Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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Echoes from Radioland

by David Wright




Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows.

Maniacal laughter echoed into the emptiness of outer space and for the next twenty minutes, Valerie and Maria were transported to an alien world where men in black fedoras and trench coats solved the city's problems with two 45's and a cigarette, and women in flowing silk gowns puffed out sexy non-sequiturs through a pound of lipstick. It was a world that never quite existed except in the ether of radioland, but seemed more real now than the sixteen hundred square feet of their moon base prison.

They had been receiving radio signals in the kilohertz wavelength for the past two weeks. At first they took them for a rescue team, then survivors, then... well, then it became clear what the signals were--echoes.

"Had a great uncle on my mother's side. Maybe he was a great, great uncle. I'm not sure. Very old fellow. He still had some of these shows on reel-to-reel recordings. He said people used to gather around the radio every night. Of course, that was before there was TV." Valerie spoke over the sound of screeching tires and blasting pistols.

"Shhh!"

Valerie waited, but they were losing the signal. Eventually, the Shadow's mocking laugh faded into the static of star noise.

Maria turned off the speaker. "Sorry. That was the best one yet. I just wish we could hear a whole show."

Valerie smiled knowingly. "We might soon. The signals seem to be getting stronger. I can program the dishes to track them next time."

"If there is a next time." Maria flopped down on the plastic utility couch and closed her eyes.

Valerie and Maria had been alone on Apollo Station moon base for just over two years, ever since radio contact with Earth had gone mysteriously silent. There were six of them back then, but Commander Pearson and three other crewmembers had taken the lunar rover on a perilous journey past Luna's South Pole to reach Clavius Crater Station on the near side of the moon. They never returned. Valerie and Maria feared the worst. It was the war--the big one they'd all been waiting for.

The universe had been a very silent place since that time with only the static of star noise to comfort them. They felt as if they were the last two souls left alive in an infinite sea of darkness. Their despair grew deeper with every passing day, but then they heard the voices from the stars, human voices from the past, and their spirits were refreshed with that intangible thing that they could only call hope.

As Maria slept, Valerie made herself another cup of tea. She wasn't thirsty, but she needed to do something. The kitchen area, like everything else, was running short of supplies. She had often wished that the food required more time to prepare. At least then she could fill some of the time cooking, but everything was pre-packaged and took all of three minutes to heat up in the microwave.

They used to fill their days analyzing frequency patterns and performing various micro-gravity experiments for Baikanor or NASA, but without further direction from Mission Control, those experiments had pretty much run their course. She looked at the poly-plastic crates stacked neatly in the corner of the moon base work area and shook her head. It was all for nothing.

In the other corner was a half-finished puzzle of the lunar surface. It was a present from her teenage son back on Earth--a son she hadn't seen or heard from in over two years. She didn't bother to finish the puzzle. She could put the pieces in with her eyes closed, but she didn't put it away either, and every once in a while, her gaze would fall on the half-finished puzzle, sometimes deliberately, and her mind would wander to thoughts of home.

After a few minutes poking around in the kitchen, Valerie decided she wasn't hungry after all. There really wasn't anything else to do but sleep, wait for the end and listen for echoes from radioland.

She returned to the radio terminal and put on the headset. Apollo was receiving another signal. Valerie took off her headphones and transferred the signal to the speaker. Maria opened her eyes as soon as she heard the noise.

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's...

Maria nodded, wiping the tear salt from her eyes. "I think I read about this one. Some kind of super person. He was supposed to be from another planet and he had super powers. Could fly, I believe."

"Funny." Valerie smirked.

The signal faded quickly. Valerie was about to shut off the speaker and apologize for waking Maria when one of Apollo's massive dishes tracked onto another stronger signal. It came out thick with static at first and then crystal clear.

The Green Hornet... He hunts the biggest game of all — public enemies who would destroy our America! With his faithful Japanese valet, Brit Reid, daring young publisher, risks his life that criminals and racketeers within the law may feel its weight by the sting of the Green Hornet!

Dizzy, spinning music blared out over the speaker.

"What is that?" Maria sat up on the plastic cot, causing it to creek loudly. Everything in Apollo Station was slowly wearing out, from the coffee maker to the aluminium beds. Valerie had even noticed a few micro-leaks in the pressure valves recently. They were self-sealing but sooner or later they would give out and then it would all be over. Neither woman thought about that at the moment. Their ears were tuned to the radio speaker.

"It sounds familiar," Maria mused.

"I have no idea. It sounds like a buzzing bee."

"Or a hornet."

"Precisely."

