First Contact

A Play in One Act
by Bryan Carrigan

 

Cast of Characters
Matthew Prescott: A clean-cut, all-American, astronaut.
Duke: A NASA mission director

Setting: A NASA flight control conference room. Kazakhstan, Russia.

Time: Present day.

ACT ONE
Scene 1

SETTING: A NASA conference room. A table, a few chairs, a few poster-size photographs of STS launches.

AT RISE: MATTHEW PRESCOTT has been kept waiting for some time. DUKE enters.

PRESCOTT
…it’s about time!

DUKE
How are we feeling, Prescott?

PRESCOTT
Tell me you’ve got a burger and fries hidden behind that clipboard. A nice, juicy porterhouse? Mashed potatoes? Budweiser? I don’t know the Russian word for beer.

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk, Commander.

PRESCOTT
You’re killing me, Duke.

DUKE
One hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation aboard the ISS—mineral depletion is within norms. Right now, your bones have the density of balsa wood. Calcium. Vitamin D. Milk. Do what the doctors tell you, and right now, they’re telling you—

PRESCOTT
Could I at least get it in the form of a strawberry milkshake?

DUKE
They’re going to name a high school after you.

PRESCOTT
I’m pretty sure this is goat’s milk.

DUKE
You’re a goddamn national hero. Act like it.
(Prescott laughs.)
Does something about this amuse you, Commander?

PRESCOTT
…“hero.”

DUKE
Fuckin’ A right you are.

PRESCOTT
I’m getting some t-shirts printed up that say “I survived the great NASA clusterfuck of 2018.” You want one?

DUKE
Matthew—

PRESCOTT
Buehlman and McGinnis, Pushkin and Sato—name high schools after those guys.

DUKE
They—

PRESCOTT
Don’t. I like you, Duke. I’ve the bone density of balsa wood, but I swear to god I’ll break my hand on your face.

DUKE
You’re right.

PRESCOTT
I keep looking for the DCB—I’ve been staring at that thing for so fucking long, trying to make sense out of—I’ve got the afterglow from the indicator lights seared into my eyeballs. I didn’t ask for this, Duke.

DUKE
I know. Still…

PRESCOTT
Fucking goat’s milk.

DUKE
I’ll see what I can do about that cheeseburger. I’ve got no idea if the Russians can do french fries.

PRESCOTT
What went wrong?

DUKE
Everything.
(Off Prescott’s look.)
You know how these things go. The Russians insist there was nothing wrong with their rocket, they’re putting it squarely on Buehlman. We need the Soyuz to reach the ISS so we’re not saying anything. But best guess? One of the capsule’s OMS engines misfired. There was nothing Buehlman or McGinnis could have done…

PRESCOTT
Jesus.

DUKE
That’s not to say we’re in any hurry to launch another Soyuz. Word is, until the Titans are go for launch or Space X steps up, the ISS is going to be operated remotely.

PRESCOTT
Can’t image all this has made your life any easier.

DUKE
Easy is not why I signed on.
(Beat.)
I don’t much like writing eulogies. I’m much better at manufacturing heroes.

PRESCOTT
Any chance you can get Five Guys to sign me to an endorsement deal? I’ll give you ten percent—

DUKE
As soon as the docs clear you—

PRESCOTT
This isn’t normal, is it?

DUKE
They’re playing it extra-cautious.

PRESCOTT
Guys have stayed up longer. That Russian—?

DUKE
Kozyrskii. Yeah, he died seventeen months after returning to Earth.

PRESCOTT
—died!?!

DUKE
As in, he didn’t drink his goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
Now’s probably the wrong time to mention that I may have left the lights on up there.

DUKE
You’re gonna have to do the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
And the film canisters. Shit! You wouldn’t believe the footage I shot—every canister of iMax film we had—I mean, it’s not like I had anything else to do… I can’t believe I left that up there…

DUKE
The White House wants you for a photo op. They’re giving you a medal.

PRESCOTT
Can’t I use the “bone density of balsa wood” to get out of it?

DUKE
Are you still a Commander on active duty in the United States Navy?

PRESCOTT
…no?

DUKE
C’mon, Prescott, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States of America has requested your presence at a state dinner to be held in your honor at the White House.

PRESCOTT
…the White House?

DUKE
I’ve been there. The food sucks.

PRESCOTT
Was there a contingency plan?

DUKE
Which one?

PRESCOTT
This is the longest conversation I’ve had in four and a half months. First order of business once the Titans are ready for launch: free wifi. The largest manmade object ever put into orbit, the pinnacle of human achievement—that I couldn’t Skype, much less send an email—actually, you might want to do that second, the toilet in the crew module… never mind.

DUKE
I’ll get the engineers right on that.

PRESCOTT
There was no rescue plan.

DUKE
No.

PRESCOTT
How close did I come?

