Well, today is the last day of digging through my archives to find old stories to present to you. Mostly because I’m out of old stories to present to you. Any further fiction experiments presented will be new stuff, first seen by you, oh helpful and persistent readers. Thanks to all for coming by and providing feedback.
This one is also from the ’04 period, and this is again what I originally called a “prologue”. There’s more of it, but I’m not sure how much because I haven’t read through it. The usual disclaimer about being a first draft applies; so does the request for anything you’ve got to help it get better. Thank you all for playing along, and thanks so much for spending so much time with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.
The foreman watched through the mirrored, shielded faceplate while the crate was slowly lowered from the boom. It swung easily in the light gravity, not pulling into a pendulum swing as it might have in regular gravity. The sealed crate was contained completely, and there were no seams visible from his vantage point. Not that it mattered, but it was still nice to know that a standard crowbar wouldn’t pry open the package. On the bottom of the crate, the tiny multi-wheeled rolling loader was waiting.
The boom lowered quickly, and a cloud of dust exploded away from the platform upon which the putty gray container sat when it touched the surface. White-gray plumes of eons old powdery matter skittered away as if in slow motion from the underside of the lift, then settled quickly in the absence of atmosphere. The men moved about clumsily in their bulky pressure suits, and while great strides had been made to make the work easier, technology still limited them to the heavy materials required to contain the life-sustaining atmosphere and pressure.
Above them, the black sky seemed empty. Despite lacking interference from air, the stars were eclipsed by the reflection from the surface itself. As the crews worked in the cold vacuum, it was like nothing in the heavens could see them. The foreman considered that this fact was probably a good thing. Nothing in the heavens should see them. Perhaps that was for the best.
The crew was small, only four men. The crate was manageable in the fractional gravity, and that was a good thing. All the months of preparation ahead of time had made this mission an easy one, and it was going perfectly. That actually surprised the foreman somewhat, considering what was in the crate. If it was actually what the world’s leaders feared it was, then he expected more … opposition. But there it was, ready to be vaulted, and the entire thing was going off without a hitch. He shook his head in the helmet incredulously. Shouldn’t that in itself be proof that it wasn’t what they all said it was?
Well, he was no one to question authority. A conglomerate of private investors, the same ones that funded the emergency launch to carry out this mission as well as all the preparatory missions in the previous two years, was handsomely compensating him. And that was all he cared about; the rest was for the eggheads to work though.
The men were ready to load the crate into the vault. For some reason he couldn’t understand, he licked his lips nervously.
“All right,” he spoke over the intercom in his helmet, “it’s ready to move into the vault.”
“Activating rover,” came the reply.
One of the crewmen moved forward with a huge, glimmering and flashing remote control in his thickly gloved hands. He activated the levers with his thumbs, and the wheels on the rolling platform moved and scurried over the dusty landscape. Plumes of gray kicked out from beneath the bulky all-terrain tires as it rolled over rocks and small hills, moving toward the mountainside just ahead of them.
He glanced skyward again, and then shook his head to get himself back in the game. “Prepare to seal the vault after it moves in.”
The other crewmen were silent, watching as the rover passed them and moved into a doorway. It was barely large enough to allow the clearance of the crate and the rover, which would never see the light of day again. One of the crewmembers stepped around the rover as it passed, and moved to the right of the entrance. It was a huge, heavy door, nearly three feet thick, circular and with an electronic lock that blinked a green light and red digits in the gray-and-black gloom and stillness.
The rover moved into the cave, and the tires began to hop and bounce more aggressively over the rough surface of the cavern. A threshold, a band of thick metal that held the gargantuan hinges in place, lined the opening. The rover slowly receded into the blackness of that opening as if being swallowed by a maw, and as the last vestiges of sunlight slipped from the rover’s rear, the crewman beside the door began punching in a sequence of commands on the keypad beside the door.
The door would have hissed on its servos, but the silence was deafening as the door slowly began to swing closed.
The foreman tried to wipe his brow with this arm, but the helmet was between them. Then, and only then, he realized he was sweating. Whether from tension or from fear, he could not, and would not, determine.
