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2054: MURDER ON THE MOON -Work in Progress

Chapter 1: Broken Water Main

There are often memories of Earth that remind you of just how near home is to us. In many ways, living here resembles living back home — like when you take a family call. On the other hand, and perhaps more often than not, you knowingly avoid the fear of being alone. That lonely feeling overwhelms any conscious recollection of embrace or sense of belonging. Here on the moon, since there’s no real sense of home except what lives in our mind, time gets distorted. This place, unlike a place of comfort or rest, is an obstacle course, a brutal test of stamina. Perhaps the true measure of human endurance in the face of foreboding isolation is the distance between the memory of where you come from and a gritty mindset to move forward… one increment at a time… for however long it takes. The irony is, there is little distance between the factions of the human mind, but that small space can seem limitless. In reality, there’s nothing between memory and mentality, just an imaginary partition separating the light that shines on one side of the mind and the shrouded darkness engulfing the other. Like black and white. The moon is not that absolute, though. There is more gray area here than meets the eye.

— ☽ — SoPole 

Earth is a giant orb in our endless black of night on SoPole. We do call our after-hours ‘night,’ but there’s no noticeable difference between day and night including the fact that we can see the earth during all of our hours, watching us, circling the horizon like a prowler. The sun always hides from us. At the bottom of the moon, there’s no sunshine ever — at all. Day or night, we never see sunlight. Initially, moon stations were planned near the poles because that’s where pools of frozen water formed underground millions of years ago. Also, geothermal heating systems are relatively simple to construct, so decidedly, NASA and the powers-that-be put us here in the dark like mushrooms. That decision, however, was seventeen years ago. If we knew then what we do now, there’d probably be a lot of slight changes to where our stations presently exist. For example, in the heat of the sun today the Japanese Consortium (JC) is producing economical air conditioning using Solar Heat Absorption (SHA). That process is similar to what we use for generating solar electricity. It utilizes the sun as a source of energy. It does not, however, produce an electric current. It provides transient heat convection. Heat absorption is the reverse of a heat pump without the need for electricity or a pump. JCO is four-hundred miles from here, also near the southern lunar pole, built atop a crater rim where the sun always shines. Being fed shit and kept in the dark like mushrooms is just one of many things that were routinely, although clumsily kept secret from us when we volunteered for Moon Service. The United States Moon Service came to be part of the U.S. Space Force created in 2020 by then President Donald J. Trump. Fresh from college, many of my friends and myself included, we all expected to become international heroes and to return back from the moon amid ticker-tape parades, paying zero taxes for the remainder of our lives on earth. Our tenure for this venture is a required ten-year tour of duty. We don’t work directly for NASA or the USMS, but rather the Lunar International Space Administration (LISA). What we failed to perceive when we came aboard was an inevitable endless decade of ‘Wasteland Lifestyles of the Shabby and Infamous.’ A decade of moon time feels like three decades on Earth. And well, the ‘Rich and Famous schmucks’ here are identical to the ‘Homeless Downtrodden piss ants’ here. We all share the same haves and have-nots. None of us are entirely miserable, but we’re all less than enchanted with the day-to-day chores and sheer boredom. Life on this desolate universal vantage point consists of no climate, no season, not even a brief wisp of wind for something of a change. — Just day-after-day, after day, after day of inhumane inane mundane. The boredom is relentless. Imagine living in a mason jar half full of sand on a shelf in a dark closet. It’s always that exciting. — Always. Sure, we have the local ‘KenTacoWingHut,’ a combination of KFC, Taco Bell, WingStreet, and Pizza Hut. It’s “Delici-Umptious.” Then there’s the delightful karaoke bar where no one can actually sing, but everyone tries … “Belchers.” Those and the animated skyscapes on some of the ceilings are about as close as we get to real life. You could say, “We’re only one bad dinner away from a horrible ‘moon-stomach’ death, on a daily basis.” One thing many of us here have come to love, to pass our free time, is Moonball. It’s a cross between Basketball and Water Polo. With our minimal gravity, the court is quite different than what you see on earth. There is only one basket, thirty-six inches in diameter, magnetically suspended between the floor and the fifty-foot center-court ceiling. The court is half the size of a standard basketball court, and round, not rectangular. The biggest difference in Moonball is that the entire court is enveloped in a meshed netting called ‘the cage’ that can be used as a game surface. In other words, a player can ‘air dribble’ the ball across the court, onto the wall, physically hang from the ceiling, and score a goal from any point in the three-dimensional enclosure. Of course, the ball has very little air pressure inside it, but it bounces and travels much like an earth-bound round ball. That’s because human force, not gravity, is the main impetus for the ball’s movement. Gravity does play a small role in the arch of the ball, but for the most part, the ball travels visibly in a very straight line, relative to how it is thrown or deflected. ‘Air dribbling’ is an acquired talent. In order to avoid a traveling penalty, called ‘swimming,’ the player has to move the ball from hand-to-hand (or hand-to-foot-to-hand, or hand-to-floor and back, or hand-to-perimeter net and back) at least one time for every footstep. The ball must appear to bounce with each step. A ‘footstep’ is defined as any movement of the player’s leg. Whether it be an actual step on the ground or a leg movement in mid-air that alters the player’s path. In mid-air, when you move your leg to the left, your body moves to the right. Wiggling both legs, without ‘air dribbling’ at least once, is a two-shot penalty. The height, size, and sex of a player are inconsequential. Tall guys actually have no more game advantage than short girls. So, the teams are made up of quick-handed people who have a gymnastics inclination. You can tumble, roll, flip, twist, and even cling to or bounce off of the walls and ceiling. It’s like freestyle skydiving without a parachute, inside an enclosure. If you drop the ball, it can take several seconds for it to fall to the ground. That can be a great opportunity for the opposing team to steal. Much of the game is built around a player’s acrobatics, long jumps, and steals. One’s ability to maneuver to the center-court basket can also affect the gameplay. A collision with an opponent can result in a foul and free-shot for the rival team. Free-shots are made from the floor at the twenty-two-foot line (22’ from the basket) nearest to where the foul occurs. At ground level, it’s more difficult than one might imagine when putting the ball into the basket. The shooter has to anticipate the force of sixteen percent gravity to lob the ball through the hoop. The arch of the ball is mostly in the wrist, kind of like shooting billiards. If you put English on the ball, the spin affects the arch and ultimately helps determine where the ball goes. Free shots always appear to the fans to be in slow motion, due to the gravitational Coriolis Effect. This is the slowest part of the game, which otherwise is quite fast and athletic. From the time a player makes a free throw until the time the ball hits or misses the net, the fans take an opportunity to smack talk their opposing