Eagle One glided over the lunar surface at cruising altitude. In the orange-lit cockpit, the two pilots were busy as they neared their objective.
“Have you found us a spot, Joy?” Alan said, checking the controls at his side.
“I think so – it’s just over that rise – there’s a valley that leads all the way to the target. Alan… she’s starting to fight me – and the computer can’t compensate.” Joy pulled on the yoke and the reaction thrusters fired, trying to bring the Eagle back to a stable course. Alan grabbed the yoke. “I have the ball,” he said, taking control.
“You have the ball,” Joy acknowledged, releasing her grip but still keeping her hands lightly on the yoke, just in case.
“Do you have the landing zone, Alan?”
“Yep. Got it. Might not be as smooth as I’d like. Better let the passengers know…”
Joy activated the intercom. “We’re having some trouble with communications and flight, as you’ve probably noticed. We’re coming in for a landing now, so strap in and lower your visors. Stand by…”
The two geologists complied, watched by the security guard who then did the same.
The Eagle cleared the saw-toothed ridge line with only yards to spare, before coming back down for a landing approach. Alan knew his ship – and was sure that there was nothing mechanically wrong with her. But there seemed to be something wrong… with gravity. He was coming in too fast and so at the last minute he pulled back on the yoke, flaring the ship, and triggered the vertical thrusters. An observer would have seen the craft completely disappear in clouds of grey dust as if it had simply crashed, but Alan had managed to slow the ship to a low hover, before reducing the power and touching down, the massive craft barely bouncing on its sprung undercarriage.
“Whew!” he said, looking over at Joy for approval. She didn’t give him the response he’d been looking for, but just nodded in recognition of his efforts.
“Powering down – checking all systems… All A-OK,” she said, releasing her visor and swinging it up. “Do you want to break the bad news to the crew?”
Alan unsealed his helmet and took it off, before releasing his harness and sliding his seat back.
“I’ll go. I want to check the engine section whilst I’m at it. You don’t fancy a drive?”
“Not particularly. I’m here to fly, remember?”
“Right…” Alan stood up and opened the cockpit door. He walked back through the Eagle’s forward section short corridor and triggered the pod door. The three crew members were standing up, checking gear. Sandinsky was arching his back, trying to get the kinks out. Ka’ne was already checking the equipment packages.
“Nice landing, sir!” said Murray, smiling.
“Don’t call me sir, Dan,” said Alan, though appreciating the deference. “Everything OK?” he said. “I’m afraid because of the problems, the Eagle is going to stay here where we still have contact with Alpha, meaning you’re going to have to drive the rest of the way. You’d better load some extra power and oxygen packs onto the buggy… We’re about two miles from the asteroid, so it shouldn’t take long to get there. Now remember you’re all responsible for your own suits but keep an eye on your mates, OK? And Ka’Ne, you’re team leader, so keep these two safe. Alright?”
They nodded in reply.
“Right, I’m going into the stern compartment and will seal the pod door. So once you’re ready to go, depressurise and you’re away. Joy will drop the buggy when you’re ready. Good hunting!” Alan patted Ka’Ne on his massive shoulder before walking to the rear, stepping through the doors and sealing them behind him.
When they had everything they needed, Ka’Ne checked their suits again, and depressurised the pod. Murray could only hear the hiss of his suit systems and a faint crackling coming over the comms channel. The door slid back and outside, the landing stairs deployed. While this happened, the gravity plates slowly deactivated. It wasn’t really enough time to adapt to one-sixth gravity, thought Murray, but at least you didn’t have that immediate sense of falling. The suits helped, and whilst much lighter than those of the first astronauts thirty years previous, the systems packs and controls still weighed the same as a well-loaded suitcase.
