MOON MAN 13 By Brenda Kalt

Moon Man 13

By Brenda Kalt


In his thirty-ninth sleepless hour on the Moon, Carlo Bonifacio shoved the last collection bag into place in the lander and felt the headache behind his eyes sharpen. The European Space Agency, in its low-budget return to the Moon, had sent one astronaut armed with stimulants to keep him awake while his suited monkey hands scraped and chipped and scooped better than any machine. But an astronaut got tired.

Carlo looked out the lander’s hatch at the lunar landscape, but his vision blurred. He cursed silently, squeezed his eyes shut, and opened them again. No change. Call Mission Control. “Kourou, my vision is blurry.”

Pause. “Take another stimulant.”

The one-second communications delay made every utterance of Mission Control seem measured and grave. Carlo sucked the tube in his helmet and blinked. This time his vision cleared, and the headache subsided.

“Kourou, requesting permission to return to the surface.”

Pause. “Negative. You have liftoff in fifty-eight minutes.”

“I only need a few—”

A roar erupted in his helmet.

“Kourou, what’s causing the static?”

“Unknown. We’re checking. Start jettisoning the surplus.”

The last two words were barely audible. Carlo bent over to separate what was going from what was staying.

As he tossed each piece of equipment onto the surface, his soul went with it. Carlo had fought his way through the ESA’s astronaut training to explore the Moon, but the only treks he had made were to preplanned destinations for collecting samples. Now there was time to look around; he just had to convince Mission Control.

Another burst of static came through his helmet, followed by, “Astronaut Bonifacio, can you hear us?”

He jerked upright. “Kourou, what is this?”

“This is Fotini Maksimowitz with the International News Network. How does it feel to be the first man to return to the Moon?”

He cursed in Italian, then switched back to English. “Kourou, the channel’s been hacked.”

The reply came faintly and was drowned by the new voice. “Astronaut Bonifacio, tell your followers on the Internet what you enjoyed most about your exploration.”

“Nothing. I haven’t done any exploration. I just collected samples. Kourou, I’m switching to backup.”

Kourou responded. “Backup frequency locked.” This time the voice was clear.

“How much time do we have before they hack this one?”

“Unknown. Keep jettisoning your excess.”

Carlo tossed hardware through the hatch and watched the equipment bounce on the surface. It would rest there forever, while he went back to Earth and endured celebrity. Let the politicians unify the European Union with pride in the mission; all he wanted was peace and quiet. By thirty minutes to liftoff, the only thing to jettison was the ladder itself.

“Kourou, I can jettison the ladder and get in the couch in ten minutes. I have twenty minutes to walk around.”

“Get in the couch now.”

The static returned, followed by, “Astronaut Bonifacio, can you give us one more look with your helmet cam?”

He stared at the moonscape through the hatch. Millions of people were seeing the Moon as he was—

“Kourou, I’m going to walk around for a few minutes.”

“Bony, this is not authorized. Stay inside and jettison the ladder.”

“I’m going to walk around on the Moon.” Carlo started down the ladder, feeling a twinge in his left shoulder. It must have happened when he threw the empty air tank.

“You’re irrational. When this dose of stimulant wears off, you’ll collapse. Jettison the ladder and get in the acceleration couch.”

“Kourou, I’ve got nineteen minutes to explore.” He stepped onto the surface.

This time the pause was followed by a new, shrill voice. “Explore, by God, you do not have spare time to explore. You will follow mission protocol.”

“Bony, that’s Director Horowitz.”

“Copy that.” Carlo wished he could rub his face with his hand. The stimulant was fading, and his headache was returning. He became aware of his heart’s pounding.

Carlo looked at the lander’s open hatch and started up the ladder, one slow step at a time. The Moon pulled at him like a tide, and he had difficulty holding onto the ladder with his left hand.

“Bony, that’s good.” Relief lifted the operator’s voice as the helmet cam broadcast his ascent.

He had never liked the nickname.

At the hatch entrance Carlo took another dose of stimulant, and the pain in his left arm turned to fire. Oh, God. Not now.

The pain blotted out everything for several seconds, but Carlo fought back. There were decisions to be made.

Carlo braced himself on the hatch and unhooked the ladder. He climbed down, the rungs shifting beneath him with each step and two voices shouting in his ears. When he reached the bottom, he pulled the ladder away from the hatch. It swayed over him for a moment and then fell to the surface, scattering dust and gravel in a moonstorm.

“Bony, you’re endangering the mission. Reattach the ladder and get inside.”

“No. Not now.”

“You’re delirious.”

Carlo shook his head, then grimaced as he realized the movement was invisible. “Look at my bio readouts. International News Network, are you there?”

After a moment the reply came. “We are. What are you—”

“Good.” He turned away from the lander and swung his head from side to side, giving his helmet cam a panorama.

“Bony, this is Kourou. You’re in danger, and the mission has to go on.”

“Kourou, the mission will go on. The bags are in the lander, and the system will close the hatch and initiate liftoff. You don’t need me any more.”

“Astronaut Bonifacio, what are you doing?”

Carlo took the deepest breath he could manage. “I’m going for a walk. I spent my life preparing to come to the Moon, and I’m going to see it. Really see it. You people on the Internet can come with me, as long as I last.”

He looked into the distance. Not too far—he didn’t want his last act on the moon to end in failure. A pair of boulders beyond his last sampling site looked promising.

“I have one more dose of stimulant, and I’ll take it when I can’t walk any more. If it works, I’ll keep walking. If it doesn’t, I’ll just sit down and look around. My arm hurts like hell, anyway. When my oxygen runs out, I’ll go to sleep.” Carlo straightened as much as he could and barely touched his tongue to the stimulant tube. “Enjoy the Moon with me.”

Slowly at first, then picking up speed, Carlo staggered toward the horizon.

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