team. Consequently, every free throw is a mob-fest of cheers, jeers, chants, and insults. It makes the game more interactive from the cheap seats and can get very loud and boisterous. Unlike basketball on earth, crowd participation in Moonball has become a major part of the game and its culture. In that way, the game resembles hockey. Since there is only one basket, and since the players collide and steal the ball so much, it can sometimes be difficult to determine which player makes a shot. For that reason, the ball contains a chip that records who last touched it and changes colors according to which team has possession. The score is given to the team who last controlled the ball. If there is any official doubt about who scored or if the ball was tipped, a referee makes the call, and a jump ball is used to resume play. Jump balls are dropped from the ceiling by an automated mechanism outside the 22’ (main) line. Also, if your team steals a ball, it has to be taken outside the mainline and passed back into the field of play. The game has become so popular here that we’ve formed a league among the various moon outposts. Playoffs are even televised on earth, and the fan base is in the millions. People in Japan are especially fond of the game. They call the athletes, “Chirashis” or “Flyers” and they cheer the player collisions. The Japanese are so enamored with the game that they’ve begun giving select young Japanese athletes a full government-sponsored scholarship. Winners get a high-paying menial job on the moon and a free four-year college education. They also play for their home base team in the Lunar Moonball League (LML). Japan is building their own stadium but has been for three years now. A completion date is on the back burner, billions of dollars behind the Japanese Consortium’s ever-expanding research agenda. Needless to say, the cost to build a stadium on the moon is an eye-opener. SoPole’s arena began as a research lab for the effects of moon gravity on the human body and other animate and inanimate objects. Recently converted, we have all the bells and whistles of a first-class Moonball venue … One scoreboard, one concession stand, one group of unisex restrooms with 20 stalls, and seating for six hundred stir-crazed fans. Also, the arena still serves as an all-staff meeting room. It’s just the right size to accommodate all SoPole personnel, although comfortable seating is not its strong suit. Bleacher risers are built from shipping crate scraps. The seats are made from recycled five-gallon plastic buckets screwed to the floor, so as not to become projectiles too easily. In some big rivalry games, the fans can become quite rambunctious. We’re in LML finals this week, with what looks like two games left in the championship series. The TV sportscaster color man announces to the crowd, “The series is in game five. The home team, ‘SoPole’ is down ten points behind ‘E-Lo.’ The series is tied 2-2, so if the SoPole Drillers lose this one, the series will put E-Lo on top, three games to two.” To our advantage, SoPole has the only officially sanctioned court on the moon, so we are always the home team. E-Lo has a practice court, but no scoreboards or instant replay TV. Due to the fact that the teams all travel to SoPole for the events, SoPole has a designated hotel for all the guests. The hotel houses the team (10 possible players), their coaching and support staff of no more than five people, and a mascot. You may think that sixteen rooms and guests are too few people to make up a championship team, but when you think of getting those people to the South Pole from wherever they live on the moon, travel becomes no small feat. The playoff game today has been tedious and the sportscast announcer follows the play with trepidation. “SoPole Center, number thirty-four, Eliwan, drives to the cage. Pass to Sequim. Back to Eliwan who remains dangling upside from the ceiling like a fruit bat with a single toe clinging to the cage netting. The pass is wide. Eliwan resorts to his signature triple summersault move, deflecting two defensive steal attempts.” The whirlybird manure brings the already game-stressed crowd into a massive uproar. “Eliwan has it!” He’s not supposed to show it, but the announcer is a longtime Drillers fan. “Eliwan taps the floor and slow-tosses the ball to the outside of the mainline. He leaps past it, CATCHES HIS OWN PASS, dribbles, shoots, and SCORES! What a sensational three-pointer. Did you see that? What a shot by Eliwan!” The crowd goes wild and then abruptly, without warning, the game buzzer sounds, even though the clock shows two minutes, twenty-eight seconds remaining in the game. A blue light begins to flash in the upper left corner of the scoreboard. The courtside announcer interrupts jeers from the fans. “Ladies and gentlemen, LISA has issued a full blue core-team alert. All core, blue-team members, including game players should report to their respective workstations immediately. Once again, this is a full blue-core team alert. This is not a drill.” And on that note, the fun and games are done for the day. Most of SoPole’s team is made up of blue (primary) team members and they’re suddenly being escorted from the court by security. The fans erupt into a frenzied mob, shouting angry speculation about the game’s sudden ending and throwing hot dog wrappers, crackerjacks, empty beer squeezeboxes, and buttered popcorn confetti with every curse word. The popcorn lingers in the air much longer than the harsh words. The debris has become a game day mainstay for the fans. A sporting event within a sporting event, the garbage floats like ultralight snowflakes on a still night. Eventually, it all reluctantly settles to the ground in tall drifts created by the air conditioner’s draft. After a long pause, the announcer continues with a tone that assures the fans that the series is not delayed. “We’re sorry folks, but these things happen from time-to-time in Moonball. Since less than five minutes is left to play, this game will go into the record books as won by the E-Lo E-Landers, with a score of ninety-eight to ninety-one over the SoPole Drillers. Fear not, game six of the series will begin play as planned, tomorrow night at 7 PM, Lunar Standard Time, right here at the LunaDome.” When word came down from LISA (or shall I say up from Earth) that two volunteers are needed to provide emergency water to our fellow Moonlings at the Equatorial Launch Outpost (ELO), some of us were especially excited to get the order. Our base at the southern pole of the moon (SoPole), is expressly chartered to mine ore and water to produce chemicals, minerals, hydrogen, and oxygen from the regolith and beneath. We have lots of water, but E-Lo has broken a water main, and their tanks are almost dry. Six months before transport teams are due to deliver fresh supplies to all the outposts, LISA is asking for truck-driver crewmembers. Telia Brody and Anderson Cronauer we were first in line. SoPole Station has six-hundred-thirty inhabitants. Twenty have been here for seventeen years and are on their second tour of duty. The two volunteers to make the road trip to E-Lo are newbies by most citizen accounts. They came up with the last shuttle two years ago before budgets broke in the political melee of international discourse over direction for the entire LISA program. LISA was initially intended to be a gas station for trips to Mars, and the galaxy beyond. A decade of limited resource production and a fundamental lack of interest from China and Russia produced more apathy than hydrogen, oxygen, and water. Two additional bases, one at the North Pole and another here in the south, never matured on the moon because they failed to get off the ground on Earth. All the things we’ve built here so far have come to us in pieces from the sovereign countries back home. Everything we have arrived on several large hydrogen-powered rockets that were first made in 2028 by a cluster of interested nations that included the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and a handful of other NATO partners. 