The two scientists followed Ka’Ne outside. Being used to surface missions, he immediately acclimatised and bounded away around to the other side of the module to get the cargo buggy. Murray stepped out and bumped the top of helmet on the doorframe, feeling the impact in his shoulders and the sick jolt of apprehension in case he’d already damaged his suit seals. He reflexively grasped the doorframe, to calm himself, take stock and not reactively bounce anymore. No alarms sounded, no warning lights flashed, and so, with a deep breath, he gingerly crossed the threshold and started down the steps. Sandinsky, seemingly oblivious to this drama, confidently though gingerly at first, followed him down, holding onto the railing that had deployed with the stairs. Presently, the security officer reappeared driving the yellow six-wheeled buggy. His massive frame made the whole image incongruous, like an adult driving a child’s pedal car.
They loaded the equipment onto the buggy, and once secured with bungie cord and cargo netting, Ka’Ne pointed his comlock at the module. The inner door slid closed as the outer raised into place, the stairs and rail folding into their housing. Without another word, they stepped into the little orange vehicle, Ka’ne and Sandinsky in the front, Murray squeezed in the back, and they set off along the canyon floor. The massive asteroid loomed on the horizon, looking inky black in contrast to the highly-reflective dust and rocks of the lunar surface.
In Main Mission, the command crew watched the party’s progress on the screen, all except for Dr Russell, whose main concern was the vital signs readouts displayed beneath. As expected, Ka’Ne was relaxed and practically normal, whilst the two geologists both had elevated respiration and pulse rates.
“John, there is something really strange about that rock,” Bergman said, walking over to Kano at the computer. “There doesn’t seem to be an impact crater. And there should be, given the mass and speed that was recorded. It almost looks as if it made a soft landing…”
Koenig looked over at Kano as the tall computer officer tore off another print out to read it. “He’s right, Commander,” Kano said, looking at the figures on the paper slip. “Computer says that the impact should have created a crater approximately a mile in diameter…and the asteroid should have been totally destroyed!”
“What?” said Koenig, looking back at the image on the screen as it began to break into static. “Are you saying that thing landed? It’s some kind of ship?”
Bergman took the printout from Kano to check it, and scratched his bald pate. “Seems right John – there’s no reason a culture couldn’t make a ship look like anything they wanted… or even build a ship inside an asteroid…if it is a ship…”
Koenig turned back to Paul’s desk and toggled a switch. “Main Mission to Eagle One… Alan, are you receiving me?”
“Eagle One here, Commander, receiving loud and clear. What’s up?”
“Alan, I’d like you to take the Eagle up to orbital altitude and get us some pictures of the asteroid. It looks like… it didn’t impact the way it should have…”
“Roger,” said Alan.
“Oh and Alan?” Bergman said, walking back to the desks, “even at that height there may be some gravitational or other unexpected effects, so be careful!”
“Eagle One,” said Paul, trying to make the conversation more business-like, “we’ll be monitoring you closely as well – at the first sign of trouble we want you to abort and return to your current location, is that clear?”
“Received and understood,” Alan confirmed, “Eagle One out.”
On board the Eagle, Joy finished the protein bar she’d been eating and tucked the empty wrapper into a pocket on her space suit. Alan looked over at her and shrugged, putting his helmet back on and sliding his seat forward into the flight position. Joy did the same.
“Alan,” she said, starting the power-up sequence on the control panel in front of her, “what do you think Koenig meant when he said the asteroid hadn’t impacted like it should?”
“Well, love,” Alan said unselfconsciously, “out here, who the hell knows?”
The buggy bumped and bounced along, the rear wheels throwing up a dust tail that persisted in a way that could only happen on the moon, as if it were a power boat whose wake was immediately freezing in mid air. Murray bumped his head again inside the helmet, and was desperately trying to fixate on the horizon to stop the queasy feeling – the rocking and bouncing, combined with the low gravity, was turning his stomach. Throwing up in a suit was one of the worst ways to die. There was something else though. As he stared up the valley towards the massive black rock, he became more and more convinced that it wasn’t getting any bigger – it was if it was moving away from them at the same speed they approached – like chasing a rainbow. Murray looked at Sandinsky but couldn’t see his face. From this angle, he could have been looking at an empty helmet.
He touched the com button on his collar. “Guys – have you noticed anything strange about that rock? I mean… you know….” He didn’t want to finish the sentence – even in his head it sounded too stupid.
