Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Anybody Home?

The following is Part I of Joab Richard Hooke's novel Recovery

1

Embedded deep inside the spacecraft, David Chavez could not see the surface of the Moon with his own eyes as he inserted the Percival Lowell into lunar orbit. He sensed it, rather, or even felt it’s gravitic pull, it’s mass, via the stream of data that poured into the node on the back of his neck, which then distributed information to various microscopic bits of metal and silicon which surgeons had implanted years ago during astronaut training and later. They used his body’s own electrical current to power their functions. He had seen the Moon’s surface, though, many times in his life, and couldn’t help smiling as he imagined the pocked plains and stark crags of the lunar mountains passing underneath.

He turned on an outward directed camera with a twitch of his left eye. He was supposed to focus entirely on lunar insertion but he couldn’t resist taking a look at Earth. The crew of the Lowell had pulled the ship off the Solar net two months ago and no one had been able to see Earth, though they knew how it must appear.

With a series of sub-vocal commands Chavez oriented the camera correctly and got his first view of Earth in months. He fought the tightening of his throat which would have initiated a number of unintended ship operations. The entire planet was clouded over. Not as bad as Venus, but horrible nonetheless.

He had known what to expect. But he had hoped, however foolish the hope was, that he would look and see an Earth only partially damaged by the war. Then, with great relief, he would have told Commander White that it had been a mistake to cut themselves off from the net, that the war had not been as cataclysmic as the first reports had indicated. He had imagined an exultant return to Earth, a rowdy swell of reporters and news cameras as he stepped down from the shuttle. Later, he would fly to Madrid, where his father waited with his hands in his pockets and the wizened smile that reminded the younger Chavez of his father years ago and himself as a boy, riding a bike under the gloriously hot sun of Extremadura.

But that dream died without a whimper and Chavez knew that Madrid was gone, as was Badajoz, and whoever lived still among the ruins, if anyone lived at all, had not seen the sun for weeks and would likely never see it again.

Nor could they see or detect the return of the Lowell, though on it’s departure the hours- long fusion burn was visible in the night sky. His father had watched it proudly and told him so the next day, as the craft exited Earthspace and Chavez prepared for submersion in the Tank, where he and most of the crew would float dormant and unconscious for six weeks. They had made a slower, smaller burn for the last few days, and successfully achieved a parking orbit around the Moon. Such a return was one of the less-likely scenarios and one for which they had trained the least. That had turned out for the best. It forced those who were awake to concentrate on the mission specs, and not on the world they had lost.

Chavez considered the silent earth and compared it to the strained silence aboard the Lowell. Most of the crew were still in the tank, in a dreamless sleep. The waking crew, just eight of them now in the empty spaces of the Lowell, walked as if on eggshells, and spoke in hushed tones, like the crew of some submarine in a movie, fearful that dropped cutlery or a careless word might reveal their location to the enemy. But there was no chance that someone might hear Norma Palafox crying in her sleep cell, or that anyone would hear Joseph Mfume’s great wracking sobs as he hid in an empty corner of Storage B, arms wrapped around himself. The sounds created by grief do not carry through empty space so no one could detect the sounds of the Lowell crew as it emotionally disintegrated.

But detection was on everyone’s mind. That was why they had agreed with Commander White two months ago, tethered to Phobos in Mars orbit, as the news of the quickly escalating war reached them, to cut themselves off from the Solar net. Thus they would ensure that, if anyone else still existed, they would not find the Lowell until the crew wanted to be found. So the Lowell’s computers, accustomed to constant updates and patches received through data streams that came in via Artemis base and hundreds of satellites, probes and expeditions throughout the system, had gone offline.

Almost everyone agreed, Chavez reminded himself. Of the twenty-six crew aboard, only three had protested White’s idea. They were left behind at Ares base on the surface of Phobos. It was unlikely that they lived still as the base had not been ready for permanent occupation.

The Lowell’s second orbit would bring it over Artemis base. Offline, there had been no way to know ahead of time if the base still existed. Any advance probes they might have sent ahead had been expended at Mars and they were reduced to simply waiting for line of sight to prove anything. Rumors had developed among the small crew, owing to the dearth of other news, of newer missiles that were able to leave Earth orbit, strike the Moon, elsewhere.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Mare Frigoris came into view. Even without telescopic assistance, he could see the undamaged sprawl of Artemis base on the lunar plain. There was now some chance that they were not completely alone.