— ☽ — SoPole – Two Days Later

“Woe! Too much! Too now!” Telia comments on a television news broadcast she’s watching from New York. Pointing toward the continuing newscast, she further remarks, “They just said E-Lo is losing twenty-two days-worth of water every twenty-four hours. Can they survive until we get there? We’re a good forty-two days away, at a minimum! That’s much, too much now. Am I right?” “They’re supposed to have that leak stopped by tomorrow. If that’s an accurate assessment, E-Lo should make-do with rationing until we arrive.” Cronauer gestures thumbs-up to Tee, happy dancing and singing off-key, “We’re going to the big show. We’re gonna be on TV. ELO needs water. We-oh, we-oh, we-oh. We got what they need. Take us to the big show.” Telia (Tee) Brody is a geologist from Harvard. Anderson Cronauer is an aeronautics and astronautics engineer from MIT. They tend to follow each other around. Perhaps it’s that they both have Cambridge, Massachusetts schools in common, but more likely, it’s that they have each other’s ass on the brain. No matter what the reason, they always seem to go hand-in-hand — so it was no surprise to anyone when Cronauer volunteered for this unexpected upcoming E-Lo trip and that Brody was quick to follow. This water delivery run, round trip, will to take at least eight weeks for the volunteer team and is scheduled to leave town late today. Our water tanker has been pre-loaded by the day crew, and the four-passenger semi-tractor has already cleared its final inspection. Northbound, the trip will take at least forty days, but the return run, without the heavy tank, schedules out for only twenty days. Naturally, the burden of five-hundred thousand gallons of water makes the first leg the most arduous. For some perspective, a five-hundred-thousand-gallon tank of water is seventy feet long and thirty-five feet in diameter. On Earth, that would be 4.17 million pounds of water and 845,000 pounds of tank. Given the moon’s gravity of 16.6% of that on Earth, that same tank roughly translates to seven-hundred-thousand pounds or three-hundred-fifty tons. Even on earth, moving three-hundred-fifty tons is a serious test of willpower. For us to haul all that mass on the moon will occasionally mean reconstructing or rerouting our primitive transport road. For that, we also carry the heft of a double-team bulldozer that serves two functions and requires two drivers. The bulldozer is a simultaneous excavator and grader. The front end excavates the roadbed and the rear section levels and tamps it all down to create a smooth-riding surface. Six months ago, when the last water was trucked up to E-Lo by LISA’s temporary transport drivers, the road was only designed to accommodate eighty-ton vessels. Unfortunately, the tanks that were towed there remain there. All we have here at the South Pole now are new tanks that aren’t planned to be used until next year. Actually, we are going to be transporting the only one that has been fully assembled so far. People ask why our moon launch sites are at the equator when fuel and other resources are near the poles. It’s not about weight. It’s purely due to launch velocity. Although you actually weigh less on the equator than at either pole, the difference is relatively small. Equatorially launching a rocket is much more economical than a polar launch because of gravity and other forces. The big difference is that centrifugal force becomes less when you approach the poles. This change snaps back when you return to your original latitude. So regrettably, a trip to the equator is not a viable long-term weight-loss program regardless of what planet or celestial body you reside on. Nonetheless, to answer the question, big and heavy launches really need an equatorial swing to get them to slingshot well out into space. Imagine tossing a rock from a perch on your shoulder. It will go much farther, much faster if you throw it with your hand. The fulcrum leverage and resulting centrifugal force of your arm add tremendous power to the thrust felt by the stone. The stone clearly remains the same weight in either case. The amount of energy to move it is about the same as well. The rock just goes farther with the fulcrum. Weight comprises all the large-scale, long-term forces exerted on a given mass. While gravity is by-far the strongest massive force, it is not the only one. What we experience as something pulling down on our body is actually the total of all these forces and not just the result of gravity. The four dominant large-scale, long-term forces on the moon are: 1: The moon’s gravity 2: The sun’s gravity 3: The earth’s gravity on the moon, and 4: The moon’s centrifugal force which is produced by the moon’s spin.  For a twenty-passenger air transport to go to-and-from E-Lo only takes about forty-five minutes of travel time. However, a tank with hundreds of tons of water in it doesn’t play nice with flying in a moonplane. Besides, our air transports are way too small for meaningful water distribution. If rations run short at E-Lo, we can always fly them a few gallons, but we’re in this rescue run for a long-term fix. So, we’ll be taking the long and low road to the equator. 

— ☽ — ELO Water Plant Exterior

‘The moon is in a phase,’ is something that we sarcastically say when the difference between up and down is blurred or when we’re confused about something. For example, the terms ‘up’ and ‘down’ are relative to where you stand. Looking up from the equator, Earth straight up overhead and looks bigger because you are closer to it than when standing at either pole. However, no matter where you are on the moon, Earth is always up and the ground is always down. Judging from the look on Stanchion’s face, the spray of water coming from a fractured joint in a four-inch aluminum pipe appears to be bigger than yesterday. With no atmosphere to speak of and minimal gravity, water sprays like a fountain in all directions from the break. It then instantly freezes, floating slowly to the regolith like especially fluffy snow. It’s the sixth day of the night at the equator, and the temperature here is minus 280 F. Stanchion mutters, “The moon must be in a phase.” “Why?” The voice inside Stanchion’s helmet is Winston who is watching from inside the E-Lo control room. The LISA Equatorial Launch Outpost (ELO) is approximately three-hundred-fifty miles from where Apollo 11 landed in the southern portion of Mare Tranquillitatis eighty-five years ago in August. “When the small meteorite struck several weeks ago, the sun was shining, and this snow was steam,” Stanchion remarks. “At that point, our leaky faucet was a full blow-out and losing the entire contents of two conjoined water storage transports as fast as a four-inch pipe can drain a whiskey barrel.” “I remember,” Winston replies, “I saw you put the temporary patch on it when we first found it.” “Well, now the steam is slightly cooler. The flow’s about the same, though.” No patch can accommodate the moon’s temperature extremes. As a result, Stanchion has necessarily had to change the wound dressing every week or so. He’s been dealing with this issue for more than six weeks and has today’s procedure down to a matured science, with one exception. Hopefully, today’s process should result in a permanent fix. There’s just a little problem with Stanchion’s Lunar Excursion Pack (LEP). The welder oxygen supply is being finicky. It’s been slow to recharge. Back when man first walked on the moon in 1969, the water coolant lined spacesuits were made of multiple layers to handle temperature extremes. The suits were bulky and labor-intensive to move around in. NASA and LISA have learned a lot in the past several decades since then. Outfits now are not as heavy or thick, and there is no longer a necessity to clumsily lug around the astronaut’s oxygen supply or a large circulation unit on his or her back. We now have LEPs that do all the heavy lifting for us. Lunar Excursion Packs are several machines in one: • One-part: Pressurized individual astronaut space suit,• One-part: Rebreather air/oxygen/gasses system,• One-part: Heating/cooling system, and• One-part: Personal toilet and waste management system.All the components are attached to a mechanical exoskeleton framework that carries all the dead weight. The frame also assists the astronaut with lifting heavy and bulky objects that may need to be moved around on the lunar surface. As a kicker, the entire LEP assembly, made of solid titanium, feels like it weighs less than five pounds here on the moon. That’s due to the exoskeleton’s lift assistance capabilities. Comparably, that amounts to a little more weight than a construction worker’s lunchbox back on earth. Although you can’t just set it down next to your work area like a lunchbox, you can eat and drink inside an LEP — with a little practice. We usually don’t — unless we’re on an extraordinarily long excursion, but we can if we need to. Water, nutritional snack paste, even Coca-Cola can be stored inside a temperature-controlled section of the unit. Food and liquid distribution to the astronaut’s mouth are done with flex-tubes, compressed air, and switches on the back of the gloves. Unlike the fat-fingered, thick space-suit gloves of the past, our new LEP gloves are as lean and flexible as racecar-driver fashion wear. Dexterity is the name of the game. As a matter of fact, flexibility and multi-usability is basically the entire game. Even our air supply gets tapped for other things. We breathe a mix of gasses, much like that created by a submarine, but in addition to that, we can also supply a welder or cutting torch with nearly pure oxygen, pump CO2 into an air-bag lift kit, and even produce our own helium on demand. Winston asks Stanchion to “move back a bit. I can’t see the rim of that flange.” Nicely packaged, the LEP also reflects solar radiation. It’s wrapped in a lightweight, flexible fabric shield made of Mylar over a comfortable cotton lining. You could wear one of these new LEPs naked if you were so inclined, and you would never suffer any friction burn or muscle fatigue. But, yes, we do wear underwear; it’s required by NASA regulation—something to do with sanitation and hygiene we’re told. Stanchion flippantly comments, “There is no O-ring seal left on here at all.” The topper for the LEP unit, our helmet has five cameras (one on our face), and the complete headgear unit is permanently attached to the LEP framework. We climb into the thing from behind. The suit zips up in the back. That was a design feature that took NASA almost seventy-five years to master. The airtight, pressurized zipper was never even a reasonable consideration when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopped around up here. Today we can dress for outdoor activity in under a minute, like firemen, and thanks to the way the lift assist works so well with the limited lunar gravity, we walk around almost naturally. No hopping required unless we just absolutely feel like hopping. Our LEPs are a genuine marvel of modern science. “You’ll want to make sure all of that old O-ring gets out of the flange before you torch it. We don’t want any burned silicone in our drinking fountain.” Winston knows Stanchion needs to kill some time before his oxygen tank is fully charged. Stanchion taps his forward camera with his middle finger as he responds. “Ok, I’ll hunt for silicone, you make the sandwiches. It looks like we’re going to be here through lunch today, dear.” “Hey, I’m nowhere near ugly enough to be your dear, dude.” “Watch yourself, Winston. I know where you sleep.” Stanchion chuckles and shows his welding tip to the camera. The seemingly unprofessional banter from the duo is good-natured. Both men are keenly aware of the fact that the stress of working outside is always better managed with a lighthearted mentality. Sometimes even off-colored humor is the standard lingo for official communication. “I talked with your family last week, and they asked me to see if I could lose you in a crater somewhere. I promised your dad a mission patch if he’d just let it go.” Winston gets the last laugh between them before the stress level snaps to a much higher danger zone. “Damn it, man!” Stanchion is first to see the problem. “What now?” “The flange must have a small burr. I seem to have snagged my dinner gown.” “Get your FrictionBond. Take a deep breath and grab your FrictionBond tape from your belt. Get that tape on.” Stanchion slaps an oversized strip of FrictionBond over a tiny hole in his right glove that is venting air to the outside of his LEP. “It won’t stick. It doesn’t like the moisture from the ice on my suit.” The usually calm Stanchion is showing signs in his voice of becoming tense. “Stay calm. Your blood pressure is up some. Inhale. Stay calm buddy; we’ve trained for this. Use some CO2 exhaust to give it a little blow-job.” “Something’s wrong. I don’t have any carbon dioxide to pull from! That must be why my oxygen conversion’s been taking so long. Something’s wrong with my air machine.” Stanchion’s voice is changing like he’s started inhaling helium from a party balloon. “I’m de-pressurizing.” The leak in Stanchion’s glove is in no danger of blowing-out because a thin copper-titanium alloy strand is woven into the fabric. The weave is a tight one and protects the astronaut’s hand like an oyster shucker’s cut-resistant metal-mesh glove. Not only does the design protect hands from sharp objects outside, but it also helps prevent the glove from exploding when a tiny puncture makes its way inside. “Your pressure should recalibrate automatically, just give the suit enough time to adjust some.” Winston is watching Stanchion’s vital signs. “Your heart rate is up. I need you to calm down now, Buffalo Bo.” “My nose is bleeding, Winston.” “Use your vomit suction. You’re gonna want to keep your windshield clean old man.” “It’s not working.” Stanchion is showing signs of panicking. “Suction ain’t working, Winston.” “Something is definitely wrong with your air machine. Stay with me, man. We need to get you back inside the station.” Winston is abruptly cut off from communication with Stanchion as a loud static-riddled pop interrupts the intercom. “Stanchion. Bo! Stanchion, give me a four.” With a flash, the camera trained on Stanchion’s face turns blood red and in the same instant the static crackles-out and is gone. “Oh shit! Ops to Command. Commander Nelson? Come in Commander Nelson.” “Command. Go Ops.” “Commander, I’ve lost Stanchion. Stanchion’s gone.” 

