened for early dinner. Jaques Benoit was assigned to early dinner duty this week, and, as the son of moderately well known French chef Claude Benoit, Jaques had cooking skills that were the envy of the station. Reeve couldn't cook stone soup without a recipe, but knew how to appreciate a good plate of food. And, as the station botanist working on Lunar agriculture, Benoit cooked with fresh herbs he carefully cultivated in his lab.

Unlike many of his walks, which were for no other purpose than getting out of the job shack and away from his station mates, this excursion was just what it said: a survey mission. Planning had asked for two taps, one each from the power distribution pylons for their new "data center." Neither Reeve nor Jeanie were convinced that the new hab's true purpose was to house some sort of computer array, but for the time being, that's what they had to go on. His plan for the day was to figure out where the building site was, hoping the location would provide some clue to solving the mystery.

Luckily, standard engineering principles in the Lunar environment were very predictable. Resources were constrained everywhere, putting severe limits on design. Studying the requirements for the taps, Reeve noticed that the north pylon tap was to be installed in the E panel of the six sided tower, while the south pylon tap was to be installed in the F panel. Presuming both taps were supplying the same location, that put the construction site somewhere to the west of Shoemaker. Practical estimates could be made regarding the angle of departure from the pylons for the power lines, and application of a little basic trigonometry told Reeve right where to put his survey pole to start his search. Heading due west from the north pylon, he figured he could make up to 20 kilometers in his allotted 90 minutes at a steady march. He hoped he'd come across something long before that, as he'd never been further out than eight kilometers on foot, and hardly any past that in a buggy. A few of the station crew had been forty or more kilometers out in a buggy looking for good mining spots, but all of that had been to the south and the east onto the mare where the land was fairly flat. And once a team had gone out to the Linne-G crater, around fifty klicks northeast, but upon finding it was nothing more than an impact crater with particularly steep walls, they quickly lost interest. Due west was the edge of the Montes Caucasus, which separate this section of Mare Serentatis from the vast Mare Imbrium. The mountains were nothing compared to Mt. Hadley or Mt. Bradley in the Apenninus range just to the south, but they were formidable in their own right, particularly to someone on foot.

Reeve picked his spot and set up his survey pole. Aiming it in what he thought was the most likely direction given the landscape, he turned the laser on in "guideline" mode. With no atmosphere to diffuse it, the laser line painted on the ground would extend much further than Reeve could hope to walk in his allotted time. The pole was around a meter and a half tall, and the laser threw a beam from straight down to around eighty degrees; not quite enough to make the line tangential to the moon's surface, but plenty to create a guideline to go as far as most engineering projects would need it.

He started his march. Well, march probably wasn't the right word for it. The weight of the space suit wasn't much in the Lunar gravity, but the mass was something to contend with. Indoors, one could move with long, loping strides. Outdoors, in full regalia, moving over long distances was accomplished with a sort of running skip. The movement was much more practiced and refined than what the Apollo astronauts used in their EVA forays, but the idea was the same.

Thirty klicks along his guideline away from Serenity Station, and half an hour past his turnaround point, Reeve McCoy found himself standing in the middle of a barren plain of powdery Lunar soil. Peering along the track of the laser beam, he saw nothing of significance before it terminated in the foothills of the mountain range another thirty kilometers away. He pressed a button on his wrist to put his suit computer into command mode. Using touch commands on the small arm-mounted display was impractical while wearing the large gloves of a spacesuit, so gesture-based commands were used. Sensor wires in the right-hand glove determined hand and finger position, so operating the suit computer was done with a rudimentary version of sign language. It was awkward at times, particularly when two people were trying to work together. Using a computer and carrying on a conversation in a natural way was difficult.

Reeve called up the view from his helmet camera and used the zoom to fly along the guideline. It ended at a boulder about six meters in diameter some significant fraction of the remaining distance to the foothills. Doing a slow pan to the left, he found nothing. Returning his view to the boulder and panning right, he spotted something about fifteen degrees north. He ran the camera out to the fullest extent of its zoom and studied the object, a difficult task because, even with image stabilization, every twitch of his body made the image on the screen jiggle wildly.

"McCoy!" Flores' voice boomed in his ears, startling him enough that he nearly fell over. Reeve had turned the radio down to a dwindle to avoid the radio chatter. Flores must have used the suit's remote control to turn it back up.

"What the hell?!? I mean... yes? Sir?"

"Don't 'yes sir' me, McCoy. What in God's creation are you doing out there?"


"Bullshit. You're way outside our normal operating radius. Get your ass back in here, and do it now."

Bullshit? Reeve couldn't ever remember the level headed Flores losing his temper. Finding the mystery object again with his camera, Reeve snapped a picture for later study and turned back toward the station. "On my way back, sir."