2

When Mission Commander Charles White saw the lunar landscape via video fed into his right eye, he was reminded of a family trip he had taken as a child.

White had been born in Detroit, but his father had gotten a job in computer technology in Phoenix soon after the birth and moved his wife and baby out there. When Charles was just twelve his grandfather died. All had all flown back to Michigan to attend the funeral.

Detroit shocked the young White. So many other black people! He had felt strangely out of place, though for the first time in his life he blended in. Young as he was, he perceived that, growing up in the Southwest, he was unaware of the culture his parents had known. Detroit was not just a place. It was a way of life.

Still, he had been relieved when returning home. He had looked down and seen the arid lands of Arizona thirty-thousand feet below the airplane. After many hours of Midwestern farmland he was finally seeing something he knew.

He felt the same way seeing the pocked surface of the Moon. It was not home, but it was on the way.

When Chavez relayed a clear view of Artemis base, the commander experienced a second, and stronger, wave of relief. Here was a place he had lived and worked.

For two months, hurtling through the void and cut off from Earth, knowing only that nuclear war had devastated much of the planet, he had feared that he would never see anything he knew ever again. Several times he had imagined orbiting over the base and seeing not the various dome modules that indicated where a tunnel began nor the landing fields, but rather only a new crater and the exposed, blackened warren of Artemis.

Coupled with that relief, though, was a new horror. Chavez sent more video. The Earth appeared in opposition to the Moon. Dirty, white clouds obscured any view of humanity’s birthplace. The planet oppressed with its silence, with its hiddenness. His eyes rested on tise view of Earth and hoped for a break in the clouds to reveal some kind of hint about the state of affairs up there, as if it was just one great stormy day on the planet and the cloud cover was bound to break at any time, letting in the Sun.

But White knew there would be no such respite. It was going to be a cloudy day for a long time.

3

All attempts to hail Artemis base over the radio had failed. There was neither reply nor recognition of receiving the attempt at communication. The base was apparently shut down. White had refused to log on to the net just yet and attempt to contact the base through other means. Having been offline for two months, the ship’s computers might be stunned by a sudden surge of updates and patches. He said he wanted to be able to react fast if something unusual happened. Chavez had pointed out that, if the world really had been destroyed, there might not be too many updates waiting on the net. In fact, it was possible the entire system had broken down, and there was no web out there to which they could log on. But White insisted and would take no chances.

The Bird was designed to function as a shuttle on Mars. Descending, it was meant to use it’s broad wings to slow itself against the thin Martian atmosphere and then glide upon that rare medium of carbon dioxide and assorted trace gases to a landing. Once on the surface, it’s cargo was replaced with fuel and a hollow roar would announce its return to orbit as it cut through the dusty air.

But there was software on board the Lowell for every contingency. One such program involved landing the Martian exploration vehicle on the Moon. The pilots of the Lowell crew had practiced it outside of computer simulation just once previous to the mission. Since the Lowell had turned back for Earth, Chavez had been practicing this scenario with every spare minute.

Chavez had only two passengers on this trip. Dr. Guy Beckham, physician, and Jeremy Singh, one of the Lowell’s three computer engineers (all of whom were called hackers by the rest of the crew). They sat behind Chavez. The nose of the Bird only had space for a single pilot. Since the computer did almost everything, and the pilot merely verified that it was functioning correctly, a co-pilot was something the designers had deemed unnecessary. Anyway, with the entire crew cross-trained in a second skill, there were almost always other pilots available no matter what happened.

“Cleared Plato.” Chavez whispered as the lander skimmed over that northern crater, descending to Artemis base at the edge of Mare Frigoris. The words he spoke were part of the flight plan, one of many verbal exchanges meant to be made between pilot and a hacker at Artemis Control while their respective computers did all the work.

“You’re offline, right?” Beckham asked, voice trembling slightly. Good ears, thought Chavez.

“Don’t worry, doc. Nobody heard me. The mike’s off. I just said it out of habit.”

“Nobody down there to hear you anyway,” Singh chipped in. “Nobody to hear you anywhere,” he added, with less force. The war had apparently begun as a skirmish between his own country, India, and Pakistan. Little news had escaped Earth before they cut themselves off, but one thing was certain: India had been obliterated once China entered the conflict.