— ☽ — SoPole Barracks 

At SoPole Station, Brody’s personal quarters are strewn with clothing, toiletries, and accessories while she’s thrashing around to finish packing for her trip to E-Lo. Her truck leaves in less than an hour now, and she is spending much of her time complaining. “My hair alone needs more product than one suitcase can hold.” She’s talking to the TV screen built into the wall. “I sort of anticipated that. I’ve left a little room in my duffle for you to appropriate if you need it.” Cronauer’s voice is coming from the TV screen, but at the moment he can’t be seen. “You really do make a pretty darn good handmaid. How’d you like to be a bride’s maid at my wedding?” Anderson’s head pops up onto the screen from where he too has been packing his bags on the floor, out of camera range. “Bridesmaid? Are you crazy? In the first place, who would marry you?” “Besides, if and when you do get married, being a geologist, you’re gonna want a massive rock on your hand to be impressed in any way at all. And there is no man on the moon with that kind of cash.” Cronauer is only half-joking. He smirks, wiggles his fingers in the air, and speaks directly to the television. “AIRI, give me control over here, please.” The TV beeps. “Thank you.” Using an imaginary keyboard, Cronauer types a few keystrokes into thin air, even as he steps into the bathroom to gather some shaving gear. “I googled ‘the world’s largest diamond’ the other day, and found this. I figure this is about the size of the rock you’ll be needing on your ring finger to ever be satisfied.” Characteristically, he begins singing, “Just like a woman.” The television displays a website for a jewelry store in Boston and the image of a diamond ring with a stone the size of the “Star of Africa I.” “I’ll take it.” She says. “The ring?” “Both, the ring, and the extra room in your bag. I need to bring along my window cleaner. Those truck windows always fog up with moon dust. Nobody seems to care, but me.” Brody is silly and a bit sassy from-time-to-time. She tosses her head side-to-side as she speaks, adding a campy element of theatrics to her response, and causing her hair to float wildly. “You’re gonna need another truck to carry that much window cleaner, dear. In case you haven’t noticed yet, there’s nothing BUT moon dust out there. You’d think a geologist would notice that.” As they grin at each other, their TVs are dinged by the internal SoPole Station paging system. “Bing-bong.” The diamond ring image is replaced by a live shot of a uniformed officer at the bridge in the sally. “Brody, Cronauer, we’re going to be leaving a half-hour earlier than planned.” Officer Dean sounds authoritative but offers no official detail. “You are due in the sally port in fifteen minutes. Are you able to join us?” “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” The response is in military unison. With another “ding,” the intercom icon on the TV disappears, and the image resets to the present phone call between Brody and Cronauer. “I wonder what that’s all about.” Brody moves toward the TV lifting an eyebrow. “I need to go so I can concentrate on all this stuff.” She gestures at all the things scattered around her room. “I’ll see you in fifteen minutes. I think.” “The Captain is probably just antsy to hit the road. Bye.” The TVs both switch from call mode to a still image mode, making them appear to be fine-art paintings hanging on the wall. The images rotate like a slideshow from one museum-quality work of art to another. Our televisions are so realistically three dimensional that you would believe you could just reach up and feel the artist’s strokes in each of the paintings. Cronauer snatches up one duffle bag and a small overnight bag and exits his dorm room. When he leaves, the television automatically turns itself off, and the lights in the room dim out. His dorm room HV/AC thermostat which has been set to seventy-six degrees also self-adjusts to sixty-two.