Valerie and Maria knew by now that the radio shows were first broadcast across the United States in the 1930's and 1940's, but how they made their way to the far side of the moon was a bit of a mystery. Valerie theorized that the signals had traveled at least six hundred trillion miles into the Bootes Void. Then they encountered some kind of electromagnetic disturbance, perhaps a pulsar or supernova, and rebounded on a reverse trajectory. Traveling at 300 000 kilometres per second, they reached the Apollo Station two hundred years after they were first broadcast. It was simple physics, but it wasn't very romantic.

Maria had a different theory. She liked the idea that the signals had been sent back to them by aliens. She said she found comfort in the notion that they were not alone in the universe. Valerie couldn't buy it, but she kept quiet. Who knows? Maybe Maria was right.

Valerie put one of the earphones back on and interfaced with Apollo's computer terminal. "The receivers are picking up a variety of signals now, on all five dishes. We have to record these. We can play them back later."

Apollo's five city-sized dishes, originally built to listen for signs of intelligent alien life in the vast cosmos, meticulously extracted the signals from the background noise of space and voila--the past was reborn.

"Hey, listen to this." Valerie switched the channel on the speaker. Two gunshots rang out.

Hi-Yo Silver! Away! With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful Masked Rider of the Plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! From out of the past, come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse, Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!

Triumphant music filled Apollo Station's tiny living quarters.

"William Tell Overture," Maria said with authority and Valerie believed her. While Maria was carried away by the lofting violins, Valerie couldn't resist putting one phone to her ear and scanning through the other signals.

"Okay, here's a tough one." Valerie switched channels again before Maria could get too caught up with the Lone Ranger.

The Mutual Broadcasting System presents: I Love A Mystery.

Maria's plastic cot vibrated to the heavy base rumble of an ancient pipe organ, thick with distortion, playing the spookiest music Valerie had ever heard.

"That. Hear that? Very distinctive."

The music rolled on sonorously.

"Sibelius." Maria closed her eyes. In another life on Earth, Maria had pursued a musical career before getting lured away by the International Space Program. "I'm not sure what it's called."

"Valse Triste," Valerie exclaimed smugly.

"That's it." Maria opened her eyes in surprise. "How did you know?"

"The announcer guy mentioned it before the program." Valerie winked.

As the radio show continued to fill the tiny moon base with life, sound and mystery, the two women hardly noticed the sun setting over the moon's horizon. Valerie had always found the expression "dark side of the moon" to be a bit erroneous. Both sides of the moon received equal sunlight as did both sides of the Earth. However, when the sun set on the far side, there was nothing but stars and space in the sky. That was the whole point of having a radio station on the far side -- there was no electromagnetic interference from the Earth.

Apollo Crater would never turn to face the Earth, not in a million years. To a woman that had grown up with her feet firmly planted on good old terra firma, sunset on the far side could be a frightening experience. Now they truly were on the dark side of the moon, but for the first time in two years, she didn't care. All she cared about now was the voices that reached out to them from the stars.

Jack... Jack, did you see what I just saw?

What, Doc?

Something just flew from one side of the temple to the other, way up yonder."

Probably an owl.

Owl, my grandma! It was as big as a man and it didn't have no wings... and what's more, it was wearing a human skin, and that's all!

It was the first episode of a six part serial and recounted the adventures of Jack, Doc and Reggie in an Amazonian temple of vampires. It was just enough story to fire the women's imaginations and leave them with an unquenchable longing for more. It ended with a cliff hangar and the women groaned.

"That Jack was sure a misogynistic beaker full of testosterone, wasn't he?" Valerie shook her head. "I can't believe there were ever men like that in the world."

"Oh, I don't know. I could use his phone number right now." Maria snickered.

"Beggars can't be choosers."

"What does that mean?"

Valerie shrugged. "I'm not sure. I heard it on one of those comedy shows, Jack Benny, but I think we would be the beggars in this scenario."

"Where men are concerned? Yes, I would have to agree with you." The women laughed but as always a silence settled. Without the voices that came at them from Bootes Void, there was nothing.

Beyond the atomic bomb. [boom] Beyond rocket power. [zoom] Beyond the future. [eerie noise] Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century AD.

Another show ended. Maria looked at the speaker that moments ago had seemed so alive. "Do you think we could have done it?"

"Done what, Maria?"

"Gone to the stars like on the show."