“Yeah. Like it’s still as far away?” Ka’Ne said, without turning around.
“Slow down,” the old professor said, cutting in. “There’s something very wrong here.”
The Eagle had first flown away from the impact site for some distance, before turning around and powering up, rapidly gaining altitude using the main engines. They were still some distance off, but on the monitors and through the triangular forward viewports, they could now see the whole asteroid and most of the impact site.
“I think we can see what the Commander meant now, Joy,” said Alan. “There is no crater. And look at the size of it!”
Joy looked at a monitor and magnified the image… and then checked…and rechecked. No matter how she changed the resolution or magnification, the image of the asteroid’s surface seemed to remain exactly the same. She looked over at Alan nervously. Was she getting space-happy? What if she reported it and he didn’t confirm what she was seeing? How long would it be before she or another female pilot were sent on a mission?
She took a sip of stale water from the helmet tube. Focus she thought. You’re a professional. Just as good as anyone else. And you don’t abandon protocol!
“Alan?” she said, gaining confidence. “There’s something weird with the scanners. Look.” Alan looked at the monitor in the centre of the control panel as she repeated the same process again. He glanced at her, and checked for himself, following the same sequence, trying different magnifications – with exactly the same results. He closed and locked his visor and motioned for her to do likewise.
“I don’t like it. This whole thing is off. I’m going to pull the guys out of there and go back to Alpha. We can come back with more Eagles and a full support team.” He flicked the comm switch on the control yoke. “Eagle One to Moonbase Alpha?”
Suddenly the controls were wrenched out of Joy’s fingers and she was thrown into her flight harness, the shoulder straps seeming to bite even through her spacesuit. Her head was pushed into her chest, but using all her strength she looked up at the controls. The Eagle was spinning, end over end like a thrown stick. The view through the cockpit window was sickening – the grey lunar surface flicked by in a second, followed by ink black, followed by the surface again… Then the image seemed to get further away, receding down a long black tunnel… she was blacking out!
“Joy!” Alan’s voice came over her helmet speaker. He was grunting with every breath… high G procedure… her training came back to her and kicked in as she followed suit – forcing the air in, clenching her muscles, forcing the blood to flow.
“I’m… here…” she said, surprised by how thick and weak her voice sounded. “We’re a dead stick…”
“Brace yourself,” Alan said, straining to reach the console. “I’m going to try… a full burn…”
Joy nodded, though Alan wouldn’t see it. She knew what he was going to do. She grabbed on to her shoulder straps and concentrated on one thing – breathing. Alan was going to trigger the engines, the thrust hopefully overcoming their momentum and propelling them away in a straight line – as long as he didn’t shoot them straight into the surface, or the Eagle didn’t tear itself apart…
In Main Mission, the flight alert alarm was going off. The telemetry link had broken down, the vital signs indicators of the pilots were all in the red. Technicians ran to their consoles, their red sleeves matching the colour of the displays.
“Can we get a visual?” said Koenig.
Paul shook his head. “We’ve lost the relay satellite signal as well, Commander. We have no contact.”
“Put the rescue Eagle on the pad – I’ll fly it myself.” Koenig turned and leapt up the steps to go through his office, Helena following close behind on her way to Medical.
Bergman went over to Kano again. “Could you give me a full readout of all the sensors for the two minutes prior to us losing contact?”
“I’ll get on it right away, Doctor,” the computer officer said, already typing into the keypad.
Ka’Ne sat on a rock, looking into the sky. He was trying not to check the instruments again, though time was passing and it was starting to worry him. Sandinsky was making a show of checking that the geological equipment was correctly stowed in the buggy, but Ka’Ne knew he was just hiding how concerned he was. A sudden movement caught his eye, and Ka’Ne looked up – a white object, spinning… the Eagle! He stood up and pointed. “Look!”
The others turned and followed his arm – the Eagle, so distant it just looked like a tiny white rod against the black, tumbling through space, out of control. Murray immediately felt sick again.