— ☽ — SoPole Sally Port 

The sally port is a bustle of activity. Practically every available member of the SoPole staff is here to prep for the critical water delivery to E-Lo. The facility resembles a giant airplane hangar. When SoPole was built, the sally was our only storage garage. Nowadays the sally is most often a safe harbor for heavy equipment, lunar sleds, moonplanes, and anything portable that can’t be left out on the moon surface. When not in use, those things are kept in here to protect them from suffering the exterior’s extreme temperatures. Inside the sally, the temperature is still pretty cold — a constant thirty-six degrees — Just temperate enough to keep equipment from freezing up. The sally is also the place, as the name implies, where we gather to execute strategies, plan tactics, and prepare for exterior excursions. Today is one of those planning and prep days. Much like in a theatre of war, all minds are on the task at hand and all hands are in full strategic motion. Cronauer arrives as the first of the four volunteer team members. “Where can I put this stuff?” He asks. “Check your bags through at the boarding gate. First, I need to see your badge.” The guard is stoic. Cronauer slides his backpack strap aside and scans his ID. “I have you checked-in, sir.” The guard motions to the left. “Please, wait for the rest of your team over there. You’ll all be boarded at the same time. Stay on the ready. We’ll be opening the outside sally door in less than twenty minutes. That means everybody gets out of this room in fifteen.” For the first time, Cronauer is able to pan a view of his new truck and its giant water tank load. It’s enormous. The truck itself, with its two-story living quarters and conjoined road equipment, is more than forty feet long, sixteen feet wide, and fourteen feet tall. Andy can’t resist snapping a selfie in front of the monstrosity. Within seconds he gets a voice message from AIRI. “I’m sorry Lieutenant Cronauer, but no photos of the equipment are allowed. Violations can merit strong censure. Your most recent image has been removed from all systems. Please refrain from taking photographs anywhere inside the sally facility, as well, sir. Thank you for your cooperation.” “Sorry, AIRI. I wasn’t thinking.” “Relax, breath, and begin thinking now, sir.” AIRI often attempts humor but is rarely actually funny.  “Have a safe trip Lieutenant.” “By the way, AIRI. You see all and know all. What the hell happened to the SoPole Drillers last night? How could they tank in game six? How does that make sense? Now the season’s over and we’ve ended our five-year championship streak? I’m gone for one game to prep for this trip and the entire team falls apart. How is that?” “I understand your frustration, Lt. Cronauer. Your substitute was clearly not as good as you are at being the team mascot. When you wear that drilling rig costume, SoPole always wins. I’m sorry you lost your bet, sir.” “You’re sorry. I had twenty snack rations on the line. Now I’ll be sucking on moon rock for the next few weeks just to keep saliva in my mouth.” “Once again, I offer my condolences, sir. Perhaps you’ll have better luck when the Pro-Bowl game is played in two weeks. For what it’s worth, sir, if I too received snack rations of my own, I would give some to you. Personally, I never eat them, though. They stick in my teeth.” AIRI laughs a mechanical laugh, “Ha, ha.”    


Chapter 2: Havin’ a Baby  

— ☽ — Leaving SoPole 

“Try not to have a baby, but we’re going to be making two stops while we’re enroute to and from E-Lo. Going up, we’ll make a pit-stop at the body parts farm to make a drop-off and fuel-up.” Taylor North, LISA SoPole transport driver, originally from Madison, WI is 29 years old and as petulant as a dog fevered with distemper. People who’ve worked with him say he’s articulate but mostly wrong about most things. “Then coming back, we need to stop at the Russian Project. They have some spare parts for our Mark-Miner. This trip just keeps getting longer and longer.” Recalcitrant in the face of authority and petty as a troll, Taylor shrugs in disgust. “Wow, I’ve heard about the body parts farm, but I never thought I’d actually go there.” Brody was five minutes late for boarding the rig and Taylor is none too pleased to meet her. “Little lady,” he says, “Don’t expect to see much. We’ll be in-and-out in about an hour. If you get off there and fail to return on time, I’ll leave you there to find your own way home.” He revs his tractor engines to climb the first big hill out of So-Pole. “Understood, sir.” Brody shouts over the engine whir and then aside to Crony says, “Nice guy!” “And you two,” looking directly at Brody and Crony, Taylor smirks, “I heard you’re pushing for a ‘Paternity Permit.’ If I need to separate you guys, I’ll pinch your tender bits in the vice and then park one of you in the engine compartment. Are we all clear on who the boss is here?” “Yes sir,” they chime in unison. Human body parts have been engineered and re-engineered on Earth for some time, but the Lunar Cadaver Reclamation Depot (LCRD), commonly known as the ‘Body-Parts Farm’ is relatively new on the moon. It was built about a year ago to accommodate the regrowth of human organs and the disposal of the remains of individuals who die up here. When you sign-on to live on the moon, you donate your body to science. No one is buried here and cremation is no longer allowed. The main reason for that is to prevent contamination of the lunar environment. The secondary reason is that the lack of gravity and persistent solar wind radiation here on the moon seems to make the reclaimed body parts grow faster than they do on earth. The farm actually makes a lot of money for moon exploration, selling hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers, even skin tissue. Each part is grown genetic-specific for its new, spectacularly wealthy recipient on Earth. An individual’s DNA is used to re-generate the cell structure which prevents a person from rejecting the transplant(s). On another note, The Russian Project is only fifty miles from So-Pole. They have an automated regolith mining machine that’s identical to the one So-Pole uses for harvesting Helium-3, the most valued thing on the moon right now. Helium-3 (3He) is a vital fuel used for making electricity by nuclear power plants. The fuel is clean, produces ten times the power, and has far less nuclear waste than old-school uranium. As a bonus, the refining process also produces hydrogen and water. Taylor bounces in his seat, as he manipulates the tractor controls. The truck doesn’t bounce, just Taylor. He enjoys glaring through the windshield and doesn’t divert his eyes as he yells to his three companions, “It’s gonna be a rough ride. Get used to it. No one has ever hauled a load this monstrous on this road before.” Turning her back, Brody whispers to Crone, “You don’t think he would try to block our paternity application?” “I don’t know, Telia. He doesn’t seem to like people. So, I’d bet he hates kids.” Crony moves his index finger to his lips. Brody nods, but her expression says, “What did we get into?” Taylor’s co-driver is Vimana Siva (pronounced Shiva) who is equal in rank and tenure to Taylor. She’s said nothing to this point, but now injects, “Hi, I’m Siva.” She is immediately suppressed by Taylor, “She’s second fiddle around here.” To an observer, it seems there is little doubt as to why Siva rarely speaks. From New Deli, India, she’s twenty-seven and has been on the moon since she was twenty-four years old. Taylor’s intimidating demeanor has her speechless and showing no emotion whatsoever in her composure. Regarding procreation on the moon, marriage is not allowed by regulation. The law prohibiting it was put into place because of conflict that arose in the past between couples and co-workers. It was deemed more important to be able to work together than to start a family. On the other hand, giving birth on the moon is encouraged, which some say is a conflict in itself. The thought process is to encourage moon-born children. They seem to adjust to the harsh life here better than people brought from earth. To date, seven children have been born to moon mothers. The first delivered twenty-one years ago, is officially being raised by a British couple, but they rarely see each other. Poked and prodded, stressed and tested for years, more research has been done on that one child alone than all other people combined, either here on the moon or on Earth. Brody and Crony submitted a second Paternity Application to authorities over six months ago. They were denied a permit for natural conception their first time around because their combined DNA was considered a risk for potential heart issues in the infant. Their new application is for in vitro fertilization using a new method for excluding offensive genetic code from the embryo. While on the road, the high-pitched drone of the truck motors is something a new passenger has to acclimate to. It’s produced by the electric generators, one for each of the wheel hubs, for a total of eight. One other is for interior environmental systems and a tenth generator, usually off-line, is a backup. When under stress, the shrill motors can propagate the tractor’s strain through the frame to human ears. Ultimately, the piercing pitch boroughs deep into the brain where uncontrollable grinding of teeth can begin to breed unadulterated headaches and utter discontent. Climbing this first hill from base produces a noise similar to a dozen dental drills inside your mouth all at one time. It sounds like we should be doing eighty miles-an-hour, but at our current pace, we’ll take a full hour to finally top the twelve-hundred-foot rise surrounding our mining camp. Shouting into the windshield again, Taylor tells Siva to, “Introduce Miss Telia to the kitchen.” He seductively repeats the name, “Tee-lee-yah” while continuing to ride his imaginary steed into the sun. “Cronauer, have a seat. It’s time you learn how to cowboy this crate. It’s a man’s job, but you look like you might be able to wrangle a pissed-off bull from inside a barrel.” Before Crony can be seated at the co-pilot console, a groan slows the shrill of the motors. Then a snap erupts from the load, reverberating through the truck body, powerful enough to be heard and felt by everyone on board. The truck loses momentum but continues to strain uphill toward daylight. “Siva, take the console. Cronauer and I have some outdoor weirdness to investigate. Keep that camera on it and watch our progress.” Siva takes the co-pilot chair rather than the captain’s seat where she becomes affixed to a monitor showing a broken load strap. AIRI speaks reassuringly, “Backup generation is now engaged. —Forward progress is less than optimal for a nine-percent grade. —Ambient temperature is rising on port-side trailer braking system number three.” Brody asks, “We’re going to stop?” Taylor replies, “Oh, hell no. If we stop on this hill, we’ll never be able to start rolling again. Our wheels would just spin up a cloud of crap. You don’t want to end up walking home, do you?” “So, we’re going outside while still driving up the road?” Cronauer’s face reveals surprise and secret angst. “Yup. Why not? You’re a big boy. You volunteered for this. Suit up.” Mom-like, Siva leans into Cronauer and whispers, “Watch yourself out there!” 