DUKE
The CO² scrubbers had about nineteen days left in them. The O² generators maybe a week more.

PRESCOTT
Sheesh.

DUKE
One of the eggs came up with a workaround that would have bought you another couple, three days. But with communications offline, no uplink…

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I didn’t stick around.

DUKE
I’m supposed to debrief you… your decision, why you waited, why you punched out when you did, that sort of thing.

PRESCOTT
Sounds swell. Some other time, maybe.

DUKE
…are you all right?

PRESCOTT
There’s this buzzing—ever since re-entry—I think I may have ruptured an eardrum.

DUKE
You don’t look so good. Let me get one of the docs to check you out.

PRESCOTT
Nah, forget it.

DUKE
You’re sure?
(Prescott staggers, collapses into a chair.)
I’m getting—

PRESCOTT
I’m all right. Gravity.

DUKE
Still thirty-two feet per second squared last I checked.

PRESCOTT
I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to parade me in front of the press just yet.

DUKE
Go, no go—it’s your call.

PRESCOTT
Good to know.

DUKE
But here’s the thing—

PRESCOTT
…Duke!

DUKE
Hear me out. We’ve got a narrow window of opportunity—right now, out there, people care about manned space flight again. I mean, you should have seen it, every hobby shop across the country sold out of telescopes. Night after night, fathers and sons tracked the ISS from horizon to horizon. The country, hell, the whole world—

PRESCOTT
I saw something. Up there.
(Beat.)

DUKE
What?

PRESCOTT
I’m ninety-nine point forty-four percent sure I’m cracked, that I was hallucinating—

DUKE
What did you see, Matthew?

PRESCOTT
Don’t patronize me, Duke.

DUKE
You’re not the first—

PRESCOTT
—to have a psychotic break from reality two hundred and eighty-six miles above the surface of the Earth? I think I am.

DUKE
Friendship Seven—there’s a tape of Glenn, he says, “I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.” Shepard saw the same thing—you can imagine the shitstorm that ensued. Turns out, they were ice crystals formed from the capsule’s exhaust.

PRESCOTT
We’re not talking ice crystals, Duke. This wasn’t…

DUKE
What? Look, Prescott, it’s okay. Whatever you tell me, it stays between us and the goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
I can’t believe—they’re never going to let me go back up again, are they?
(A beat.)

DUKE
No, they’re not.

PRESCOTT
…damn it!

DUKE
No one blames you for what happened, but you know how these things go.

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I broke the toilet.

DUKE
Even if… the decision had been made before you even—

PRESCOTT
Damaged goods. I know.

DUKE
If it’s any consolation—

PRESCOTT
It’s really not.

DUKE
I think we’ve covered enough for—

PRESCOTT
I saw a ship. Yeah, it’s as crazy as it sounds—I saw a ship leave Earth on a ballistic trajectory—hell, at first I thought it was you guys coming to rescue me but the launch vector was all wrong.

DUKE
You’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress. Given what you’ve been through, it’s only natural—

PRESCOTT
It blasted off from Canada, Duke. I don’t give a crap how much stress I’ve been under—I wouldn’t hallucinate a rocket park in British Columbia.

DUKE
It could’ve been anything: a test launch, a science fair project, a couple of kids with too many D-engines.

PRESCOTT
Sure.

DUKE
When was this? Hey, look, if there was a launch, anywhere on the planet, you tell me when and I’ll track it. NORAD—

PRESCOTT
Ninety-one days ago.

DUKE
Okay. Ninety-one days. British Columbia. I’ll start making calls. We’ll get to the bottom of this. If there was a launch—

PRESCOTT
Forget the launch. Three days ago, it returned.

DUKE
It?

PRESCOTT
It wasn’t one of ours, Duke. And it sure as hell wasn’t some Russian Soyuz piece of crap.

DUKE
You’re starting to worry me, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
Good. ’Cause I’m scared shitless.

DUKE
It’s possible… maybe one of the CO² scrubbers failed… you rest easy, kid. I’m going to go order up some tests.

PRESCOTT
Damn it, I don’t need an MRI!

DUKE
I’m not so sure about that. Look, Matthew, put yourself in my position.

PRESCOTT
Don’t you think I have? I know how crazy this sounds—

DUKE
Then…?

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying—

DUKE
Let’s not use that term. We’re professionals.

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying object blasted off from the west coast of Canada three months ago. It completed two orbits, then slingshot itself into the outer solar system. Three days ago, it returned. It buzzed the ISS—

DUKE
Buzzed—?

PRESCOTT
—and made planetfall somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula.
(A beat.)

DUKE
Aliens have landed in Mexico?

PRESCOTT
If I’m wrong—

DUKE
You are.