Beneath, the dead, white, cratered landscape rolled past at a slower and slower pace, the Bird reversing thrust almost imperceptibly. Mean to use its wings against Martian air, the craft’s lunar landing plan called for a much longer approach, allowing sufficient time to decelerate using it’s weak forward thrusters.

“Is that it?” Singh said, leaning forward.

“Yes.”

“Aren’t we coming in too fast?” Beckham inquired.

“Thrusters go to full in a second.”

They did. There was the sound of their barely audible grunts as they strained against their safety belts more than they had on Mars landings. Artemis base, its surface nodes messily peppering the northern fringe of Mare Frigoris, spread out before them . They were coming in very low. The Bird bled off speed and came to a full stop just inches above the landing zone, painted a whorish red against the pristine, dead soil of the Moon. The craft settled almost silently.

Proper lunar landers had air locks compatible with Artemis base. Lacking such, the three men had to seal their suits, exit out onto the open surface and hop in the familiar lunar gait toward a door prepared for just such an occasion and never actually used. Chavez led the way, but stopped short of the door to let Singh handle the entrance code. Any idiot can enter a code, but if you’ve got a hacker along you might as well let him do it.

Chavez felt a tickle deep in his spine as Singh communicated via one of the implants in his neck to waken the door and open it. All three entered the air lock with no trouble, but each could sense the other’s anticipation. Beckham’s barely restrained fear tasted like a copper penny on the back of Chavez’s tongue. He felt bad for the physician. He was fresh out of the Tank. That would be a good way for him to excuse his flagrant and obvious fear, anyway. A man is lucky he can hide his thoughts. We can’t hide our feelings anymore.

What would they find? This unknowing had set their nerves on edge. Would they be attacked? Would they find the base unoccupied? Would there be signs of a terrible battle among the crew, less one-sided and more divisive than what had happened at Ares?

Chavez couldn’t decide if he hoped the base would be occupied or not. Mixing with other human beings, besides the other twenty-two aboard the Lowell, would be a pleasure. Chavez, like many ‘nauts back from long missions, felt that primitive desire for reunion with known faces, with other members of the tribe. He wanted to talk about meaningless things, eat meals with them. But he was also afraid that these others would bring conflict, would reinforce the strange change that had overtaken their world with stranger behavior.

Soon, standing in the air lock with the exterior door closed, Chavez heard air hissing against the surface of his helmet. When he heard a low tone in his left ear, he emitted the guttural swallowing noise that made his helmet recede into his suit. As always, he was initially overwhelmed by the gunpowder smell of the lunar dust. He immediately heard Singh taking a deep breath to his right. The interior door slowly slid open.

“Well, doc?” Chavez looked at the doctor, who had taken a more cautious breath. Beckham’s eyes had that faraway look that overcame most people when they reviewed data not found on a display screen but rather somewhere in their lower brain, where the content of the air was being analyzed by non-organic entities that beneficially confused their identity with that of Beckham.

“The air is good. We knew that.” the doctor added. “But it hasn’t been breathed by many people for a long time.”

“So the place is empty?” Singh asked.

Beckham went far away again. Then, “No. Someone has been here. Maybe more than one. At least recently, if not now.”

“Well,” Chavez announced, “time to see if anybody is home.” He flexed his right shoulder and sent a hailing signal that had to be answered by anyone else in the astronaut corps who hadn’t somehow tampered with their implants.

Singh and Beckham’s systems responded immediately, of course. They each sent back streams of data which Chavez discarded with a flick of his tongue while he tensed and waited for something else. But nothing came.

“Artemis is pretty large,” Beckham said. “And its tunnels are convoluted. There could still be somebody here.”

“Right,” Chavez said, nodding. “Well, let’s get to Control and see if we meet anybody on the way.”

4

Three screens on the Lowell bridge displayed the ‘nauts individual perspectives through their left eyes. White watched them start into the dark tunnel which sloped down into the subterranean lair where most of Artemis base was located, taking advantage of the protection that several cubic meters provided against a surface vacuum that alternated between freezing and boiling temperatures. Suit lights illuminated their descent.

The base had apparently been placed on standby. There were no lights on and remote attempts to turn them on had failed, meaning that they had not only been turned off at Control but that someone had actually cut the connection, either by pulling plug, removing a fuse, or some more drastic action. Yet the ventilation was working. Chavez had reported a faint breeze, and the low rumble of the fans could be heard.

