Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Pilgrimage

by Robert Moriyama


"Position fix?"

John Murasaki sighed. They had just passed Illuminated Route Marker 27B, so their Surface Excursion Vehicle was about five kilometres from Tranquility Base, the site of the first manned moon landing. His passenger, Werner Morgenstern, a World Space Agency bigwig, probably knew that as well as Murasaki did, but the bureaucrat still insisted on more precise information.

Dutifully, Murasaki tapped in commands to update the navigational system from Lunar Positioning System satellite feeds.

"Position: four point eight seven kilometres from destination Tranquility Base Historical Site. Zero degrees forty-one minutes fifteen seconds north, twenty-three degrees nineteen minutes forty-seven seconds west," the navigational Artificial Intelligence reported.

"Very good. We should arrive right on schedule," Morgenstern said.

Murasaki shook his head. The box-on-stilts Lunar Module descent stage left behind by Eagle almost sixty years ago would be there, unchanged except for a few more micrometeorite dings, even if they were ten years late, let alone a few minutes. But Morgenstern was supposed to be the on-site World Space Agency representative for a live video link commemorating the first manned lunar landing, and to him, punctuality was important.

Murasaki had made the trip dozens of times since his assignment to the gradually-expanding lunar base on the western rim of Maskylene E crater -- Too small to call it a colony yet, he thought -- two years ago. For some reason, he had been saddled with the task of playing tour guide for every VIP visitor who wanted to see the place where Neil Armstrong had (maybe) flubbed his lines. Served him right for being a little too enthusiastic when he'd made one of the engineers take him out there.

"How close can we get to the lander itself?" Morgenstern asked.

"About seventy-five meters," Murasaki replied. "As you know, they want to avoid putting any new tracks -- vehicle or boot -- on the surface within easy visual range of the monument." He had to fight to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

"Surely we can make an exception for --"

"Presidents and kings have asked the same thing, but we're under orders to say no," Murasaki said.

"For this occasion," Morgenstern said. "The sixtieth anniversary -- the first time a government official has been present for such a milestone --"

If governments hadn't turned their backs on the Moon after the first few landings, there'd have been plenty of opportunities for officials to be here for anniversaries, Murasaki thought. We could have had a real city up here by now, instead of a rabbit warren barely big enough for a few dozen people. But all he said was "Sorry, sir. No exceptions."

He thought Morgenstern muttered something under his breath, and allowed himself to smile -- on the side of his face that Morgenstern couldn't see.

####

Fifteen minutes later, the navigational AI chimed and the SEV ground to a halt. "Destination reached. Viewing area for Tranquility Base Historical Site."

Murasaki unfastened his seatbelt and turned toward the World Space Agency official. "Let me help you get buttoned up so we can go outside," he said, but Morgenstern waved him off.

"I am quite capable of undoing a seat belt and putting on this bucket of a helmet," he said.

Murasaki backed off; it was true, the new skin-tight pressure suits were no more complicated to put on than an old-fashioned one-piece set of long underwear, albeit one with gloves and boots attached. Two layers, one containing temperature-regulating flexible circuitry, and one to apply pressure to the skin to prevent edema in the near-perfect vacuum, covered the wearer from toes to neck. The helmet lining actually formed a molecular bond with the surface of the suit that could only be broken by application of a specific radio frequency; life support and communications systems were regulated by an AI built into the helmet.

Still, he managed to unobtrusively check the tell-tale status lights on the "collar" of Morgenstern's helmet to verify that everything was properly sealed and functioning.

Once he had sealed his own helmet, Murasaki helped Morgenstern into the weighted and more heavily insulated outer boots. This was no more complicated than putting on the helmet, but Morgenstern's waistline made it difficult for him to see the fasteners. As he closed the last latch, Murasaki looked up at Morgenstern's belly and reflected that some men were not meant to wear skin-tight suits.

"What was that? Something about my suit?"

Murasaki coughed. "Er, no, sir. Everything's fine." This is what happens when you spend too much time alone out here, he thought. You start thinking out loud.

They went through the shower-stall sized airlock one at a time, with Murasaki going first mainly because he suspected that Morgenstern might make a break for it and try to get closer to the Eagle descent stage if he had the chance. It was probably Murasaki's thousandth time on the lunar surface, his fiftieth time at Tranquility Base, but the view still made him hold his breath until the suit's blood CO2 sensors beeped a warning.