PRESCOTT
—if it was a hallucination, the product of a fevered imagination and one too many Star Trek episodes—you cancel the morning shows and I serve out the remainder of my commitment flying a desk at some radar station in the ass-crack of the Alaskan arctic. But if I’m right…

DUKE
Matthew, listen to yourself.

PRESCOTT
If I’m right, then this is the moment when everything changes. Life on other planets, FTL space travel, first contact—the whole paradigm—our place in the cosmos—everything changes.

DUKE
(Nods.)
I’m ordering up a 5150 pysch eval.

PRESCOTT
You haven’t even asked me what it looked like.

DUKE
Heat, fuel, air—with any luck, we can smother this thing before you burn yourself.

PRESCOTT
Wedge shaped. Flat. Almost like an almond. Made out of some composite material that absorbs light… but you already know all this, don’t you?

DUKE
Yes. I’m secretly in league with the Nazi space aliens from Dimension X. We all are here at NASA—every one of us except you.

PRESCOTT
I can’t get this taste out of my mouth.

DUKE
How much of what happened do you remember?

PRESCOTT
…it’s like I’m sucking on a penny.

DUKE
Walk me through it. How did it start?

PRESCOTT
You think I’ve cracked.

DUKE
You have cracked, Matthew. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; honestly, I think it might be what’s kept you alive this long.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
Think it through, Matthew—if there were aliens, if they had the intelligence to cross the vastness of space, if they had successfully secreted themselves throughout the population of British Columbia, why on Earth would they ineptly reveal themselves to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station?

PRESCOTT
…what’s wrong with me, Duke?

DUKE
It’s a miracle you’re alive. You made it home, in one piece—

PRESCOTT
The re-supply capsule clipped us right at S5, knocking out the multipurpose lab and shearing off our secondary array. You asked how it all started. Pushkin and Sato were in the lab… thirteen seconds—

DUKE
It was an accident.

PRESCOTT
Yeah.

DUKE
Wait, weren’t you—
(Duke pages through his log book.)
You were supposed to be setting up the multipurpose lab, not Sato.

PRESCOTT
I was EVA trying to un-foul the robotic arm.

DUKE
So what you’re going through is survivor’s guilt. It’s normal. What’s not normal is spending one hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation telling yourself it should have been you and not Sato who died. If it hadn’t been for the robotic arm—

PRESCOTT
It amazes me that piece of crap saved my life. Turns out, opening an airlock from the outside isn’t as easy as you’d think.

DUKE
Opening the airlock—there’s a story you can tell on the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, some good old-fashioned American ingenuity, and a whole lot of dumb luck—it’s a good story. No aliens necessary.

PRESCOTT
I can’t—

DUKE
Four dead astronauts—two Americans—NASA won’t survive another black eye. We need a win, Matthew. We need you to step up.

PRESCOTT
What if—

DUKE
No what if’s, no conjecture, no fantasy—focus. This is go or no go time, Commander.

PRESCOTT
Message received.

DUKE
All right.

PRESCOTT
They wanted to be seen.

DUKE
God damn it!

PRESCOTT
They wanted me to—

DUKE
If they had wanted to be seen, they’d have landed their fucking space ship in the middle of the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
No, you don’t. Three days ago, a solar flare bombarded the ISS with a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. It happens. We have protocols to minimize crew exposure, but those protocols presuppose an uplink with Houston and a functioning DCB—neither of which were in effect three days ago.

PRESCOTT
A solar flare? That’s the best you’ve got. I don’t even rate a weather balloon? An experimental satellite? I get a solar flare?

DUKE
This isn’t a cover up.

PRESCOTT
The hell it’s not.

DUKE
Magnet, hard drive. Magnet—
(Holds up a fist.)
—hard drive.
(He taps his head.)
Your jaw is tingling. Your eyes feel dry. Scratchy. Every time you stand up, you feel light headed.

PRESCOTT
(Stands.)
I feel… ok, you may be onto something.

DUKE
There’s a very real chance that you are the last astronaut NASA will send into orbit. You could very well represent the end of manned space flight.

PRESCOTT
The station is still salvageable—minus the secondary array, power generation is in the red, but I managed to get most everything else back online—we just need—

DUKE
We still haven’t recovered from the arsenic-based life debacle. Or the Mars asteroid. We’re NASA. We don’t do aliens. If you go on Good Morning America—if you are the end of manned space flight, don’t let us go out a punch line…

PRESCOTT
Message received. I can tell ’em the toilet story.

DUKE
Yeah, the morning shows? We try and keep them excrement-free. Except CBS. Those clowns will air anything.

PRESCOTT
An EM burst?

DUKE
Knocked out cell phone service in Europe, the Middle East, and the better part of Russia.

PRESCOTT
X-rays and Gamma rays…

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk. I’ll see what I can do about the morning shows—maybe a pre-taped segment—something that gives us editorial control. How’s that sound? If we don’t like the question…

PRESCOTT
Sounds good, Duke.