The door inched along the hinges, closer and closer to its final resting place. The sliver of light beyond the opening was getting smaller and smaller, moving so slowly, and the foreman was staring wide-eyed and on pins and needles. Irritated with himself, he forced an exhale through his nostrils.
All of them stared at the door as it finally seated itself. There was a flashing of the display lights, and the crewman beside the door frantically began to mash the keypad again. In a moment, the green light blinked twice and then went amber. Another split second passed and it turned red.
“Door sealed!” the crewman cried, unintentionally jubilant. “It’s sealed!”
The crew let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Okay, disable the rover,” the foreman said hurriedly.
The crewman with the remote pushed a sequence of buttons on the face of the unit, and then held up his hands in triumph. “Rover disabled! We’re clear!”
Another excited and relieved breath ran through the crew.
“All right, let’s go home and get the hell out of here,” the foreman said, finally relaxing. He wasn’t sure why he was tense to begin with, but he was glad the mission was completed.
They began to back away from the sealed, cold metal door in the mountainside, and then they turned toward the waiting landing module. The foreman noticed they were hurrying a bit.
Three and a half more days and they’d be back home. This was over, finally over.
The time window was tight, but they were able to get back to the module and initiate the launch sequence in time. The orbital module would meet them on time, and then it was a matter of hours before the departure window was available. The crew scrambled, going through their respective roles as quickly as possible. They barked their read-outs to one another, gathering the information they needed to get the launch in motion.
The chronometer ticked steadily, counting down the moments until they could fire the engines. They began to count down, the pilot ready to fly the module into orbit. The commander was licking his lips, strapped securely to the module’s seat, watching his instruments carefully. The other crew members watched intensely, sweating again.
The countdown commenced.
The pilot depressed the ignition switch and the ship rumbled and shook with the force of the fires raging below them. They watched intently as the instruments started to indicate lift off.
“We have dust off,” the pilot said into the intercom mouthpiece. “We’re away!”
The mission commander shut his eyes in relief.
“Gaining altitude, sir … one hundred meters … three hundred … five hundred …” a voice droned.
Come on, come on, get up, baby, the commander thought, knuckles white on the arms of the chair.
“… One kilometer … two … five … gaining speed.”
The craft moved upward, rising out of the weak gravity and toward orbit. The second stage of the escape was complete. Stage three went much more smoothly, the crew finally relaxing, though none of them could say what it was they were tense about. Docking with the orbital module was flawless, and six hours after they docked, they were ready to leave orbit.
“Okay, gentlemen, we have one more sequence to get us out of here and we’ll be home before you know it,” the commander smiled.
“None too soon, either,” whispered the pilot.
They nodded silent agreement, but no one spoke. They would have a five-minute burn before breaking into escape velocity. Once around the satellite, and they would be bound for home again.
The ship rounded on schedule, sling shotting with the assistance of the feeble gravity and gaining speed as it broke orbit and finally started on its final path homeward.
The commander felt the tension finally leaving him as the huge disc of the lunar landscape receded behind them at last. Earth was never so beautiful as it was that moment, and it was looming larger in their view ports.
“Final escape achieved,” the pilot said softly into the intercom. “We are homeward bound, gentlemen.”
The silence was destroyed by the thundering crash of whoops and yells of jubilation.
The commander smiled at last. “We’re going home, boys.”
“Glad this one’s behind us, sir,” one of the crewmen said happily.
The rest of the journey went uneventfully. The commander and his crew made it back to Earth orbit safely and without incident. When they contacted mission control at Houston, however, they received no answer. Confused and concerned, they were rapidly descending and needed to establish contact with mission control. Trying again frantically, they called out, trying to decide whether to remain in orbit or to go ahead with the unconfirmed landing plan.
They never saw the rapidly approaching shuttle Avenger, specially designed for this mission, and unmanned. It came up on them unannounced, automatically launching the projectile that blew them into billions of pieces as they passed at thousands of miles per hour. The shards spread out over the upper atmosphere, and burned up as they spun down in unrecognizable fragments. The explosive at the head of the projectile was specifically designed to make sure no remains would survive the re-entry process. The avenger reported the planned contact with a meteor of insignificant size and that the project “Protective Shield” had gone exactly as planned.
The mission was a complete success, and no one on Earth except those that executed it ever knew it occurred.
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