“Ka’Ne to Eagle One! Ka’Ne to Alpha Moonbase! Are you receiving?” Ka’Ne said. The only response was a low hiss punctuated by the occasional crackle.
“What – what do we do?” said Murray.
Sandinsky went back to checking the supplies. “We go on,” he replied. “We’re here now, and if that has been caused by the asteroid, Alpha is going to need answers. We don’t have far to go… at least we shouldn’t have…”
Ka’Ne was still watching the Eagle, praying for some sign… “Protocol would have us return to the landing site immediately and await rescue, but I’m inclined to agree with the Doctor. If we don’t get the info, they will have to send more people and put others at risk. I say go on.”
Murray swallowed hard, and sipped some water. Even swallowing in this environment took actual effort. “Oh… OK,” he said, weakly. “Oh LOOK!” he shouted. As they watched, there was a sudden flash of light from the Eagle that momentarily blinded their dark-adjusted eyes. “Oh God! Has it…. blown up…?”
The rescue Eagle, fitted with its red-striped module, blasted off the landing pad and vertically straight up before Koenig triggered the main engines and powered the craft away at high speed – not a manoeuvre that was much appreciated by the crew. As the ship gained altitude, the doors behind him slid back and his copilot came in, suited up and carrying his helmet. Koenig was still just in his uniform, not wanting to waste any time in getting airborne.
Jones, the young pilot, jumped into the seat and slid it forward, flicking his long pale brown hair out of his eyes with an affected toss of his head. His broad, affable smile was well-known with the female crew, and even here he was still smiling. “I can take the ball if you want to suit up, Commander,” he said.
“You have the ball,” said Koenig, hitting his harness release and sliding back. “Keep an open channel with Paul in Main Mission.”
“Wilco!” Jones said, toggling the comms switch. “Eagle Six to Main Mission! Have you got me Sandra?”
“Receiving loud and clear Eagle Six,” said Sandra cooly. “Confirm ETA to rescue zone.”
“I’ve got 28 minutes at current speed, from… now! So what are we going to talk about for the next half hour, eh? What about that dinner date you keep dodging?”
“Eagle Six,” Paul’s voice came over the speaker. “Keep the chatter to a minimum. Do you have visual contact with Eagle One? You should have line-of-sight from your current altitude.”
“Sensors aren’t picking up anything, Paul, and I can’t see… what the hell?! Huge flash… did you get that, Alpha?”
In Main Mission, the visual monitor whited out, blinded by the flash. There was an intake of breath, one of the technicians cried out, before receiving a withering look from Paul.
“Did you get that? Alpha?” the pilot’s voice said over the speaker.
“We saw it, Eagle Six. Now, we don’t know what that was,” Paul said, as much to Jones as to the crew that surrounded him. “It could have been anything. We’ve lost contact with Eagle One and until we have confirmation that is ALL we know. Understood? Keep that sector under close visual scan – we do need to know what that the hell caused that flash. In the meantime, stay on mission. Confirm, Eagle Six?”
“Confirmed, Alpha,” said Jones.
Bergman had commandeered Koenig’s desk and closed the partition wall so that the noise wouldn’t disturb him. He called up some data from the library computer, had sent for some microfiche texts, and was now busily checking Computer’s findings with his well-worn slide rule. What this was telling him didn’t make any sense. Since the moon had been blasted out of Earth orbit it seemed very little had, but there was still something bothering him about this asteroid, something at the back of his mind. He reclined in the chair, putting his head back and closing his eyes. He recalled… punting. Cambridge, ten years ago… the symposium with a famous astrophysicist… another image popped into his mind…
“Of COURSE!” he said aloud, standing up suddenly and knocking the chair over. Ignoring sudden tightness in his chest, he fumbled for his comlock… but then a blinding flash of pain sent his left arm into spasm and his eyes rolling back into his head. He staggered backwards, tripped over the fallen chair and fell heavily into the lower level meeting area, his head just missing the edge of the conference table. The last image in his mind was that of a hawk, swooping to strike…
To be continued in Part 3!