Short - Long Shot

Short - Long Shot
Astronaut David Scott on slope of Hadley Delta during Apollo 15 EVA. From

Here's a fun one. I wrote it in 2008, and since The Martian came out in 2011, it wasn't an influence, but both stories have a bit in common. I also predicted the billionaire space race, but come on, who didn't? After you finish reading the story, you might enjoy this NASA article. Enjoy!

When NASA put the lunar station on "indefinite hold", I burst into my boss's office and resigned from my job as a flight engineer. He tried to assure me that the delay was temporary, but I'd been at NASA for too long. I knew they weren't going back to the moon unless something drastic happened. But there were plenty of internet billionaires who had grown up watching Star Wars. Billionaires who now dreamed of creating a lunar colony—nominally to exploit the resources, but really just to prove that humans could live off-planet.

I knew about their plans because they had all contacted me, trying to lure me away from NASA. At the time, I thought NASA was the best bet for returning to the moon, but if they weren't going to try, I'd cast my chips in with the entrepreneurs. I was basically the same as them, but without the money. Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed about living in space. A space station, lunar colony, flight to Mars—I didn't care. I just wanted to escape that terrestrial prison.

And I succeeded. I got a job, a team of engineers, a huge budget, and a deadline. We created the Colony Seed, a highly automated lunar facility to start the project. Since I designed it, I got to go with it.

The Seed should have been foolproof. We tested every subassembly and had backups for all the critical systems. We tested the prototype in the blistering heat of the Mojave Desert as well as in the frigid waters off the coast of Antarctica. I can't say there were no errors, but we fixed the bugs and addressed all the problems that we hadn't anticipated. The Seed was good. Very good. Back on Earth, I would have staked my life on it.

We landed on the Sea of Tranquility only eight meters from our target. The pods deployed as designed. The robots scurried out of their holds and moved the heavy equipment into place. Amelia, Sergei, and I—the three crew members—watched the process on monitors in the Command Pod, but that didn't last long. It was like watching the World Cup on TV while sitting in a skybox at the stadium. We donned our EVA suits and sat on the outer edge of the airlock door, mesmerized by the elegant process. Amelia piped in some Vivaldi through the comm. system. It was a perfect moment. My dreams had come true.

Eventually we had to attend to our duties. The robots did the grunt work, but we took care of the finer details, such as plugging in umbilicals and sealing the ends of the flexi-corridors to the airlocks on each pod.

One by one, the systems came online. By the end of the day, we were all exhausted, but the operation had gone flawlessly, so we had to celebrate. We got a little bit wild, and based on the way they behaved after a few drinks, I think Sergei and Amelia hooked up after I went to sleep. Who could blame them? All those months training together and being cooped up in the ship. Now that we were finally here and everything was working as planned, it was time to release all the built-up tension. At least that's my excuse for why I drank too many whiskey pouches that night.

Maybe if I'd been sober and the others hadn't been distracted, we would've been able to respond to the accident more effectively.

The meteoroid shower struck early in the morning: four hours before our scheduled wake up. When the rocks breached the Facilities Pod, the system noted the decompression,and warning sirens sounded throughout the Seed.

The airlocks remain sealed, so we were safe for the moment. However, the oxygen scrubbers were located in the Facilities Pod, so until we got the breach repaired, we were using up our reserve air.

We had anticipated such a problem, so we were prepared. I sent a message to the others, and then I suited up to go outside to fix the leak. My whiskey-soaked brain was not able to process multiple tasks at once, so I was completely focused on the job. It never occurred to me to stop and actually check on my colleagues.

The meteoroid shower was not the massive hailstorm with car-sized rocks you see in the movies. The rocks were small and infrequent. The powerful beauty of the meteoroids striking the ground mesmerized me. They all came in at the same angle, every hit producing a crater and a puff of dust. Some were so small that I only knew they were there by the dust. Others were the size of softballs. They traveled quickly, and all at the same rate. It was the uniformity of the shower that struck me more than anything. That and the fact that each dust plume hung in the air like slow-motion footage of explosives.

Then the big ones hit. I saw the devastation as they tore the Seed apart, crushing metal and plastic. I stared as it happened, transfixed by the raw power of the rocks. But on the airless moon surface, the destruction was a silent as a dream. It was like watching a movie with the sound off.