By the time he got back, early dinner was over. So much for the promise of culinary delights. Late dinner started two hours after early dinner, giving those in Mission Control and anyone else who couldn't make it to the earlier meal due to work responsibilities the chance to eat. Jeanie was on cooking duty, meaning that the meal was entirely uninspired. No one complained, though. The standing tradition was that anyone who complained was invited to show they could do better. Since most of the egghead staff of the station struggled to make anything more complicated than boxed mac and cheese, everyone just smiled and said, "thank you," followed shortly by, "please pass the salt."

Three days later, night arrived. A brief twilight period made everything outdoors look strange and gloomy for a few hours, and then the world was plunged into a darkness that would last two weeks. Large stadium lights were used to work by for the two weeks that the sun was behind the earth, lighting the yard with what seemed to be a pale glow when compared to the full power of the sun that was present for the previous two weeks. The lights could be seen from downside, giving Serenity Station the nickname "the jewel," because of the way they seemed to sparkle when seen through the planet's atmosphere. During the first week of the new moon, "the jewel" seemed to hang right between the points of the crescent.

Jeanie had decided that Tuber needed to be taken down for maintenance and general cleaning, which was a long and painful process and was best done during the night period when there wasn't enough power budget to run the hungry machine anyway. The planners had opted for only one tube maker due to budget constraints and space planning issues, and it was necessary to keep it clean and well-maintained. No one wanted bad tubes.

It had been dark for a week when Reeve answered his door to find a bedraggled looking Jeanie staring back at him. She had a nasty looking scratch on one cheek, a smudge of dirt on the other, and her short hair was sticking out at odd angles from her head. She gave him a weak smile as he did his best to contain his laughter. "Excuse me, sir," she said in a dramatic Cockney accent, "could you spare a crust of bread?"

He stepped aside and let her in. "So, how is the cleaning going?"

"It's done. There was a bunch of crap built up on the main capstan, causing the tensioner to constantly work overtime trying to keep the feed rate right. Whatever it was kept clogging the birdsmouth, too, and created some carbon buildup on the weld head. I tore that down, replaced the anode track, cleaned the birdsmouth with solvent, and put the whole mess back together. I'll run a systems check on it in the morning, but it should be ready to run when the sun comes up again."

Reeve gave her his best sympathetic look. "Well, on behalf of all the people on this station who rely on your tubes, I thank you for your hard work." Grinning, he added, "Now, do you need a hug?"

She laughed and gave him a shove. "Get away from me, you weirdo. What I need is a drink. Do you have any left?"

Alcohol was a rare commodity on the station. Reeve occasionally used a significant fraction of his precious personal cargo allotment on the resupply drone to have a bottle of booze flown up. Considering the high cost per kilogram to launch something out of Earth's gravity well, he figured each bottle cost around six thousand Euros by the time it got to his door, notwithstanding the original price of the bottle. A few hundred Euros for a good Speyside Scotch was nothing compared to the delivery charge, which, luckily, was being borne by his employers.

He thumbed the fingerprint pad on his locker and pulled out a bottle. Producing two glasses from a cabinet, he filled them with water from the chiller to cool them off. Pouring out all but a few drops of water from each glass, he poured the glowing amber whiskey in its place. Offering one to Jeanie and holding his own glass up, he said, "Here's to smooth walled tubes."

Gently bumping her glass against his, she said, "Here's to machinery that works the way it's supposed to." A slow smile spread across her face as she sipped her drink. "Wow, that's good stuff. It's almost a shame how smooth it goes down." After a pause, she suddenly looked startled. "Oh! I didn't tell you! I got a req in today for just over a hundred thousand meters of ten mil aluminum cable, glass wrapped."

Reeve gave a low whistle. "Well, there's our power transmission line. That's a lot of wire. Do you have the feedstock?"

"Yeah, but the problem is Arachne will never be able to spin that much out in one go. As is, I'm going to spend the next week tearing her down for service ahead of schedule, just to make sure she's in as good a shape as she can be to get started." Arachne was the machine used to spin wire into cable. It was also capable of "overbraiding" a fiberglass insulation layer around the cable so it could be used for conducting electricity without someone getting electrocuted. The silica glass was made from local resources like the wire. A thin sheath of aluminum around the whole thing protected the glass casing from abrasions, and ensured that handling was safe.

Reeve sat down on the couch, gesturing for Jeanie to join him. Sipping on his drink, he fiddled with his tablet until he found the image of the mystery object he found on his walk. Sending to the screen on the wall so they could both examine it, he passed the controller to Jeanie. "Can you refine that image any? I'm no good with those tools."

She looked at him searchingly. "Those tools, huh?"

Reeve sighed, knowing where she was going. "Jeanie, you may never believe me when I say this, but not everything I say is a sexual innuendo." He did his best to appear sincere, though it probably looked more stern. After a moment she returned to the task at hand, allowing Reeve to relax his much-needed defensive posture. He hadn't meant to imply anything, but now she had him thinking...