Even in full sunlight, the soil of the Mare Tranquilitatis was almost charcoal grey, reflecting its probable origins as a volcanic flow. The shadows cast by scattered rocks and the contours of the dust-caked surface were blacker and sharper-edged than they would have been if there had been air and suspended dust to scatter the light. And in the black-velvet sky, the Earth shone like a marble streaked with white and blue and brown...

"Mr. Murasaki, it is almost time. Do you have the camera and transmitter ready?"

Murasaki cleared his throat and raised his hands to show the spindly tripod with the camera and micro-dish antenna. He waved for Morgenstern to position himself a few feet further away from the SEV and then set up the camera so that Morgenstern and the distant Eagle descent stage were both in the frame. One push on a control pad activated the camera AI and the antenna swivelled until it had a lock on the closest communications satellite.

"Ready whenever you are, sir," Murasaki said.

Morgenstern nodded. At least Murasaki assumed he was nodding -- it was hard to tell through the helmet faceplate.

Murasaki pressed the control pad a second time, and the camera opened its protective cover. The status screen flashed "uplink established...transmitting..."

"We are transmitting."

"I bring you greetings from Tranquility Base on the Moon, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the first time that a human being set foot on the surface of another world," Morgenstern said. "We of the World Space Agency congratulate the engineers, scientists, astronauts, and world leaders who contributed to this great achievement in human history, and to those who have built on their contributions until now we have permanent habitations in orbit around the Earth and here on the lunar surface.

"Within a few years, the first manned expedition to Mars will depart, using knowledge and skills we have developed over the decades of living and working in space and on the Moon. Perhaps in another few decades, there will be a broadcast like this from the site of that landing, the next great step in our journey from the nest that has nurtured the human species since the beginning of time."

Murasaki found himself blinking away tears. Fat, officious bureaucrat or not, Morgenstern could deliver a speech. Whether he could have written that speech, or harboured the feelings it expressed -- that was another question entirely.

"I leave you now to watch archival footage from the Apollo missions and from the Chinese and later World Space Agency missions that followed. As for me -- I must take this opportunity to touch a part of history."

Murasaki glanced at the camera to tap the control pad and end the transmission. When he looked up, he saw Morgenstern's rapidly retreating backside as the bureaucrat hopped toward the Eagle descent stage, clumsily, but with admirable speed, with each stride raising gouts of lunar soil that dropped quickly back to the surface.

"Oh, for the love of -- sir! Come back! You'll get us both in trouble!"

Morgenstern had a good fifteen meter lead by the time Murasaki set off in pursuit. While Murasaki had hundreds of hours of practice at moving in lunar gravity on the oddly-textured lunar soil, almost none of that time had been spent "running", so his experience didn't translate into a major advantage in speed.

Fifty meters from the descent stage. Forty-five. Forty --

Murasaki caught Morgenstern's shoulder with one hand and threw himself backwards, trying to cancel their combined momentum. When their feet left the ground, he knew that he had made a mistake.

They had been traveling at a good ten kilometres per hour when they left the ground, with perhaps half of that momentum cancelled by Murasaki's backward thrust, since Morgenstern's share of their combined mass was considerably more than fifty percent. In lunar gravity, it took more than a second for them to hit the ground, during which time they traveled another couple of meters toward the Eagle descent stage.

And then they skidded for another four meters.

Thirty-something meters from the Eagle descent stage, the remnants of the gold foil covering some of its components still glinting in the sunlight, the previously-unmarked soil looked like the aftermath of a monster truck rally. A double set of mini-craters marked their footprints from the perimeter of the protected area to the jumbled mess where they had finally come to a stop.

Murasaki used one gloved hand to wipe some of the dust from his helmet visor and surveyed the damage. "Well, on the plus side, I won't be the unofficial tour guide after this..." That's if they ever let me out of the base. And that's if they don't ship me back to Earth!

"Bitte, Mr. Murasaki -- I can't breathe --"

Swearing under his breath, Murasaki rolled away from the dust-covered bureaucrat. Then he paused -- how could Morgenstern have been injured? He had landed on top! Was the rebellious German planning to run for it again?

But Morgenstern continued to lie prone, his arms moving feebly. "Bitte -- please, help me --"

Concerned, Murasaki scrambled over to take a closer look at the status lights on Morgenstern's helmet. They were all green -- there was no problem with the seals or failures in the life support systems. That meant --

"Attention Maskylene! We have a medical emergency at Tranquility Base -- Mr. Morgenstern is displaying possible cardiac symptoms. We need immediate evac to the Base infirmary!"