The LEM—our lifeboat back to the orbiting ship—lost its port landing strut and slowly listed to the side. Next, a rock crushed half the Living Pod. That shocked me back to awareness. In an instant, I realized that I hadn't heard from my colleagues. Had they escaped? I was already hopping to the Living Pod and calling out on the comm system before the LEM finished toppling to the ground. Nobody answered.

At some point while I struggled through the Living Pod wreckage, the meteoroid shower ended. I didn't notice. All I could think about was finding my friends. Why the hell didn't they answer?

I found the mangled remains of a jumpsuit-covered leg. Sergei. No EVA suit. No use searching for the rest. But maybe Amelia had suited up. Maybe she was still alive. I dug through the twisted metal and shattered plastic like a madman. The pieces had little weight, but they still had plenty of mass. I could move them, but the effort made me sweat and suck my air.

During the middle of my futile efforts, the anxious buzz of my suit's low oxygen alarm broke the silence. Oh shit. The readout told me that the scrubbers were damaged and non-functional. I only had two minutes of breathable air. I had to make a quick decision. Go to the LEM and hope it had survived the shower with enough integrity to hold an atmosphere or go to the Command Pod and hope for the same thing?

A thousand thoughts flashed through my brain. The LEM was a space ship. It was strong and self-sufficient. But a meteoroid had definitely hit it. It probably survived the fall. But it had a lot of mass, and it wasn't designed to take a fall. If the hull integrity were breached, I wouldn't be able to fix it with my meager tools. Not to mention the fact that the systems would have to be powered up before the air would flow. The Command Pod, on the other hand, might not have been hit. And if it had been hit and needed repairs, I could probably fix it. I didn't have time to check out both.

I hopped to the Command Pod. It was a gamble, but given the options, it seemed to be my best chance for survival.

By the time I reached it, I was still acting under the hope that I could recover and live through the accident. Everything had happened so quickly, and I'd been rushing around trying to make repairs. I hadn't really thought about my chances of survival. Once inside, reality struck and brought me to my knees. I had power, the computer worked, and the pod was not leaking air, but on the minus side, the communication dish was down, the other pods had been effectively destroyed, and the LEM was not going to take off anytime soon.

I had no way to talk to San Jose HQ and no way to reach the orbiter. The food and water had been destroyed along with the Living Pod, but even if I had the supplies, the Command Pod only had a few hours of breathable air.

I was trapped. Imprisoned in the remains of the Colony Seed on the remote lunar surface.

As I sat there, slumped in my command chair, staring at the cold blue display screen that so capriciously informed me of my doomed fate, my adrenaline rush faded. A chemical-induced shiver took over my body. My hand shook so much that I couldn't pick up any of the leftover whiskey pouches from last night's celebration. I stared as a pouch tumbled to the floor in slow motion. That was when I had my most demoralizing thought: I should save those until later, so I don't sober up before The End.

Throughout my life, The End had always been an abstract concept. Now that it was a reality—now that I had an actual timer counting down the hours and minutes—all I could do was sit there and sob. 6 hours, 43 minutes, and 20 seconds remaining.

I cried for 2 hours, 12 minutes, and 18 seconds. And then I stopped. Part of me...Hell, why lie? Most of me wanted to give up. It would be easy to drink the whiskey and fall asleep one last time in the dwindling oxygen. But the part of me that really mattered couldn't give up. I had 4 hours, 31 minutes, and 2 seconds to try something. Anything. It came down to a choice of giving up and living for a few extra hours or taking the long shot and probably dying in the process.

I had to take the long shot.

When San Jose HQ lost contact with us, they would have turned their telescopes this direction. They would see the destruction. Would they hurry the preparations for the next ship that was due to arrive in two weeks? Or would they cut their losses on their investment?

Could I hold out that long? Not in the Command Pod with the Facilities Pod destroyed. The LEM was my only hope.

I hacked my way into its computer and managed to power it up remotely. I was in luck: its systems looked functional. All I had to do was to get there and then wait for help. But with my suit's scrubbers not working, I would only have what little air filled the void volume of the suit. It would have to be enough to get me across the lunar surface. If not, well, tell my mom I love her.

End log.


"Major Edgars, we found something." The voice crackled through the comm. channel in the recovery leader's suit. He looked up from the display he had been reading. "It's a body, sir."

"How close did he get?"

"Judging by the marks in the dust, he fell about three meters from the LEM. He must've dragged himself to the base of the ladder, but he wasn't able to climb."

The recovery leader bowed his head in a moment of silence.

"Roger that. Continue searching for the other remains. I'll report back to Houston."

Todd Edwards © . All rights reserved.