DUKE
Take it easy, Matthew. Let me do my job. You’re a goddamn hero.
(Duke gathers up his papers. Makes to exit.)

PRESCOTT
There’s just one problem with that bullshit story of yours, Duke.
(Duke stops.)

DUKE
Oh?

PRESCOTT
I had the DCB back online. The board was green. I spent a hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the ISS with nothing to do except fix things—I can give you a status read on every diagnostic she’s got. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer? Not even a twitch. Nothing. No Gammas. No X-rays. I’m not an idiot, the first thing I did after I stabilized the pressure variances and patched the hull was a hard reset of the radiation alarms. There was no solar flare.

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, ingenuity…

PRESCOTT
What the hell happened to me, Duke?

DUKE
What do you think would happen if you told the world that life exists on other planets?

PRESCOTT
Damn it, Duke, just tell me—!

DUKE
Instead of being a morning show hero, author of a best-selling memoir, inspiration to a generation of junior stargazers—you’d become another what’s-her-name? That chick who drove cross-country wearing space diapers.

PRESCOTT
You tracked the ship.

DUKE
I’m telling you this for your own good.

PRESCOTT
You already have it, don’t you? Locked away in some Area 51 black site.

DUKE
The world knows your capsule landed in the Russian Steppe. We haven’t yet released word of your condition.

PRESCOTT
My condition!?! Did you just—

DUKE
You’re either a hero or a footnote. It’s your choice, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
You can’t keep something like this secret.

DUKE
Matthew Prescott, after surviving one hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the derelict International Space Station, perished during a daring re-entry when the heat shield on his Soyuz capsule failed—

PRESCOTT
Jesus, you’re serious.

DUKE
You’re the one who wants to tell the world of an imminent alien invasion.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—this isn’t a Will Smith movie—odds are, they’re explorers. Scientists. No doubt they—

DUKE
They’ve come to Earth in secret. They’ve gone to great lengths to avoid detection.

PRESCOTT
Duke—

DUKE
They obviously had the means to rescue you, Matthew. They chose not to do so.

PRESCOTT
I had the means to rescue me—it just took me the better part of five months to work up the balls to do so.

DUKE
If you break radio silence on this, there’s no telling what could happen.

PRESCOTT
War of the Worlds? Don’t make me laugh.

DUKE
How’s about mass panic? Another global recession? Unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression? Food shortages, starvation, pandemics—still think this is funny, Commander?

PRESCOTT
I think you’re…
(Prescott nearly faints.)

DUKE
Dizzy?

PRESCOTT
I’m all right.

DUKE
Vertigo sets in after the tingling in the jaw subsides. It won’t be long now.

PRESCOTT
Vertigo—!?!
(re: the milk)
…you’re doing this to me.

DUKE
I told you—we’ve gone to great lengths to keep our presence here a secret.

PRESCOTT
You!?!

DUKE
Not so loud. Think of the neighbors.

PRESCOTT
You’re one of them.

DUKE
One more dead astronaut.
(Shrugs.)
You’ll get a high school named after you. Worst case, a post office. Do they still do that? Name post offices after people?
(Prescott lunges for the call button.)

PRESCOTT
Why?

DUKE
Honestly, I like you, Matthew. I had hopes… high hopes.
(Shrugs.)
Earth is a rare thing—perfectly nestled in the goldilocks zone with a rotating iron core and a healthy magnetic field… abundant water, abundant nitrogen—a smidge too much oxygen for my taste—
(re: the call button)
You might as well give that up. No one is coming.

PRESCOTT
You won’t…

DUKE
I won’t what? Get away with this? Of course I will. I already have.
(Prescott staggers. Duke helps him to chair.)
Easy. Don’t try to fight it—there’s no reason to make this any more unpleasant than it needs to be.

PRESCOTT
(Laughs.)
Houston… we have a problem.

DUKE
Something about your impending demise amuses you?

PRESCOTT
You don’t get it—it’s still up there.

DUKE
We’re moving into the non-lucid phase…

PRESCOTT
The proof—in glorious 70mm iMax—I’ve got hours of footage. Your ship. Proof that aliens exist. Everything NASA needs to expose you… it’s still up there.

DUKE
Ah.

PRESCOTT
Killing me solves nothing. The next guy—

DUKE
There won’t be a—

PRESCOTT
There’s always a next guy. Endurance? Perseverance? We’re NASA. We don’t quit easy.

DUKE
Then there won’t be a station for the—

PRESCOTT
The receiver’s shot. You can’t bring the station down remotely. And every stargazer the world round has a scope pointed upwards—your ship can’t get near it without being seen. One way or another, your secret’s out.

DUKE
Drink your milk, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
They’ll name a high school after me.

BLACK OUT.

 

The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”