— ☽ — SoPole Rim 

With eight-foot-tall wheels and tracks the axles of the truck center at four feet above the ground. Hanging upside down from the catwalk just under the axels Cronauer comments, “This is a new perspective.” “No, that’s a hydraulics system housing.” Taylor inches along the catwalk ahead of Crony. Their pressure suits barely clear the road as the truck continues its trek northward. When you consider that the average walking speed for people on Earth is three to four miles per hour, the present uphill truck speed of 0.28 miles an hour is snail-like. Cronauer begins to relax inside his LEP. “In the truck, it felt like we were moving along at a pretty fast pace. Out here, it seems like we’re barely creeping along.” “I can see our problem here.” Taylor ignores Cronauer and negotiates the gap between the tractor and the trailer. Crony doesn’t see it coming when the broken load strap skips along the ground and sharply slaps his face screen. “Woe! What the…” “Watch out for that, grasshopper. You don’t want to damage anything. Breaking your face is not a problem, but the truck or the load would be.” Maneuvering to see, Cronauer confirms that one of the water-tank load straps has snapped and is partially wrapped around a trailer brake and is beginning to smoke. Not only is the strap producing drag, but it also has the potential of heat-damaging the wheel hub and brake pads. Not to mention that the load now has one less restraint to prevent it from shifting out of alignment while it’s towed behind the crawler. Taylor is already knifing through the strap between the trailer and the axel. “What do you want from me?” Cronauer volunteers. “You can trim that trailing tail-end off so it doesn’t bull-whip you in the face again.” Crony’s attention is briefly diverted to the horizon. He can see light emerging from above the crater rim. It looks almost like a polar aurora on Earth when it shimmers and reflects across the limited landscape. Technically, the moon does have an atmosphere that gets ionized by the sun. So, whether by ionic or fluorescent emission, the moon’s atmosphere does glow. Unless one wants to argue about the fact that the glow is not being restricted to the poles by a magnetic field; airglow kind of counts as an aurora. Our moon certainly does have an atmosphere consisting of some unusual gases, including sodium and potassium, which are not found in the atmospheres of Earth, Mars or Venus. It’s an infinitesimal amount of air, though, when compared to Earth’s atmosphere. At sea level on Earth, we breathe in an atmosphere where each cubic centimeter contains 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules; by comparison, the lunar atmosphere has less than a million molecules in the same volume. “Hey, we’re not here for sight-seeing. Get to work, chump.” Taylor again shows his glowing personality with a sharp remark. “I don’t want to spend any more than about thirty minutes out here on this.” It crosses Crony’s mind that it might be best to not comment as Siva might do, but he buries the thought and remarks, “Everything out here is glowing. We’re gonna need sun shades soon.” “Yeah, we’ll be able to see things, but your suit can melt to your skin if you stay out here too long. That pretty, glowing light is scary hot. It’s not for wispy boys.” Through careful manipulation of the torn load strap and themselves, Crony and Taylor struggle with how the strap is wound around the axel and brake housing. With some tussle and much tenacity, they finally free the binding and the tattered pieces of nylon float to the ground. “Now we need to put on some new belts. I think we need three to replace that one. That should give us a better grip on the load and less chance to snap another one.” Taylor flips himself around to punch in an access code to a compartment on the underside of the trailer. “Hey, did I tell you; I brought a gun?” “You brought a gun to the moon?” Crony gets wide-eyed. “Yeah, you didn’t?” Taylor smirks. From the lock-box, Taylor produces what looks like a rifle with a 24” round ammunition clip attached to it. “I’ll shoot ‘em, you catch ‘em, alright?” “Sure thing, just don’t hit me.” Crony relaxes some. “I’ll see what I can do, but you may want to stay to the side and not directly in front of it. They can jump around and the metal hook on the end wields a pretty sharp smack if it hits you.” Taylor attempts to reassure Crony, “I’m a pretty good shot with a gun.” He adjusts the mechanism for trajectory. Cronauer’s puzzled expression is shielded from Taylor by a glare bouncing from his face shield. In the limited air, the gun actually makes no sound, but from the recoil of Taylor’s shoulder, the gun might be likened to a compressed-air potato gun on Earth, which would normally be fairly loud. And when the metal hook on the end of the new strap encircles the water tank above, it actually dents the trailer undercarriage right next to Crony’s leg. Although silent, the straps move so fast that when they come around the load you can literally feel the sound they would make in thicker air by the tensioning of the load and a sonic reverberation through the frame of the rig. A jet of air on the side of each hook causes the unleased belt to arch over the load instead of shooting out in a straight line when each strap reaches its full length. Crony gathers each binding in sequence and hooks it into the trailer’s load tiedown rail. Taylor then inverts the same air gun, to ratchet the straps taught. When the men finish the strap replacement and maneuver to return to the crawler, Cronauer brushes his shoulder on a large cylinder attached to the truck undercarriage. A brown substance is left on his suit. “What’s this?” “Oh, that’s not good.” Taylor rubs his finger on the seal around the cylinder opening. “That’s the morgue. It’s not supposed to be thawing.” A close inspection of the unit shows the coolant supply line has been damaged. “That broken strap must have ricocheted off the ammonia line.” “There’s a body in there?” Crony asks. “If you can call it that. Mostly, it’s just bones and ooze. That was a guy who died this week at the mining sight when his suit lost pressure.” Taylor remarks, “When he apparently tore a hole in his sleeve, most of him got squeezed out like toothpaste from a tube.” “Yuck. Have we got another coolant line?” “Nope, and when things really heat up out here the rest of him is going to dry-up like jerky. He’ll be useless at the body farm.” “What could he be used for anyway?” “They can process the bone marrow and get some stem cells or something from that … Usually! … Not after today, though. Damnit man, what a mess … Let’s get inside before we stew, too.” 