Located near the geographical center of the base, perhaps thirty feet underground, Control was simply a large room filled with computer consoles and much open wall space for displays when necessary. Presently, Chavez stood outside the closed door, Singh and Beckham behind him. Reception became poor. The images began to stick. Chavez’s perspective began to cut out erratically. Singh sent the code that opened the door and it slid open with no resistance. Chavez’s suit pierced the darkness with a narrow cone of light which darted back and forth a few times, causing deformed shadows to dance along the opposite wall. White thought of ancient dancers in fire-lit caves and noted the spike in each man’s biometrics. The pilot lessened the intensity of the light, steadied it.

“Where first, Singh?” White heard Chavez ask, his voice crackling. Singh responded but White could not understand. He saw the men start forward. Chavez’s perspective cut out, but White could still see him through Singh’s eyes. Beckham’s biometrics pierced the danger levels as the man sent hailing signals so fast that he could not have processed any replies even if they had been sent. Singh’s view cut out as he moved deeper into the room, but White saw him turn to Beckham, who lingered near the door, his breathing coming in short, sharp gasps. Singh beckoned with one hand, said something indecipherable. Beyond him Chavez was weaving slowly between computer consoles toward the main station. Beckham took another step. His display went black. It came back to life for a second, showed Singh moving toward Chavez, who stood in the center of the room, shining like a beacon in the darkness. Then a final darkness came and White saw them no more.

5


The lights came on.

Beckham made a startled gurgling noise. Chavez extinguished his suit lights as Singh rose from where he had been genuflecting before the main console.

“Everything is fine,” the Indian hacker said as he took a seat and plugged himself into the computer. “The lights were turned off here purposefully, just as the recycling fans were programmed to stay on. The base was not on standby or damaged. Someone changed the settings from right here.”

They were all silent for a moment as their systems struggled to handle all the data flowing at them. White had apparently logged on to the solar net when the base came back to life. Ship, base and men were suddenly awash in data, systems freezing or sticking with the unusual amount of input. Chavez felt like he had been hit in the head, but there was no pain, only the same stunning effect - his eyes unfocused briefly, his thoughts disintegrated, reformed around the new information pouring into his brain and the memory chips buried in various parts of his nervous system.

A moment later Chavez came back to his senses, though the flood of updates had not stopped nor likely would anytime soon. His system was distancing itself from his thought processes and his motor functions. He saw that Beckham was leaning against the wall, just barely managing to support himself. Singh, wired directly into the computer, was still under the current of the data river. His eyes had glazed over. His hands trembled.

Righting himself, Beckham resumed sending out hailing signals, like a man with a chronic hiccup. Chavez considered telling him to stop, then decided that it was probably keeping the doctor from wigging out completely.

“All right,” the pilot said, to no one in particular as he nodded his head. He thought briefly of all the people in the Tank, floating unconscious in a cold, viscous slime. Like him, they had probably gone to sleep before submersion, thinking that they might never wake up. Soon, they would be down here, feeling the old familiar lunar gravity, glad to be back in Earthspace at least. But, like him, they would all be haunted by that dead planet in the sky.

Singh cleared his throat. He had fought his way up from below the tide. His voice trembled a bit as he spoke. “I am trying to get a definitive read on the whole place for life forms.” He paused again for a few seconds. His fingers began dancing in staccato bursts atop the keyboard, since his system was too overloaded to speak directly to the computer in from of him. He brought up video displays. The screen divided into sections. Singh enlarged the sections one at a time, chose infrared, scrolled through them. Stopped.

“There’s somebody,” he said. “Or something.”

The window he had chosen was marked Garden. Chavez knew it as the section of Artemis base dedicated to experimental botany. A red mass lay still on an otherwise blue-shaded screen.

“Cut the IR,” he told Singh.

It was a person, a human, naked, curled up next to a tree.

“Close-up.” Chavez whispered, as if he didn’t wish to wake one who slept.

Face and body were obscured by the fetal position. Only the back was visible.

“Must be cold,” Beckham said, coming up behind Chavez. He had quit hailing.

“Nah,” Singh added, pointing to the relevant data in the screen. “That room has been kept above room temperature.”

They stared for a little while. The image was poor, and the sleeper neither wakened nor moved.