"You mean like Buck Rogers?" Valerie tried to laugh but sensed a change in her partner. Two years alone together had set certain rules. There was a time to laugh and a time to cry, and they had done plenty of both. "We did make it to the stars. Our radio signals made it all the way to Bootes Void, didn't they? Our voice is still out there, singing and laughing and crying in the stars. Superman. The Shadow. The Lone Ranger. Buck Rogers. They're still out there. It's not over, Maria."

Maria's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Valerie. After two years stranded out here, without a word, without even a beep from Earth, how can you say that? They're all dead and you know it." Maria was suddenly angry. "It's pointless. What have we got? Another few months and this steel bubble will be sucked dry of air. We would have suffocated already if the crew had made it back in the rover. We should just end it, step out into the icy vacuum and let nature take its course. All we do is just sit in our coffin and listen and watch. All these stories and songs from two hundred years ago, from a world that's dead, and what was it all for? All for nothing." Then she broke down completely.

Valerie cradled her companion and patted her gray hair. "Don't give up on me now, little sister. I need you. Stay with me, please."

Maria sobbed into Valerie's shoulder, the tears painting her aged skin. At last she raised her head. "For you, Valerie, but I won't stay here alone. You understand? I won't--I can't be alone."

Valerie tried to smile but she could not hide the pain that tugged at her heart. "If that time comes, you do what you have to." Valerie's face brightened. "But do you really think we have a few months? Those Russian generators are way past their specs, probably older than we are. We could depressurize any second."

A light flashed over the computer console. Apollo's dishes were decoding another radio signal.

Calling Dick Tracy! Calling Dick Tracy!

Maria hugged her friend tighter and for the next half hour, she felt no pain.

As the weeks passed, archiving the radio signals went from being a simple game to pass the time, to a religious ritual. No longer did the women pick and choose their favorites. Everything became a favorite, every song, every drama, every commercial, every corny endorsement, and every sound bite. If it came from Earth, it was important and the women would archive it. They no longer thought about rescue, or even contact. Their only hope was an unconscious, unspoken need for preservation, and so they worked and worked and tried not to notice as their supplies dwindled and their O2 reserves depleted.

And then, as mysteriously as they had begun, the signals stopped. The women felt an immediate and overwhelming depression fill their hearts, but it wasn't total despair. Over the past two months, Apollo Station had recorded over 2400 hours of radio signals, many of which they had not even heard yet. Every once in a while, the women would discover another gem and a cry from the past would carry one or both of them into an uncontrollable reverie that would last for days.

...and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

It was the hoarse bass of a singer and trumpet player named Louis Armstrong. He must have been very popular in the 1930's because Valerie had heard him many times already, but it was this song that touched Maria's heart more than any other. She had been flying on its simple melody and rosy-sweet lyrics for a week. She played it every day, practically every hour, and, frankly, Valerie had just had enough.

One evening, she stormed into Maria's sleeping cubicle and demanded that she shut off that song and never play it again. Maria didn't respond. She lay peacefully on her bed with her eyes closed and a two-hundred-year-old song filling the seven-by-seven cubicle with vibration. The stale air seeped into Valerie's nostrils and she knew the horrible truth. Maria had shut off her ventilator in the night allowing her room to slowly and silently fill her sealed cubicle with carbon dioxide.

Valerie cried for three days and then she went crazy. She smashed radio terminals and workstations, exercisers, food dispensers, the creaking aluminum furniture, even the poly-plastic crates of lab equipment, anything she could break. She would have ripped up the entire receptor array if it had not been the size of the Hawaiian Islands and practically indestructible. At last, she came to the half-finished puzzle of the moon's surface and in one last burst of rage and frustration, she overturned the table, spilling the thousand puzzle pieces in a floating kaleidoscope of gray.

Exhausted, she collapsed onto the foam plastic floor and sobbed.

It was impossible to tell how long she lay there. Time had lost all meaning, but eventually she got up. She cleaned up the mess she'd made, used the bathroom when she had to, and ate when she couldn't bear the pains in her stomach any longer. She found a radio terminal and monitor that was still intact and, occasionally, she listened, but there was nothing but star noise.

I won't--I can't live alone. The emptiness called to her, but it was harder to die than she had thought. Most nights she cried herself to sleep and cursed her own cowardice.

The sound began as a distant ringing in her ears. She tried to ignore it, but it insisted -- dragging her upright and prying open her eyes. Red lights were flashing in the concourse. It was the warning. Depressurization was imminent. So it would be the Russian generator that killed her. She knew she should have felt relief, maybe even elation, but she didn't. She felt fear. Even now, she wasn't ready to die. What a pathetic example of humanity! She knew she should just curl up and die, but her mind wouldn't let her. It raced for any escape.