— ☽ — Back Insite the Crawler 

Removing his helmet, Taylor gasps air, “We slew the dragon, winches, what’s for dinner? Got beer?” Crony states the obvious, “The truck engines have resumed their annoying whining noise.” “And that’s a good thing!” Taylor always needs to get the last word in. You can see in Crony’s face how Taylor’s demeanor is already beginning to irritate almost as much as the engine noise. Brody catches Crony’s eye and sweetly adds, “Why, yes, we do have some beer. You want one now or after our ‘Savory Shrimp and Linguini’ goodness?” “Wow, shrimp. That sure beats what they serve at our local KenTaco Wing Hut every day. I can dig it.” “I’ll take the beer.” Taylor has not observed or simply chooses to ignore any of the private glances or thoughts of his cohorts. The uneasy conversation from the crew is abruptly and thankfully interrupted by the sun spectacularly cracking over the horizon. Flashing, radiant rays of light stab and shimmer through the cabin. The glow illuminates thousands of tiny particles of dust floating in the air inside and rapidly spreads across the lunar landscape outside. “Oh my God. I haven’t seen the sun in months. I forgot how bright it gets.” Brody is stricken still. “It’s magnificent.” Siva is soft-spoken. The truck slowly tops the hill and the crew can see clearly the 2.43-kilometer (1.5 miles) distance to the horizon. Perhaps ‘see clearly’ is not descriptive enough. From this vantage point, you can grasp how small the moon is. The curvature of the horizon is obvious, but the clarity is mesmerizing. Nothing on earth compares … not distilled water, not Antarctic air on mountain peaks, nothing we know in the world is so visually unobstructed. The only thing glistening in the outside air is stirred from the regolith by our rolling wheels. Unreasonably, that tiny microscopic silt infiltrates everything, including the crawler’s sealed and pressurized cabin somehow. Siva rises from her co-pilot seat to move into the galley area, “AIRI has the helm, sir.” AIRI states, “I’m returning generator number ten to stand-by mode. I’m also reducing our forward speed to prepare for the upcoming downhill run. Hold on while I perform a quick brake check.” AIRI pauses while the systems catch up with her. “All braking systems have been verified. Temperatures are optimal.” AIRI continues, “Brace for a cabin attitude change. We have begun to migrate from a nine-percent uphill climb to a six-percent downhill pitch. Expect some roll to the starboard side as well, as the road ahead turns left approximately thirty degrees. —Lunar satellite positioning indicates that we are well within our trip plan for travel-time estimates, in spite of losing ground from brake drag. —All repairs to the load locks and braking systems are confirmed.” AIRI beeps, “Additional satellite imagery indicates that we will intercept a moderately thin meteor shower in one mile.” “Terrific, that gives us about five hours to chill out. Let’s take a break and play a game or something.” Taylor twists his near-weightless body to propel himself into the galley, motioning the others to follow. “Anybody got poker money … No?” He laughs. “Hell, we can always play strip poker. What do you say; let’s get REAL acquainted.” “How ‘bout super glue? Did anybody bring super glue? I want to be sure my codpiece stays in place.” “Ugh.” Siva, for the first time, shows some emotion as disgust slowly closes her eyes. “I’m kidding, Siva.” Taylor winks. “Everybody wants to see that, but I’m saving it for my betrothed—when I find one!” The bubble-shaped kitchen/communal area is surrounded by bunks for sleeping and a variety of built-in gadgets. For daily food preparation, the galley contains a laser oven to cook frozen meats and bake things like pie, and a vacuum-assisted toaster that can fill the room with the sweet smell of breakfast waffles or pop-tarts, just like back home, but without any of the messy crumbs. “Let’s play Two Truths and a Lie.” Siva begins to open up a bit. “Again?” Taylor complains. “We haven’t learned much from Ms. Telia and the Lieutenant yet.” “Yeah, that’s a good team-building exercise.” Brody heartily agrees with Siva’s suggestion, shrugging-off Taylor’s previous remarks. “You in, Andy?” “I guess so.” Cronauer settles to a bench at the central table. “If that’s what you guys want to do.” Taylor unzips the spout of a beer-pack and puts it to his lips. “I can start.” Siva is becoming more comfortable and less introverted. That’s something Brody and Cronauer find surprising. Crony catches Brody’s eye as if to say, “Do we really want to do this?” “Guess which statement is the lie.” Siva begins.  “I’ll bet I can.” AIRI injects. “You can’t play, AIRI.” “Aw, I’m good at this.” Siva seats herself with a posed posture, straight and solid like she’s swearing-in for a jury trial. She lifts her chin and states, “I was nine when I learned to swim. It was in a river and with over a dozen crocodiles that were up to eight feet long.” “Second, I have two small children in New Delhi that live with my parents. A boy and a girl, they are three and five years old.” Siva continues to her third statement, “I live on the moon to be close to the universe. I find peace in the chaos.” “Now, Brody, may I call you Telia?” “Of course, that’s me. Telia, or just T.” “Thank you,” Siva gestures hello, “You guess my lie, first.”  “Okay, hmmm.” Brody inhales. “You did not swim with the crocs.” “Lieutenant?” “I’m gonna say you did not move here to peace out. Number three is the lie.” Siva addresses Taylor, “Captain, do you know this one?” “Yup, I know you would never leave your kids if you had any.” “That’s correct, sir. I lied about having children. I could never leave my responsibilities to someone else. Besides, both of my parents passed when I was young.” “Oh, you got me and T. That was pretty good.” Cronauer grins and jabs Telia on the shoulder. “Oh, no you didn’t. You swam with crocodiles?” “Yes, Miss T. I sure did, and so did my four younger brothers.” “You’re the oldest?” “No, I am the third of seven. I have two older brothers, as well. I am the only girl, in a pool of testosterone. Crocodiles are nothing to me.” Telia persists, “Oh that is just whack, to me.” “Captain, would you like to go next?” “Ok, let’s get this done.” Taylor’s testiness again shows as he runs three sentences together. “I like burgers and fries better than shrimp linguini in whatever that stuff is they call ‘lobster bisque’ … I fly jumbo-jets … and I never been naked with a girl in a cardboard box.” AIRI interjects, “Shall we all state the obvious?” “You never flew a jet.” Brody smiles with confidence in her answer. “I agree, you were more than likely, earthbound until you made the trip up here.” Crony holds a game face. Siva concurs by nodding her head. “Ok, you got me. I’m your basic couch potato with a boner. So now, let’s laugh a little at our honored volunteer guests … Cronauer, what’s your story.” AIRI, almost snarkily, comments, “You could at least try to surprise us sometimes, Captain Taylor. Sir.” “Yeah, I guess that WAS pretty obvious. Heck, I even fry bacon naked … Common Crony, scoop us.” “Alright, I had reservations about this.” As Cronauer begins, he, like Siva, arches his back and applies his best poker face. “I’ve slept at least one night, in forty-six of the forty-eight contiguous United States.” “I’ve had dinner with the Governor of Massachusetts and his wife.” “And, I’ve paddled a canoe through the original Panama Canal alongside jellyfish the size of manhole covers.” “Oh sure, you’re all lies.” Taylor laughs, “You’ve never done any of that stuff. Next.” Taylor leers at T, “Tee-lee-yah, tell us about yourself.” “Hey, Taylor, don’t talk to her like that.” Cronauer guards the tone of his own words so as to not sound offensive. “What way?” Taylor barks, “That’s her name, isn’t it?” “Have some respect. Don’t sound disrespectful. She deserves respect.” Crony insists. “We haven’t heard Cronauer’s truths yet.” AIRI interrupts the exchange before it can become heated. “So, what, you never had dinner with the Governor?” Taylor is annoyed. “I’ll say you did not sleep in forty-six states. It would take several years to travel that much of the country.” Siva remains on point. “I know you like to hike and motorbike, I think you probably did do some canoeing in your time. And I know you went to MIT, so I’ll say the Governor visited your school or something. Besides, you never sleep. You never saw that many states, right?” Brody smiles confidently. “You’re all wrong. I had dinner with my entire graduating class, the Governor, and about fifty state security agents.” “I did sleep in that many states. After school, I drove a produce transport truck interstate and saw everything but Maine and Vermont.” “As far as the Panama Canal is concerned, the closest I’ve ever been to Panama is Cancun, Mexico.” “Woe, how long did you drive a truck?” Brody asks. “About four years, before I entered the LISA Program. I thought I could use some hands-on experience with technical mechanics. The trucks they use these days are self-driving and pretty much autonomous. I was really just there for emergencies and security for our shippers. Consequently, I got lots of sleep. It was a good education, though. I learned a lot from a lot of different people, on the road.” “Were there ever any emergencies?” Taylor questions. “My reefer unit stopped working in the Nevada desert, fifty miles from town in one-hundred-eight-degree temperatures. The fuel pump lost its prime. I just had to pump it up. I saved a forty-eight-foot trailer-load of cantaloupes from spoiling, though. They were headed from the California valley to Hunts Point in South Bronx, New York. You can learn a lot about different cultures from place-to-place on a trip like that. I’m really glad I did it.” “I’m constantly learning something new about you, Crone.” Brody smiles at her outspoken defensive tackle. “Okay, I’ll go last.” Sitting upright and leveling her head Brody cringes as if she is about to unveil herself and expose some deep dark secret. “I’m pretty sure my new boots are shrinking, or my feet are getting bigger.” “I love apple cider and pickled okra.” “My favorite old classic movie is LOVE STORY.” “Please, that’s too easy.” Taylor exclaims, “Your feet are getting bigger. It happens. And you’re a romantic. You loooove love.” Siva asks, “What is pickled okra?” “It’s a southern delight. Served cold, it has a deli pickle snap and an internal texture like raw oysters … kind of slimy, but so delicious. I could eat my weight in pickled okra.” “I knew it,” Cronauer begins, “you hate sad stories and old movies. You like contemporary action films.” “Yeah, the more weapons, martial arts, and blowing stuff up, the better, for me.” “What size shoe do you wear, T?” Telia leans into Siva so the guys don’t hear, “a six and a half.” “I have some spare eights if you want to give them a try,” Siva whispers understandingly. “It took me three months to get comfortable in my boots.” 