Jeanie fiddled with the tablet, calling up editing tools and arranging them on the display. Reeve watched as she entered cryptic commands, adjusting the image with each one. He had a rudimentary knowledge of the toolkits, mostly garnered from making presentations in college. But when it came to images, Jeanie was an expert. Her photography skills approached professional level, and she was adept enough with the latest editing tools that her images were widely published. She brought the bleak, nearly colorless lunar landscape to life. Most people back on Earth saw the moon through Jeanie Holm's eyes.

As her fingers danced on the tablet, the image on the wall screen twisted and turned, occasionally blinking out and coming back changed. After a time, she put the zoom box around a section of the image so that the portion she chose filled the screen. Turning to Reeve, she said, "Well, there you are. That's as good as I can get."

As they both stared at the "mystery object," it finally dawned on Reeve what he was looking at. "It's a survey pole. It's heavily modified, but it's a survey marking pole, I'm certain."

"But why does it look like that?" Jeanie asked. "What's that thing in the middle? And what's that big box off to the side?"

"RTG. Though why they'd need juice like that for a survey pole is beyond me. See? There's the power cable."

"Know what bothers me?" Jeanie asked. Reeve looked at her. Not waiting for him to answer, she continued, "How did the thing get there?"

"I suppose they drove it out there. Could have run out there sometime after…"

"So where are the tire tracks?" He was used to her interruptions. Among her other qualities, Jeanie was impatient. "It's not like there's been a wind storm to wipe away the evidence of their passing."

Reeve stared. "Nightime landing, then? It's not like we would have heard them. And if no one was looking that direction when the lander came in, we wouldn't have seen any rocket flare."

"Okay, that could be. But then where are the footprints? What did they do, set down the lander, reach out the door and drop this thing without ever setting foot in the dust?"

As if on cue, they both sipped their drinks. Poking at the tablet, Jeanie made the image on the wall screen disappear. "We don't have enough info, Reeve. We need better pictures."

"Well, it's not like I had a lot of choice," Reeve said defensively. "Flores was all over my ass. I'm half surprised he didn't suspend my walking privileges."

"That would have brought attention to the situation. People around here don't have enough to talk about. Give them a little something, they'll make a mountain out of it." She turned and stretched out on the sofa, putting her head in Reeve's lap. "So, how do we convince Paolo to let us go out there and investigate?"

"That's not likely to happen. I'm not even sure I'd want to ask." The low gravity made Jeanie's head light in his lap, but her warmth was beaming through his coverall like [ metaphor ]. Reeve squirmed, a little uncomfortable. A knowing smile flitted across Jeanie's lips, but passed quickly. The two of them had been occasional lovers who never let their affair get in the way of their friendship. No matter their relationship, though, Reeve McCoy was a gentleman. Taking a deep breath, he settled his instinctual responses to her closeness. There would be time for that later. He took the tablet from Jeanie and used it to put the wall screen in television mode. Finding his favorite news feed, he selected the current events stream. Tossing back the last of his Scotch, he said, "I was thinking of watching a movie, but you seem kind of bushed."

She handed him her glass. "Yeah, I'm beat. I need a shower, maybe two." She frowned suddenly, as if considering something. "I'm staying here tonight. Can I use your toothbrush?"

Reeve chuckled. She hadn't asked, just assuming that staying in his cabin was okay. Not that it wasn't, but he somehow still felt invaded. On the other hand, a warm body to cuddle up against would be nice. He was never able to get really warm at night, even with the extra blankets and the heat in his room on high. The cold on Luna was a constant reminder that humans didn't belong here. "Go right ahead," he told Jeanie. "Just don't flatten out the bristles. It's my last one until mail call, and that's almost two weeks."

Jeanie headed for the common shower room at the end of the hallway. Serenity's first and second cans dedicated one floor each to private living space. Jeanie's cabin was in can one, Reeve's in can two. Each of the living space floors were identical, save for whatever furniture rearranging had been done by the occupants. Each cabin was large enough for two people to live in for extended periods of time, so that in the event one can was compromised, everyone could be housed in the remaining cabins. Redundancy was everywhere. Luckily, it meant that, in normal circumstances, everyone had plenty of space to stretch out and all the privacy they wanted. Unless, of course, they wanted to relieve themselves or shower, both of which were done in common restrooms.

Reeve busied himself with tidying up and turning the sofa into a bed. He listened to the news as he went. EU parliamentary elections were coming up, and the campaigns were getting messy. The U.S. presidential election was nearly two years away, but the first candidates were busy declaring their intent to run. The governor of New Mexico had a strong PR team working for him, and was taking an early lead in the polls. It would be interesting to see how long that lasted. In other news, some actor Reeve had never heard of was set to marry some pop music "legend" that he had also never heard of. And an amateur astronomer was getting his fifteen minutes of fame for discovering that the orbit of some comet or other was different than the pros had calculated it to be.