When the steel bubble of Apollo Station finally ruptured, Valerie was running over the gray dust of Apollo crater. She looked back like Lot's wife, but in the near vacuum of Luna, there was no thunder, fire or brimstone. The moon base crumbled like a broken egg and a cloud of dust puffed out gently for a mile in every direction. Only the living quarters would be destroyed. The massive receptor array was still intact and the database was impregnable, two hundred feet underground. This was of little consolation to Valerie. She no longer believed that there was anybody left to find it.

Valerie jogged on before the dust cloud could encompass her. Her suit had twenty-four hours of air. She was only prolonging the inevitable, but she slacked her pace anyway to save oxygen. Every few hours, the thought would come to her--how easy it would be to flick off the failsafe and disconnect her air tank. It would be painful, but quick. Or she could fool with the temperature regulator and freeze. There were so many ways to die on the moon, but she knew she didn't have the courage for any of them. So, on she marched.

Her feet followed the two-year-old trail of the rover, as clear now as if it had been made yesterday. It was easier to bounce along its wide, flat tracks, and as it didn't matter where she died, she followed it. Just past the twelve-hour mark and the point of no return, she encountered the rover. It was dead, its right treads partially buried in dust.

Two and a half years ago, when Commander Pearson, Kenji, Styx and Sue had failed to return from their desperate mission, Valerie and Maria had set out in space suits to find them. They had followed their tracks then just as Valerie did now, but they were forced to turn back at the twelve-hour mark. All this time, the rover had been just beyond the crater horizon, and just beyond air-tank range.

Valerie had wished a thousand times that she had been the one to die on that fateful mission and not left behind to suffer in Apollo's steel purgatory for the last two and a half years, but soon, very soon, she would be joining them.

The bodies were still preserved in their moon suits and sitting peacefully in the rover, all except one. Valerie didn't have the heart to check the name badges to see who had wondered off to die alone, nor did she want to spend her last few hours of life sitting in a rover with the dead. More than anything, she wished she could see the Earth one last time before the end, but she knew that was impossible. Earthrise was a good hundred miles over the gray, crater-pocked horizon.

For no particular reason, Valerie decided to keep walking. In the moon's 0.1 G, an experienced cosmonaut could travel a long time without becoming physically fatigued. Valerie walked for another twelve hours through the moon dust, watching her shadow growing in front of her and feeling her stomach churn with hunger. Her mind wandered even farther than her feet did. She remembered her painful divorce, her lost year in Tibet. She remembered her mother in the hospital dying of cancer.

"Waiting to die is not what you think it is, honey," her mother said. "It's a lot like waiting for a baby to be born."

Valerie felt as if her mother were right there with her, right inside her kettledrum helmet, whispering into her earpiece strange noises.

No. This was something else--some kind of malfunction, but those were words she was hearing. Valerie's heart beat rapidly.

"Apollo Station, do you read me?" It was the Commander's voice fighting through the static. After all this time, he was still alive. "Valerie, Maria!"

"I'm here, Commander." Valerie gasped. "Ron, it's me, Valerie."

"Thank God. I can't believe it."

Valerie could just barely see a rover in the distance descending a rolling sand dune like a white ant on a gray anthill. Maria looked at her air gauge. It was already on empty. "Oh no, not now. Hurry, I'm almost out of air."

"Reduce the output valve. Save your air."

Maria felt her heart racing. She looked frantically for the valve and turned it. Instantly, she felt her head go light. She saw the speck in the distance. It didn't seem to be moving at all. Maybe it wasn't even there. Maybe it was just some kind of lunar mirage, some last trick of fate like the radio shows from yesteryear--just an echo. "Hurry, please hurry."

"Don't talk. Save your air."

Those were the last words she heard before her eyes closed and she fell slowly into the sand.

When she awoke, she was no longer in her moon suit. She wondered if she were even on the moon at all. Then Commander Pearson's bearded, smiling face appeared in front of her.

"Excuse me for stating the obvious, Valerie, but you're lucky to be alive."

"Ron." Valerie felt her head pounding like a drum. "Where am I?"

"Clavius Station, Earthside."

"But that's impossible." Valerie tried to sit up, but the room was spinning.

"Hey, there," Pearson cautioned, "just lie back. Take a drink. You're badly dehydrated." Pearson put a warm cup to Valerie's lips. The tea tasted sweet. It had been a long time since Valerie had had any sugar in her tea.

