tranquility4

– Part I –

Soil on Luna isn’t really soil at all – at least, in the way that most people are familiar with. It’s more of a fine dust, almost powder-like. It doesn’t have the rich, earthy smell or grainy texture of traditional soil. It doesn’t hold moisture. It isn’t capable of sustaining life in any way. It just exists – the product of billions of asteroid collisions with the moon’s rocky surface, each strike grinding the dust even finer, like a cosmic mortar and pestle.

Consequently, the powdery soil is quite hazardous to one’s health. The fine silicate crystals are razor-sharp on a microscopic level, capable of severely damaging the soft tissue of the lungs if inhaled. Aspiration of the moon dust over an extended period can cause a build-up of the particles on the inside of the lungs. Eventually, the human body’s natural reaction is to try and remove the razor-like crystals by flooding the lungs with fluid. Respiratory disease, not surprisingly, is one of the leading causes of illness and death for people that spend a significant amount of time on Luna, especially those that are constantly in and out of airlocks.

Harvey thought about this reality quite a bit.

The treads of Harvey’s rover churned through the soft powder as it lumbered slowly across the vast lunar plain. Harvey looked up from his display console and out through the viewport of the vehicle. His eyes traced the long linear path of tread lines that stretched out before him as he followed in their tracks. The lines continued along until eventually disappearing into the never-ending horizon, where the soft white of the lunar surface met the inky black of space.

“You’re doing it again,” came a female voice in Harvey’s ear, sounding annoyed.

“Doing what?” he replied.

“You’re humming,” said the voice. “You always hum when you’re uneasy.”

Harvey rolled his eyes, knowing that the voice couldn’t actually see him doing it.

“And how exactly would you know that?” he asked.

“Seriously, Harvey. After three rotations together, do you really think I don’t know each and every one of your ticks?” The voice replied.

“Fair point,” Harvey conceded. “But I’m not sure whether to be comforted or creeped out by that revelation.”

The disembodied voice snickered audibly. Harvey could hear her smile. He smiled too.

“So what’s on your mind?” asked the voice.

Harvey was looking down where his boots met the rubber coating on the floorboard of the rover cockpit, accompanied by a few thin trails of fine white powder. He took a deep breath, slowing exhaling as he formed his response.

“It’s the damn dust again,” he said as he let out the last of his air.

“Harvey. You have got to get over it. This entire god-forsaken rock is covered with dust. You can’t escape it, you know,” came the voice again.

“Yeah, have that etched on my tombstone, will you?” he replied. “And while you’re at it, you can blame that no-good boyfriend of yours for causing my untimely death. I see them trouncing in and out of the airlocks, boots covered in dust. They don’t even have the common courtesy to knock off the excess before coming into the scrubber pod.”

A long sigh came from the other end, the attitude evident even through the COM link.

“A hundred bucks says that’s exactly where this bit came from – the scrubber pod,” he continued.

“Alright Harvey, I get it. You don’t like Roger and you never will. That doesn’t mean he is intentionally filling your lungs with moon dust,” the voice said playfully.

“Every single one of those security monkeys does the same thing. All day – in and out, in and out. Wave after wave of dust. The scrubbers can’t keep up, Gwen!” Harvey exclaimed.

Gwen knew that Harvey was only half-serious. But even still, she knew he’d never miss an opportunity to announce his disdain for Roger. Deep down though, she smiled at that fact.

“So are we going to get back to work, or are you going to whine about moon dust all day?” she asked.

“I’ve been en-route for over an hour now, I have to pass the time one way or another,” he said.

“Well if it’s all right with you, I’d like to actually locate some decent deposits today. You know, before we get fired for underperformance,” she replied.

“If you insist – ” Harvey began, but she cut him off before he could append a choice expletive to the end of his statement.

“I’m dropping a NAV marker on your console. You’ll be making a lazy left in about fifty meters,” she announced. “There’s a shallow crevasse in an impact crater that I want you to check out – it may have an exposed hot spot.”

“Aye aye, cap!” Harvey replied sarcastically. “Lead the way.”

The impact crater was small by Luna standards, roughly a half-kilometer in diameter. The rover made quick work of climbing the berm that formed the rim of the crater, and then carefully trudged its way down the backside and into the crater floor. Gwen’s crevasse was on the far end of the bowl, eclipsed in shadow by the crater rim. It wasn’t very deep, maybe fifteen or twenty meters from top to bottom. Luckily, the bulky rover was just narrow enough to squeeze down into the tapered end of the crevasse where it rose to meet the crater floor.

