This is the third part of my short story Echo in the Grey, published in 2017.
Echo in the Grey
© David Allan Hamilton
Fatigue set in as Sarangan prepared another run to the dome site. This time, he plugged the last full tank of air into his enviro-suit (leaving the remaining two to refill), exited the lab and loaded the portable excavator on the LunaScoota’s trailer. He did not have any goal other than to clear the dust and rock fragments surrounding the dome. No matter what this thing was, he reasoned, he’d send images of it to the TSA and, if he nuanced his report, perhaps he could perform any additional work by himself. No need for strangers to come. Perfect.
In the low-g lunar environment, the cylindrical excavator was easy to maneuvre. Back on Earth, the beast weighed close to 75 kg but on the Moon, it reminded Sarangan of the weight of a couple bags of fertilizer. He attached the wheeled tripod to its base, tilted it up and aimed it at the dome site like a spotlight.
Sarangan pulled the firing lever and the excavator sprang to life. Its collector began drawing in argon, helium and other gases from the Moon’s exosphere and manipulated them into a highly-charged plasma that acted as a giant blower. Within minutes, he was moving massive quantities of debris from the targeted structure. Knowing the dimensions of the dome and its location a few metres below the surface, Sarangan focused the excavator on the dome’s apex. He’d hoped to clear enough dust away to expose the entire structure before having to return to the lab. But as the excavation approached a depth of two metres, a massive moonquake suddenly erupted, like a warning, knocking the machine over and causing Sarangan to lose his footing. It continued rumbling across the surface, and Sarangan, concerned about the brittle crust breaking and swallowing him up, jumped as high as he could off the ground allowing the seismic waves to ripple underneath him. Each time he fell back to the surface, he immediately jumped again and in this way, he was able to avoid any potential danger. After several minutes, the quakes stopped as abruptly as they had begun.
The excavator had been tossed around in the waves like a rowboat in an ocean storm. When Sarangan retrieved it several metres from the dome site, he immediately saw the extensive damage on it. A large crack split the casing from one end of the cylinder to the other, revealing its servos and hyper-chamber, now full of dust. So much for that. But the larger question facing him was the origin of the quake itself. Moonquakes were not uncommon. He often recorded micro-seismic events at the lab from a variety of sources: asteroid impacts, gravitational pulls from other planets aligning, and so on. However, this was much larger than anything he’d ever encountered, suggesting the Moon’s interior was still active. But that was impossible. While pockets of water were known to exist within, they could not be responsible for a quake like this. Geologically, the moon was dead.
Sarangan hopped back to the dome site. The excavation was still there and he estimated he could dig the old fashioned way to the top of the dome in an hour or so, but he wanted to get back to the lab first, eat and recharge the LunaScoota’s batteries, and make sure he had all the air tanks filled.
He raced across the Moon’s surface towards the lab, the broken excavator hanging off the end of the trailer, and when he approached the lab, he knew something wasn’t right. A plume of gas rose above the side of the building where the massive oxygenators, scrubbers and water recyclers were located. Sarangan slowed down and found extensive damage to the entire Moonlab 2 site, undoubtedly caused by the quake. He hopped off the scooter, left it hovering, and entered the lab.
Inside, the computers and monitors were still operating. Several alarms were going off both on-screen and in the room itself, but Sarangan focused only on the one that read LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS CRITICAL. He pulled up the environmental data and saw that, indeed, the oxygenators were completely off-line, scrubbers were non-operational, and the amount of air left in the base would provide him with a few hours of life and nothing more. He decided not to remove his visor.
Sarangan slammed the emergency button on the comms panel and within seconds, the TSA security director in New Houston came online.
“What’s the problem, John?”
Sarangan walked through the control room, checking for damage as he spoke. “I’m in it deep, ma’am. Craziest thing. A moonquake apparently knocked out all life support systems. The oxygenators are off-line. Scrubbers destroyed. Integrity of the lab…” he checked the environmental parameters again, “appears to be stable.”
“Well that’s just it,” Sarangan said calmly. “I’ve got just under three hours of oxygen left before reserves are empty. I still have a few hours in the air tank I’m wearing now, and the other two tanks are partially filled. Not sure where they’re at.”
There was a moment of silence before the voice from Earth spoke again. “John, we’re dispatching an emergency ship to provide assistance. There’s a cargo vessel, the Echo, on its way back from Mars and it could be in orbit in…” Another pause. “In about 28 hours.”
“Do you have enough air to last that long?”
Sarangan checked the two reserve air tanks. One had just over an hour’s worth of air. The other had five hours. The refilling process had stopped as the automated emergency systems diverted all power to maintaining the now-useless oxygenators.
“I have maybe half that amount.” The calm in Sarangan’s voice belied the fear creeping up his spine. He was sweating profusely in his enviro-suit. The inside of his boots were soaked, and a memory of himself as a kid playing in rain puddles back home in Churchill flashed through his thoughts.
“John, we’re going to uplink into your systems and do everything we can to maximize life support from here. The Echo is on its way at full velocity and will achieve lunar orbit in 27 hours 14 minutes. You should detect it on your satellite surveillance network shortly, if that’s still working.”
“Thanks. Anything I can do at my end?”
“As much as possible, John, you need to control your breathing. No sense keeping your enviro-suit on and using up the air tank. That’ll be a last resort, okay?”
Sarangan raised his eyebrows. He did not remove his visor.
“We’ll do everything we can, John. New Houston out.”