“Whoever it is,” Singh said, “they’re alive or they wouldn’t show up on the IR.”

“Yes,” Chavez agreed, “but how come we get no response from our hailings?”

“Well,” Singh replied, “it is on the other side of the base. That’s a lot of regolith between us.”

“Hail with the base system, then.”

Singh did. Nothing. They all looked at one another. Chavez broke the silence.

“Singh, stay here and coordinate with White and Lowell and get the base back online. Beckham, you’re a doctor. Come with me.” And he started out the door.

6
The Lowell was going through it’s own throes and fits as it patched back into the solar net. Just as Chavez and Beckham were leaving, White achieved a link with Singh, who explained what was happening.

White acquired video from the hallways of Artemis and watched Chavez and Beckham walk through the base to the arboretum. Singh turned lights on as they advanced, bringing the base back to life.

Their biometrics were good. Beckham continued to hail others, receiving no replies. The pair passed labs and work-stations of various sorts: White recognized a post from which base crew had managed the robots that had once sifted helium-three from the soil and now sat idle, perhaps ruined by their long wait in the lunar cycle of hot and cold. He saw them pass a post from which the water mines were monitored, as well as a lab for numerous experiments on lunar soil and water. They passed a door marked factory and White remembered that somewhere beyond that portal crew-members managed the devices which made bricks from regolith. They passed the infirmary, the rec room. Singh confirmed that the body in the garden was the only person present, but couldn’t explain why the ‘naut’s biosystem wouldn’t answer.

“Maybe it’s not a ‘naut?” Singh suggested, interrupting the coded strings of language he had been using to communicate with White.

White said nothing in reply. At first, he had intended to scorn the suggestion. No one got into space without implants anymore. And one couldn’t just hitch a ride to the moon or hide in the cargo bay of a passenger shuttle. No, either the body was that of a ‘naut, or...what?

Chavez and Beckham had reached the door to the garden. White watched them stand silently for a moment.

7

Chavez spoke to Singh.

“Don’t turn anything on that isn’t already functioning.”

“Not a problem,” Singh replied. “Air pressure is equalized with the corridor. Temperature is perfect, and you won’t need lights since the Sun doesn’t go down for a few days.”

Through the door, made mostly of clear duraplastic, Chavez could see the truth of this. The garden was roofed with imitation glass that permitted varying types of the Sun’s light to penetrate. At the moment, rays of sun light fell down across the various plants which the botanical crew experimented with. Dominating the entire chamber was the dwarf pine, which had been so successful that the designers had quickly found it necessary to alter the height of the ceiling. In the shade of it’s evergreen boughs, at the base of the tree, a person lay curled up, back to the door.

When Chavez was ready, Singh signaled for the door to open. It was noticeably thick as it receded into the jamb and Chavez recalled that this was the most dangerous room on the base, since it was so close to the surface. It had been holed once, some years ago, by a tiny particle but, besides scaring the whole base with alarms, there had been little real damage. The ceiling had sealed itself quickly, leaving two botanists trapped behind the heavy door, which would not open until the ceiling healed a few minutes later.

Warm, fragrant air enveloped the two men. Each heard the other inhale the suddenly delicious atmosphere. In all of the artificial environments inhabited by man in space or under the sea, it was possible to emulate many odors, both pleasant and unpleasant. Rarely were they treated to the unmistakably authentic aroma of a garden in summer as they were now. Memories of Earth stunned the two men briefly, just as the sudden influx of data had recently stunned their biosystems.

It was Chavez who moved first, even eagerly, into the spacious chamber, into the perfectly filtered sunlight.

And as he did, the figure beneath the tree stirred and stood. Chavez stopped, as did Beckham, who had managed only a few steps.

She was completely naked, a woman in late-middle age. Wild, unkempt gray hair framed a haggard face. She looked older than a ‘naut should. There were plenty of older ‘nauts in space, many retired, but implants delayed many signs of age and it was rumored that age alone could not kill any of them, as their biosystems constantly screened blood and nervous system for abnormalities that might signify cancer or oncoming heart problems. Wear and tear of exercise was ameliorated by constant treatment.

Unlike most female ‘nauts that Chavez knew, she didn’t have breast implants. Her dugs hung low, stretched even by lunar gravity, each like a lone onion in a sack, dangling. They were streaked with blood.

