Joy was thrown backwards into her seat, her arms pinned under their own weight, her breathing practically stopped as if a great weight was sitting on her chest. Looking out of the cockpit window, she could only see black – to her relief – indicating that Alan had triggered the engines just at the right moment. After a few seconds, the acceleration stopped and the seat released its grip. She unlocked her visor and threw it open, taking a deep breath of the cool conditioned cabin air.
Alan opened his visor too. “That was a close call. You alright?” She nodded in reply, panting. “Do a full systems check – I’m going to spiral back down to the landing zone. We need to stay well away from that…thing… whatever it is.”
Joy went back to her checklist. “We’ve completely lost comms… damage to navigational sensors, gravity… engines 2 and 3 have partially lost gimbal control, but the flight computer is compensating… everything else looks OK.”
“Great. Let’s just hope the ground team has the good sense to turn back before anything else happens.”
Ka’Ne pointed at the sky again. “There she is!” They could see a long trail of rocket exhaust, and at the end of that, the Eagle coming back under control and starting a slow turn. “They’re OK!”
Murray felt faint with relief, and under full gravity would probably have collapsed to the ground. Here though, he managed to regain his balance before he fell. He looked over at the others. Sandinsky nodded. “Let’s get this done and go home,” the old man said. “I’ve had far too much excitement already. I want to get a proper look at this rock.”
“OK!” said Ka’Ne. “Let’s get back on the road.”
They clambered slowly back into the buggy, and once all aboard, Ka’ne set off again in the direction of the asteroid.
Koenig came back into the cockpit of Eagle Six just as Jones spotted Eagle One on his monitor. The commander sat in his seat and slid it forward to take a look for himself.
“I can’t raise them on the radio,” said Jones. “It looks like they’re headed back to the original landing site.”
“OK. We’ll rendezvous with them there. Eagle Six to Main Mission!”
“We read you Commander,” said Sandra. “We’re receiving your video feed too, but we still have no contact with Eagle One.”
“Keep trying, Sandra, but we’ll rendezvous with them in… about 20 minutes.”
“Very well, Commander.”
Ka’Ne was now driving along at his usual speed, though he was having a serious problem trying to estimate distance from the asteroid. It still wasn’t changing in size, and so he had decided to employ an old astronaut trick used on EVAs where there was a lack of visual cues – deliberately not look at it. He was now taking notice of landmarks, unusual rocks, the shape of crests of the ridges at either side, to keep track of distance. But now he began to notice something else…
“Ka’ne – less of the lead foot, eh?” said Murray, his voice broken as he was bumped about in the rear seat.
Ka’ne felt pressure on his forearm as the old scientist squeezed it – he turned to peer into Sandinsky’s face plate. “Yes, there’s no need to go so fast,” he said, a concerned look on his face.
Ka’ne released the throttles – but it had no effect. They were definitely accelerating. In normal circumstances, the buggy had no need for a speed gauge – or brakes, for that matter. He pushed the levers forward to put the motors into slow reverse – but the wheels began to shudder and vibrate, and the buggy continued to move forwards. He slowly increased the reverse power, and felt the wheels start to skid and slew – he was afraid he might turn the buggy over.
“I can’t control it!” he said, a tinge of real panic in his voice. “We’ll have to jump clear – I’ll try and hold it steady – Murray! You first!”
Ka’ne’s tone had rattled the young man even more. Murray pulled his feet up so he was squatting on the bench, and as soon as he saw some open ground, jumped out to the right of the buggy. His left toe caught on the buggy’s side, throwing him into a somersault. To Sandinsky looking back over his shoulder, the bright orange figure was instantly swallowed by the fishtails of grey dust still being created by the wheels.
“Now you professor!” Ka’ne commanded. The old man didn’t so much jump as stand up and fall sideways, his forearms covering his visor to protect it from damage.
With the passengers gone, the buggy became more unstable and somehow seemed to increase its acceleration, starting to fishtail as Ka’Ne fought with the controls. Then the back end started to come up, the wheels losing contact with the ground. Ka’ne looked ahead to see a larger boulder directly in his path. Relinquishing his death-grip on the throttles, he jumped out to the right side, and as he did so, the buggy lifted from the rear and tumbled end over end. Ka’ne emerged from the dust cloud and realised with horror he was travelling forwards faster than he was falling, and before he could react he collided with a boulder, his faceplate taking the full force of the impact. He slid down the rock, drifting to the ground, stunned. Alarms sounded in his ears and lights flashed in his blurred eyes. There was a loud hissing sound – the orange plexiglass of his visor was cracked – he was losing air! Still falling he twisted and turned, trying to find the emergency patches in his suit pockets. He hit the dirt and bounced, the slow but powerful impact pushing his arms back momentarily. Giving up on the patches for now he toggled the helmet com link – but all he got was loud static. He landed again and skidded a few feet before coming to rest in a cloud of grey powder. He sat up, found the patches and pulled one from its packet, desperately trying to stick it over the crack without the adhesive sticking to the clumsy fingers of his gloves. He smoothed out the edges as best he could and tried to focus on the visor just inches from his face.
“Come on… come ON!” he said to himself, pawing at the edges of the white plastic patch. After a few seconds, the alarms and flashing lights stopped – though he still had a danger indicator ion his chest panel. He couldn’t see straight forward anymore because the patch covered most of his faceplate, so he had to twist his head awkwardly to see past it. His suit control display on his arm was telling him that he’d lost half of his remaining oxygen.
He stood up, and adopting a hunched position to see out of his helmet, looked for the others and what had happened to the buggy – and the spare O2 it was carrying. All he could see was clouds of slowly falling dust. But that wasn’t what scared him the most. The asteroid had completely disappeared.