“You know, sometimes I think you intentionally test my patience with these tight squeezes you keep putting me in,” Harvey said as the rover reached the bottom of the crevasse, completely shrouded in darkness. “I’ve got less than two meters on either side of the treads.”

Harvey tapped his console for the exterior floodlights, and the chasm illuminated in bright white. Outcroppings of rock flung shadows up onto the walls, which shifted and danced as the rover slowly crept forward.

“God forbid you have to suit up every once in a while, Harvey,” said Gwen. Her voice was laced with a hint of static, a sign that the COM link signal was weaker down in the crevasse.

“Besides, it gets wider up ahead. Looks like you’ll get to stay nice and comfy in your cockpit for now,” she added.

“So where’s this mystery hot spot of yours?” Harvey asked sarcastically.

Gwen was easily one of the best operations analysts that worked for Blackstone Industries. Which is why he always liked to give her a hard time, because she knew she was good, but she never let it inflate her ego. He respected her for that.

It’s like she had a sixth sense for analyzing the X-Ray Fluorescence data that came back from Prospector, an orbital remote sensing satellite that circled Luna. The satellite was one of the main reasons that Blackstone could dominate the lunar mining industry. That, and the fact that the large conglomerate also owned the most lucrative claim on the surface of Luna, the Sea of Tranquility.

“Just a few more meters ahead,” Gwen said. “The XRF readings from the rover’s on-board analyzer are showing a spike. Could be Thorium – maybe even enough to feed the reactors for another few months and keep us employed a little while longer.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll owe you dinner when I get back to Tranquility,” Harvey replied.

“Deal,” said Gwen, the static even stronger now.

“Okay. Right there,” she exclaimed. “The strongest signal is right in front of you. See if you can clear some of the dust away to expose the bedrock. I want to get a good core sample to analyze before I flag the area for excavation.”

“I’ll do my best,” Harvey said. “But the dust goes pretty deep here, it’s almost halfway up the rover treads. Not sure if I’ve got enough air in the tank to clear that much away.”

“Just do what you can,” Gwen replied.

Harvey swiped and tapped at the console. As he did, an articulated arm unfolded from the rover’s side and positioned itself to point at the crevasse floor directly ahead. He tapped the console once more and felt the rover give a slight shudder. The tank valves opened. A rapid jet of compressed air shot forth from the end of the rover’s outstretched arm. Plumes of fine dust erupted from the crevasse floor and expanded out in all directions, swallowing the rover in a dense cloud. Harvey gripped a joystick below the console and maneuvered it a few degrees in each direction. The joystick motion formed a tight circular pattern of the rover arm. Looking out through the viewport, he squinted his eyes to try and penetrate the thick cloud of dust. It was no use; he couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of the viewport, barely making out the end of the rover arm. He continued to maneuver the joystick for a few more moments when Gwen chimed back in.

“Okay, let’s see where that got us,” she said.

Harvey tapped the console a third time and the jet of compressed air fell silent.

“Can you see anything on the forward cameras?” he asked.

“No, what about you?” she said.

“Not a damn thing,” he replied.

They both sat there in silence for several minutes, waiting for the weak gravity of Luna to slowly pull the clouds of dust back down to the crevasse floor. All the while, static hissed and crackled in Harvey’s ear, reminding him that Gwen was still on the other end of the COM link. He wished she were right there with him though.

“What is that?” said Gwen, breaking the silence. “Do you see what I’m seeing?”

Harvey brought his brain back into focus, the dust still slowly settling.

“See what?” he said quizzically.

“Ten meters out, to the left a bit,” she said. “Something – “

She paused.

“Something – sticking up out of the dust.”

Harvey readjusted the angle on one of the floodlights and guided it in the direction Gwen had indicated.

“What is that?” she repeated.

Harvey squinted once again to focus through the haze where the floodlight beam met the crevasse floor. Exactly where Gwen had described, Harvey could see a dark shape protruding from the soft powder. It was less than a meter long and horizontal – somewhat rounded, almost cylindrical – and skinnier on one end than the other. There was a slight bend about midway down its length. The thicker end looked completely rounded, and the skinny end tapered out and back in before disappearing into the dust.

“I have no idea,” Harvey said. “The top of a rock maybe?”

Silence on the other end, then –

“Can’t be,” Gwen replied. “It’s too dark, much darker than the other rocks down here.”

“What else would it be, Gwen?” Harvey snapped. “There’s only two things down here. Dust – and rocks.”