She stretched her bloody hands towards them and mumbled something.

Beckham whispered, “Holy shit,” and hailed the woman once, getting no reply.

8

Just then, Singh barked into White’s ear.

“We’re not alone! We’re not alone! I just finished checking on the existing servers! They’re all over!”

White kept one eye on the drama unfolding at the Garden, where the blood-streaked woman had fallen to her knees, and then onto her face, while he asked Singh to be more specific.
Singh related the names of various servers. Most of them were orbital, but some were Earthbound.

“Singh.” White interrupted the excited hacker. “Don’t contact any of them.”

After a long pause, Singh replied, “What?”

White could see Beckham and Chavez carrying the woman away. Singh was too busy with White to route video from another camera to White, so they effectively disappeared for the moment.

“Don’t contact anyone. And now that we’re online they can see us. But I don’t want you to respond to anyone that tries to contact us, neither via the base or the Lowell.”

A few seconds of silence was enough to convince White that Singh was reluctant.

“Look,” White continued, “we don’t know anything about what’s going on down there. We don’t know who is in charge of anything. We don’t know if someone might want to blow us to hell.”

“Why would they want to do that?”

“Singh, I repeat, we don’t know anything. We don’t know where the hell everyone at this base is. We just found a bloody woman with no biosystem. Just give me twenty-four hours before we respond.”

More silence. White pulled out the burning question that had haunted him as he piloted the Lowell across millions of miles through the vacuum of space.

“What is someone down there can hit Artemis? What if the crew deserted under threat?”

Silence.

“Give me, give us, twenty-four hours. Then we can announce ourselves. Until then, it’s enough that they know someone is here.”

Singh was still silent and White was about to make a further plea when he finally responded, “Okay. We talk to them tomorrow.”

“Good,” White replied. “Now give me video of Chavez and Beckham.”

9

They carried her into the infirmary, using their suit lights until Singh finally turned the lights on.

“Her name’s Rachel Thompson. She’s a Canadian botanist.” Beckham said as they laid her down on the first available bed. Chavez remembered how Beckham had been the first to go to the woman, how he had taken one of her bloodstained hands in his own. Chavez had, in the excitement, thought this a sudden expression of Beckham’s bedside manner he had not seen before. Now he remembered the dots implanted beneath the physician’s epidermis which could analyze blood, saliva and sweat on contact.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s suffered some blood loss.” The doctor replied as he withdrew a handcuff from his side of the bed and latched it onto Thompson’s wrist before moving around to Chavez’s side to do the same. “Other than that I can’t say yet.”

“Is that really necessary?” Chavez asked, standing back as Beckham finished chaining her up.

“She’s wasn’t coherent. I’m not taking the chance of losing her.” Beckham said as he walked away, toward a small office and supply room attached to the infirmary.

Chavez shrugged, acknowledging the logic. “She did try to hurt herself.”

“No, she didn’t.” Beckham said, coming back with a black bag. “There was blood from two others on her. I suspect they did this to her. I don’t see how a person could actually do this to themself.”
Chavez shook his head, gave a nervous look at the door, half-expecting to see two bloody specters standing there. “Wait. Two others? Did what?”

Beckham, removing the tools of his trade from the bag, gestured toward her neck with his head. “That. Someone removed her implants. Virtually her entire biosystem.”

Chavez reeled. That was why they couldn’t hail her.

“But...why?”

Beckham ignored him, concentrating on his patient.

A moment later, White chirped in his ear. “Chavez. Looks like everything is secure with you. Leave the good doctor with his patient and Singh firing up the computers. Get the Bird ready and come back to Lowell. I’m coming down.”

10

When White came down several hours later, he sent Chavez to get some rest and then went to see the only surviving member of the Artemis crew with his own eyes.

Beckham met White outside the infirmary.

“She’s unconscious.” He said, barely noticing White and apparently distracted by some interior data flow specific to managing the infirmary.

“Can I see her?”

“Of course.” Beckham made way for White.

She lay quiescent, hair combed and parted, hands at her sides, detained by cuffs that appeared little more than bracelets. A blanket was pulled up over her breasts. Doctor and Commander stood on opposite sides of the dormant woman.

Since being brought into the infirmary, Thompson had spoken only three times. White has replayed each instance numerous times while waiting for Chavez to return for him.