"I guess you found the rover." Pearson sighed. "When the rover's tread gave out just over the crater's ridge, we had to make a tough decision. I got the short straw, so to speak. They gave me their air tanks and I watched them die. Then I walked the hundred and eighteen miles to Earthside."

"You could have come back, some of you, anyways."

Pearson shrugged. "We couldn't all make it back to Apollo and we couldn't all make it to Earthside. Somebody was going to die either way. I guess the team just thought it was better to push on. What did they have to go back to, really? A slow wait for death? Better to give someone hope. I wish to God it wasn't me."

It was odd to see the Commander acting this way. Usually he was your typical gung-ho American, sometimes irritatingly so, but he had always been such a vibrant leader. Now, it was as if the fire had gone out of his eyes forever.

Valerie's head felt better. She sat up slowly. "Maria," she began and her voice broke, "Maria didn't make it. She died... She died in her sleep."

"I'm sorry," said Pearson. He didn't ask for any more details than that, and Valerie was thankful.

"Why didn't you come sooner?" Valerie felt a sudden wave of frustration, not at the Commander specifically, just at--she didn't know what. "Two and a half years!"

The Commander put his hand on her shoulder. "It's funny how things work out." He took a sip of his tea and motioned for Valerie to do the same. Then he began his story. He told her how he'd reached Earthrise with only a few minutes left on his regulator, how the moon base had been deserted but fully stocked. He'd tried first to reach Mission Control and then anybody, but Earth had appeared dead. He'd thought over a million scenarios for returning to Apollo or reaching another moon base, but it was hopeless. After two and a half years of silence, he had no way of even knowing if there was anyone left alive.

"But you came. Eventually, you did come," Valerie interrupted, "and just in time. How did you know?"

"The seismograph." Pearson held out his hands as if that one word explained everything. "The moon is mostly dead tectonically. Moonquakes rarely spike so high, so when I picked up a seismic reading with an epicenter right under Apollo Station, I knew it was too much of a coincidence. I knew the station must have finally imploded. I thought you were both dead, but I had to make sure. Even with Earthside's spare rover, I couldn't reach Apollo and return, but at least I could get close, maybe close enough to see the dust plume. It would bring some closure, I guess. I never realistically expected to rescue anyone. It was one in a million." He shook his head and looked up at the clock. "You want to see it?"

"See what?"

"Earthrise. At this latitude, it only lasts a short time, but it's coming in a few minutes."

Valerie's eyes opened wide.

Pearson led her to the observation room just in time to see the beautiful, blue marble rise majestically over the moon's barren, gray horizon. It was the most incredible sight she had ever seen. She felt her cheeks moisten with tears.

There was a noise coming from behind her. It was a familiar sound, a sound she had heard every day for the past two and half years--radio static. Valerie turned to see the Commander putting on his headset and adjusting the modulation on a radio transceiver. It was a simple communications unit compared to the sophisticated array at Apollo Station, but apparently it was working.

"Mission Control to Earthside, do you copy?"

Valerie heard the words coming from the radio and her heart almost burst. It was Earth.

"Earthside to Mission Control, we copy."

"We?" said the radio voice, and the surprise was apparent even through the static. "Say again, Earthside. Did you say 'We'?"

"Affirmative. Rescue mission to Apollo was successful. Cosmonaut Valerie Plotnikoff is alive and well. Confirm extra passenger for return."

"Confirmed, Commander, and yee-haw!"

Pearson laughed and took off his headset. He looked back at Valerie with a sheepish grin on his face. "I guess I forgot to tell you the best part. Earth's okay. It took a few years to rebuild Mission Control after the war, but they're coming to get us. We're going home, Valerie. We made it."

Valerie could not speak. Her heart was too full, not only for herself and her own life but for the Earth, for Maria, and the rest of those brave souls on the team. Somehow she felt their presence with her. She couldn't explain it, but it was as if their hope had been passed on to her and she would carry it proudly back to Earth.

She turned back to the observation window and watched as the Earth broke, majestic and beautiful, over the horizon casting a brilliant blue radiance over the moon's gray surface. She felt the ghostly echoes from yesteryear come back to her in a symphony of voices, reborn vibrant and alive, and in the depths of her soul, she felt as they had: what a beautiful world!


THE END


2015 David Wright

Bio: This story originally appeared in Planet Magazine in 2006. Mr. Wright is a writer and English teacher living on Canada’s majestic west coast.  His short stories have appeared in more than a dozen publications including Aphelion, Neo-opsis and Pulp Corner.  His latest novels are available at Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. His last Aphelion appearance was The Martian Marathon in our September, 2014 issue.

E-mail: David Wright

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