“I don’t know, but it’s definitely not a rock,” she said defiantly. “Some old space trash maybe?”

“My money says rock,” Harvey said.

“So we’re betting now?” Gwen replied. “Hit it with the air again.”

Harvey glanced at the display, noting the indicator for the compressed air levels.

“No can do,” Harvey said. “That last burst used up half of what I had left in the tank. If you want any chance at hitting bedrock to collect a sample, we’ll need every last bit of air to clear the area we already started on.”

“Damn,” Gwen spat under her breath. Harvey couldn’t help but crack a smile. He knew he was probably right, but she wouldn’t admit it.

After a few moments, her voice came back in over the static.

“Well – ” she began. “Looks like there’s only one way to solve this.”

Harvey still wore his grin. “Yeah? And what would that be?”

Another pause.

“Suit up, Harvey,” she said.

Harvey’s grin disappeared.

“Well?” she prodded. “Get cracking!”

He wanted to curse at her. He was cornered, and he knew it. She knew it too.

A third pause, and then a long sigh.

“Consider my dinner offer officially revoked,” he said.

“Noted. Now get your ass into that suit and find out what the hell that thing is, so we can finish up here before I reach retirement,” she said playfully.

God, he loved her tenacity.

“You know I’m only doing this because there’s a wager involved. Not because you told me to,” Harvey stated matter-of-factly.

“Of course,” she replied, playing into the sarcasm.

Harvey hated the environment suit. His was a size too small, and the rubberized compression fabric stuck to his skin like a human-sized condom. The breathing apparatus and oxygen tanks strapped to his back weighed almost forty pounds. The leaded boots were designed to keep his feet planted in the low gravity, but made walking incredibly difficult. His helmet needed a new liner, and the face-shield had a long scratch across the front that toyed with his vision.

Suited up, Harvey climbed down from the cockpit using the short ladder that clung to the side of the rover. He missed the last rung and dropped the remaining two feet to the crevasse floor, barely managing to stay upright.

“Shit!” he exclaimed as he caught himself on landing.

“You alright, Princess?” Gwen jeered.

Harvey took a second to let the instant shot of panic subside.

“Fine, thanks for asking,” he retorted. “Just getting reacquainted with this lovely suit.”

Gwen snickered.

“Well we don’t have all day,” she said, sarcastically.

Harvey’s relationship with Gwen was always a fine line between affection and annoyance. And at the moment, his disposition was more-so the latter.

He kept his mouth shut and started trudging his way toward the front of the rover, shin-deep in moon dust. Each step was a workout in itself, and by the time he had gotten halfway to the object, his leg muscles burned.

“Remind me to let you take a stroll in this suit one day and maybe then you’ll understand my fondness for it,” Harvey announced over the COM link.

“That’s okay,” Gwen said. “I prefer to remain ignorant.”

“Yeah, I bet you do,” he replied.

He reached the spot where the floodlight met the crevasse floor and stopped.

Standing over the object, he could tell that Gwen was at least partly right. It was definitely not a rock. It had no hard lines or visible texture to it.

“I’m here,” he said.

“Well?” Gwen asked. “What the hell is it?”

Harvey knelt down in the thick blanket of moon dust, lowering one knee at a time to find a stable base in the soft powder.  With his gloved hands, he began to gently brush away the dust from around the edges of the object, being careful not to stir up a cloud.

The forward cameras of the rover showed Harvey kneeling in the powder, his back to the rover. The floodlights against his form cast a silhouette across the object. From that angle, Gwen couldn’t see what he could see. All she saw was Harvey working diligently, slowly raking the moon dust into mounds on either side of him. After a few seconds, he began to move quicker, and then frantically. She could hear his breathing over the COM, getting louder and faster as he went. He instantly jumped to his feet, bent over at the waist, and began using the motion of his entire upper body to heave armfuls of dust to one side or the other. The dust formed clouds that rose up into the shine of the floodlights. Gwen felt her heart rate jump almost instantly to a full sprint. She didn’t understand what Harvey was doing.

“Jesus, Harvey! What is it?” Gwen cried out.

Harvey continued to fling the dust aside.

“Harvey!” she cried again.

Then he stopped.

Gwen could see his shoulders moving up and down with his heavy breathing. He just stood there looking down at what lay at his feet.

“Harvey?” she repeated frantically.

A pause, several seconds long.

“Gwen,” he finally replied, his breathing starting to slow. “It’s –“

Another long pause.

“It’s a body.”