— ☽ — ELO Command 

“Keep this between us, doc. We have to report this to LISA, but we don’t want to create panic among the ranks with what your autopsy discovered. ““Buffalo Bo was a good tech engineer, a great guy, why would anyone want to kill him?” ELO Chief, William (Bill) Rift moderates his tone, “AIRI, get Major Wilson on the line, please.” AIRI responds, “Calling LISA Command Center, Major Walter Wilson.” The connection is almost instantaneous, “Wilson here.” “Colonel Bill here, sir. We’ve got a situation here that the Doc wants to talk to you about. I think it’s important, sir.” “Doc Watson, what’s on your feeble mind, old man?” “Bo Stanchion wasn’t killed by an external puncture to his suit, sir. The suit was punctured from the inside.” “What? How does that happen, Doc?” “There was a thumbtack inside his glove.” “What? Surely he didn’t put that in there himself?” “We agree, sir. I think he was intentionally sabotaged.” “You think he was murdered?” “Yes sir, I’m reporting it as a homicide.” Wilson pauses to wipe his face. “You have to be kidding me.” “No sir, this is no joke and we’re not sure how to manage how or when the information should be disseminated to the rest of the crew.” Wilson responds sharply to the development, “You don’t tell anyone. Keep this under your hat … Doc, don’t sign anything yet. Colonel Rift, keep this quiet, at least until I can run it up the flagpole and get a recommendation back from Washington. I’ll have to talk with the big boys about this one.” Chief Bill points a finger to his right temple as if to shoot himself in the head. “Yes, sir.” “This is completely unfounded. Did Stanchion have any enemies?” “Not that we’re aware of, sir.” Bill adds, “He was a model tech, sir.” “I’ll get back to you. Stand-by and keep this zipped-up tight.” “Will do.” Before disconnecting, Doc questions, “Should we freeze him yet, sir?” “Not yet, not fully. LISA Central may want some further tests. Put him on ice, but don’t do anything else until you hear back from me. AIRI inserts, “Call disconnected.” 

— ☽ — Inside the Crawler 

AIRI announces, “A moderate meteor shower will begin in one minute at approximately one-thousand yards to the north northeast. —I’m applying windscreen tinting to accommodate views from all cabin windows. —Exterior shields are up and all exposed panels are now being retracted. Some communications links may be shadowed for the next thirty-five minutes. —I do not anticipate any delay to forward progress.” Of course, when it is dark outside, meteors are much more vivid against the black sky, but even here now, in the glowing daylight, the little jets of smoke striking the ground are spectacular. When they hit, so rapidly, the regolith explodes around them in a brilliant, reflective cloud of dust that lingers in the air like a film that’s suddenly switched into slow motion. One can’t help but take pause as they pound into the ground with little rhyme or reason. Just as they have for billions of centuries. Meteor showers here are much like rain showers back home. Meteors here, rain there … each feels purposeful and majestic. Radiant beauty is always inspiring. Like the old adage, “there is nothing new under the sun,” the only thing new on the moon is us. We are the invaders from Earth. The citizens of the moon, here to set things right—right? At least that’s what we’re taught to believe in school. Naturally, the meteors, like the rain, just don’t care what we think. 

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