Reeve had gotten into bed and drifted off to sleep before Jeanie returned. When she did, she crawled in next to him and snuggled up against him. As he put his arm around her waist, she said, "Thanks for lettin' me stay tonight, Sugar. I didn't feel like being alone."

Reeve grunted. "I didn't know there was any 'letting' about it. You seemed to decide without me." He kissed the back of her head. Within a minute, she was softly snoring. Reeve smiled as he drifted back to sleep. He wasn't sure just how to define how he felt about Jeanie, but he sure liked having her around. Well, he thought, some things just don't have to be defined.

Reeve didn’t see much of Jeanie over the next week as she threw herself into the teardown and deep cleaning of Arachne. Reeve, for his part, spent the last few days of darkness getting ready to inflate Shoemaker’s big greenhouse. The pilot greenhouse seemed to be faring well, and everyone was excited to finally have a large space to walk around in without the burden of a spacesuit. However dedicated they all were to their work, eight months trapped indoors started to wear on the psyches of even the most hardened homebodies.
Jacques had started growing nitrogen-fixing cover crops, like vetch and clover, immediately after the trial greenhouse had been inflated. With two weeks of daylight at a time and all the nutrients they could eat, the plants grew like mad. Jacques carefully nurtured them through their entire rapid growth cycle, turning them into compost as quickly as possible. Shortly after the large greenhouse went up, he expected to have enough viable soil to create a thin layer over the entire floor. He planned to create a natural carpet of step-friendly ground cover, both for its aesthetic value and as a way to help maintain the humidity level. Serenity’s atmosphere was thin and dry, which was fine by Reeve, as it reminded him of home. But many, particularly Jacques, who was raised in the verdant Loire Valley, found it off-putting.
Inflation day came, and everyone found time in their busy schedules to lend a hand. Jeanie set up several video cameras around the site, and Nate Robinson interviewed Commander Flores for the news feeds back home. With an estimated half a billion people watching, either live or through viral clips that would infect the net over the next few days, everyone was trying to do everything exactly right. There was no better way to invite trouble.
Carbon dioxide, plentiful anywhere there are humans, had been collected for the entire time the base was in operation. Luna, even though it has no atmosphere of note, is rich with oxygen trapped in compound form in the soil. Unlike the orbital stations, there is no need to scrub the carbon out of the CO2 to make oxygen to breathe. Indeed, the oxygen was a byproduct of the lunar material refinement, making it plentiful. Carbon, on the other hand, has to be entirely imported. Luckily, humans spew carbon-bearing compounds wherever they go.
The scrubbers pulled the CO2 out of the station’s atmosphere, but instead of tearing it apart, they stored it and injected fresh oxygen, mined from the soil, in its place. When it came time to inflate the greenhouse, the standard station atmospheric mix would be blended with the stored CO2, creating an environment particularly favorable to the plants that would be growing there.
As everyone watched, Jacques Benoit and Karl Strauss, the station’s atmospheric engineer, unpacked the case containing the greenhouse. Carefully, they unfolded the fabric structure, re-inspecting the neatly-raked ground as they went, making doubly sure no razor sharp rock fragments were lying in wait to puncture the tent.
Hoses were connected to ports on the tent’s vestibule section. This section held all the hard components of the greenhouse, including atmospheric management equipment, water processing, the airlock, and anything else it took to operate a greenhouse on the moon. Karl opened the safety valves on the pressure tanks, checked the mechanical gauges against the indicators on his telemetry display, and gave the go-ahead to proceed. As the evaporator heated up, warming the liquefied nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide up above their respective boiling points, gasses started to flow and the fabric started to come to life.
Radio chatter was almost non-existent by the time the tent was half inflated, with everyone lost in their own private dreams about lying on a bed of grass in the warm sunshine. The partially reflective fabric of the tent would allow enough sun through to mimic summer noon in the tropics on Earth. Every twelve hours, an electronic shade would darken for three hours and allow the plants to rest. During the two week dark period, banks of sun-mimicking lights would take over the cycle.
With everyone lost in thought, no one noticed the problem until it became an emergency. A hose coupling failed connecting the CO2 tank to the evaporator…
[... working on more ...]

Appendix: Characters
Serenity Crew (18):
• Reeve McCoy: Narrator
• Paolo Flores: Station Commander
• Robinson: An athlete in his college days, cracked his head on Common Area ceiling in Serenity.
• Jeanie Holm: Interesting machine operator. Reeve McCoy's occasional lover. Pro-grade photographer.
• Jaques Benoit, station botanist, is son of French chef Claude Benoit, and a good cook in his own right.