The first utterance had been unintelligible, as she suddenly woke and pulled at her restraints, screaming weakly. In the video, Beckham could be seen startling and bolting from the room as her torso shot to fully erect in the bed. Then she had collapsed. Beckham had returned to give her a mild sedative, probably frightened to shock her fragile system. Already by then the doctor had begun an IV with her own stored blood from the infirmary refrigerator.

Later, as Chavez ascended from the Moon and White waited, the commander had watched as she stirred in her bed, coming in and out of a semi-conscious state. Singh had turned the microphones up to their maximum level and Beckham’s footsteps in the infirmary sounded like thunder claps. Suddenly, unprovoked, Thompson said very clearly, “Lunar soil is essentially like that of Earth but devoid of moisture and air.” The she had lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Finally, as White and two others strapped into their seats behind Chavez, she had come fully conscious for a few minutes and White, watching via the video Singh fed him constantly, had goaded Beckham into quizzing her before she drifted away again. She had said enough to give White a general idea of what had happened.

She had said nothing since.

“Is this a coma?” White asked.

“No,” Beckham replied quickly. “She was simply exhausted and suffering from blood loss. I’m not sure what caused the...odd reaction to our presence, other than the trauma.”

The trauma. White thought. Perhaps that would be a good name for everything that had happened. Instead of World War III, or the Holocaust, they could all call it The Trauma.

“Well, I brought Madar down.” White said, meaning the priest who had also acted as psychiatrist and back-up physician on the mission. “Maybe he will be able to bring her out of it He came out of the Tank after you, though, so he’ll need some more time to recover.”

He noticed the woman’s hands, how clean they were. He gestured toward her neck.

“Can I see...?”

“Of course, but please, allow me.” Beckham reached down and pulled the hair away from the left side of her neck, revealing a heavy bandage, which he began to remove.

An ugly gouge in her neck oozed blood. It looked like something had chewed her neck. She had become undetectable but damn near died doing it.

“The tools were in here.” The doctor gestured toward the cabinets, then began to replace the bandage. “She couldn’t have done it all herself. She must have been assisted by one of the others.”

11

Chavez didn’t use one of the many available crew quarters for his rest period. Instead, he returned to the Garden.

After opening the door he was once again awash in the aroma of Earth, such a stark contrast to the gunpowder reek to which he had not yet become accustomed in the rest of the base. Chavez knew almost nothing about botany, didn’t know the names of any flowers besides roses and lilies, and had no vocabulary to describe the layered redolence of the air he inhaled. But he knew that it was good.

He stepped forward and let the door shut behind him. It was not a large chamber by Earthly standards, but for a lifelong space veteran like Chavez it was huge.

The Garden produced little food for the base. That was done at Hydroponics, a chamber of similar size not far away. But it was not pleasant like the Garden. It had been a very business-like set-up - rack upon rack of food crops embedded in rock wool under grow lights - before the war. Now, it was untended, in disarray and not at all welcoming.

The Garden was also unkempt. Many plots had been set aside for various projects and they all grew, or didn’t, adjacent to one another. But there was no failed attempt at functionality, here, to depress anyone. It had been a place of hope and still was. The tree, springing from the once dead soil toward the hopeless, dark vacuum, inspired and assured everyone who saw it.

Moving forward, Chavez found a small clear plot of land near the central tree. Two shallow mounds lay side by side. According to Beckham’s analyses, they were Nigel Gibson, an English hydrologist, and Serafina Odiaka, a Nigerian pilot. Their blood had been on Thompson’s hands. Presumably they had died trying to remove their biosystems, but there would be autopsies to make sure when the doctor had time.

It was possible that there had been others besides these two, but Singh had run extensive checks and found no other living thing in the base. The hacker had also determined that all but one of the shuttles located at the base had been taken in the hours immediately following the war’s onset. They still didn’t know why these three, at least, had stayed. They also didn’t know if anyone had tried to trek overland to one of the normally-unoccupied satellite bases. Chavez expected that White would have some interesting exploratory work for him to do after he rested.

With that thought, the pilot sat down before reclining beneath the evergreen boughs. A series of facial tics and a sub-vocal command began a biosystem shut down. A great sense of enervation suddenly rushed into his sensory interface, having been kept at bay by special software that aided his adrenalin glands. He closed his eyes and dreamed.