"Roger that, Murasaki. We are scrambling a hopper. Are you inside the SEV?"

"Ah, negative, Maskylene. Mr. Morgenstern fell ill before we could reenter the SEV after his broadcast."

"Paramedics advise that you should get him inside as soon as possible. In the meantime, adjust his life support for maximum oxygen flow. Hopper ETA is about five minutes."

Murasaki looked at the chewed-up landscape and shook his head. There was nothing he could do about it now. If he was lucky, the hopper exhaust would kick up enough dust to at least partly mask the damage. If not --

Grunting, he squatted down and keyed Morgenstern's life support panel to increase oxygen flow. Then he grabbed Morgenstern by the armpits and hauled him to his feet, grateful for the low gravity. All he had to worry about was inertia sending them both falling over again. He threw Morgenstern's arms over his shoulders and said, "Mr. Morgenstern, can you hear me?"

"Ja." Morgenstern sounded as though he were speaking from the inside of an iron maiden.

"Can you hang on? I'm going to carry you back to the SEV."

Morgenstern's arms twitched, barely tightening their grip. It would have to be enough.

Bending his knees, Murasaki grabbed Morgenstern's thighs, thanking God for the non-slip textured surface of his gloves. Then he straightened, lifting the big German clear of the ground, and began to walk.

Forty meters felt like forty miles. With every step, he had to fight to keep his balance and maintain his hold on the barely-conscious bureaucrat. But finally, he managed to wedge both Morgenstern and himself into the SEV airlock and start the cycle.

Seconds later, the inner door opened and they half-fell into the SEV interior, scattering lunar soil everywhere. Nobody will be using this crawler until it's had a full decontamination…

The SEV radio squawked "Medevac hopper here. We're coming down on the Eagle side of the SEV and docking with your main airlock. Get the patient ready for transfer."

Murasaki checked to make sure that the oxygen flow in Morgenstern's helmet was still at maximum, frowning as he saw that the German's face had developed a distinct bluish tinge.

The inner airlock door opened, and Frank Pirelli, Maskylene's chief paramedic and rescue technician emerged. "Christ, John, what did you two do out there? It looks like you'd been making a trail of regolith angels halfway to the descent module!"

Murasaki stammered, "He, uh, had a kind of seizure after the broadcast -- got confused and started staggering toward Eagle. I was shutting down the gear, and by the time I noticed --"

"A seizure, huh?" Pirelli said. "So that remark about 'touching a piece of history' didn't mean anything..."

Murasaki winced. If Pirelli, listening to the broadcast, had understood Morgenstern's remark, why hadn't he figured it out?

Then Pirelli helped him haul the German to his feet again and they frog-marched him through the airlock into the hopper.

"We'll take it from here," Pirelli said. "You better drive the SEV back to base and take it into the decontamination bay."

Sighing, Murasaki returned to the surface vehicle and closed both airlock doors. A few seconds later, he heard the thump of the docking tunnel disengaging, and then the hiss of lunar dust kicked up by the hopper's engines against the SEV hull.

They might never let me come out here again, Murasaki thought. I thought running these dog-and-lander shows was boring, but damn, if this is the last time…

On impulse, he cycled through the airlock again and trudged to the edge of the protected zone, noting that the hopper's exhaust had erased all but the new tracks he was making.

Then he looked up, and whooped with joy. Pirelli had deliberately taken the hopper on a low pass over the chewed up soil, smoothing out the damaged areas. There were faint differences in the contours and colouration of the area, but only someone who had seen it close up as often as he had would likely know the difference.

Maskylene Control squawked, "Say again, Murasaki? Are you having some kind of medical emergency now?"

"Uh, negative, Maskylene," he replied. "I just, uh, stubbed my toe when I took off my outer boot."

"Roger that, Murasaki. See you back here in a few."

Murasaki re-entered the SEV and began the long, slow drive back to base. He owed Pirelli a drink or two for this...

THE END


© 2008 Robert Moriyama

Bio: Robert Moriyama is the current Short Story Editor* for Aphelion. For some reason, this seems to improve his chances for getting his stories accepted... (To be fair, he only runs his stuff as "bonus" material after filling the usual number of slots.) Among other things, he is the author of the Al Majius "Materia Magica" stories and several entries in the Nightwatch series.

(*Or "medditor" -- an unholy combination of "editor" and "meddler". Authors who have seen their work mangled know what this means.)

E-mail: Robert Moriyama

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