When Eagle Six reached the landing zone, Eagle One was already there. The rescue Eagle landed alongside and extended a flexible docking collar from its module door to the one on the portside of Eagle One. After a few minutes, Koenig opened the door with his comlock to find Alan was waiting to deliver his report.
“Good to see you Alan. Everything OK?” he said, raising his visor.
“Yes, thanks, Commander. We’re fine, so is the ship, mostly,” said Alan, smiling.
“Have you been able to establish what caused the spin?” said Koenig. “Were you fired on? Or did something collide with you?”
“There’s no evidence of that, Commander, and no external damage to the ship. We were flying along normally, and suddenly… we weren’t.”
“But it looks like the radio jamming has increased since then… there’s no sign of the rest of the team?” said Koenig, looking back at the empty passenger seats.
“Looks like they set off as planned, but they should have been there and back by now,” said Alan.
“How’s your low-altitude flying?” said Koenig, removing his helmet. “If we stayed at low altitude, and dead slow, we should be able to pick them up – and if we lose control, we just cut power and touch down… one Eagle say, 100 yards behind the other in case anything goes wrong…”
“Yeah…” said Alan, thoughtfully, “right on the deck, under their radar, so to speak. Alright! So who flies the lead ship?”
“Both positions are going to need a lot of skill, quick reflexes…”
“I’ll do it!”
They both turned. Joy was standing in the corridor leading to the command module. “You’re a good pilot, Commander, but you don’t have the hours or the reflexes this will need. I’ll fly Eagle Six with you as co-pilot, Alan and Jonesy fly Eagle One.”
Koenig looked at Alan, who shrugged and smiled. “She’s our chief instructor, Commander… I’d hate to say it, but…”
Koenig nodded. “OK, let’s do it your way, Joy.”
Ten minutes later, the two ships glided silently up the valley, just twenty feet off the surface, the vertical jets maintaining the altitude with the minimum of thrust, but the main problem facing Alan with the formation flying was the clouds of dust. In Eagle One, Joy flew on manual, not trusting the computer in case of interference, whilst Koenig kept one eye on the cockpit windows and the other on the video monitor.
“I’m switching to infrared – we should be able to pick up the heat leakage from their suits… there!” Koenig spotted them immediately not a 150 yards away. “Alan, touch down behind us, we’ll pick them up.”
“Roger, Commander – but are you seeing what we’re seeing? There’s only two heat sources.”
Murray and Sandinsky watched as the Eagles approached, standing to make themselves more visible. It had taken a lot for Murray to stop himself jumping up and down, but was taking his cue from the calm, slow response of Sandinsky. As the Eagle landed, Murray reflexively shielded his eyes from the blasted moon dust with his arm, though this was also an obvious pointless gesture from someone in a space suit.
Eagle One’s pod door opened silently as they approached, and once up the stairs, it slowly closed behind them and sealed. They began to feel and hear the cabin re-pressurising and the gravity starting to increase, sensations that immediately made Murray feel much better. The green light showed by the door and after double checking the display on his suit controls, Sandinsky unlocked his visor and lifted it. Murray did the same, as Koenig came through the connecting door to the command module.
“Doctor, Murray,” he said, “where’s Ka’ne?”
“We’re fine, thank you Commander,” said the old man, unlocking his helmet and rotating it to one side before gingerly lifting it over his head. “He lost control of the buggy and we had to jump for it. He was the last one out. We found the buggy, all smashed up, but there was no sign of him. But it’s very strange,” he continued, turning to help Murray as he unsuccessfully tried to release his helmet, “I can’t understand where he might have gone. And there’s the other thing…”
“What other thing?” said Koenig, exasperated.
“The asteroid,” Murray said, still trying to catch his breath. “It’s gone.”
Koenig puled his comlock of his belt and thumbed the control. Alan’s face appeared in the tiny screen.
“Alan, try to use your Eagle’s sensors to spot Ka’ne. Take the ship off the deck and up to altitude if you have to – but be careful!”
“Commander, you know me,” Alan replied. “Careful is my middle name!”
On Eagle One, Alan closed his visor again and activated the vertical thrusters, pulling back on the controls so the craft began to lift off. Jones activated the sensors and looked from monitor to monitor to spot any indication of someone on the surface.
“We’re throwing up too much dust, boss,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ll have to take her higher.”
Alan watched the altimeter, and slowly began to increase thrust, pushing the big ship further away from the surface. As soon as he got past 60 feet, the ship began to wobble. Jones reflexively grabbed the controls as well, trying to help him steady the ship, but it was very quickly becoming too much for them to handle. “It’s no good!” said Alan. “I’m taking her down.”
Koenig’s face appeared on the monitor on the central console. “Eagle 6, are you OK? Did you see anything?”
“We’re fine Commander,” said Alan, touching down again. “We didn’t see anything. And we’re going to have to fly at low altitude to get out from the influence of that rock when we leave. Anything over a few dozen feet and she just won’t answer.”
“Wait a second!” said Jones, cutting in. “It’s gone! The rock, it’s not there, there’s… there’s not even a dint in the surface…”
“Right,” said Koenig, thinking. “Alan, I’ll need you outside, we’re going for a walk.”
Just then, his comlock beeped again. Koenig thumbed the control and it switched from Alan to Helena’s face in the tiny screen, though this one obscured by flashes of static.
“John? Can you read me?” she said, obviously shouting at her end.
“Yes, Helena, what is it? We’re just about to…”
“John. You need to get back here.”
“What is it? What’s…?”
“It’s Victor, John… And you need to hurry.”
Koenig’s spine turned to ice. The comlock beeped again.
“Go, Commander,” said Alan, his face a picture of concern. “I’ll take care of this. We don’t need both Eagles here.”
“Right, OK. I’ll take the crew back. Whatever is happening, just get Ka’ne back and get out of here.”
“You got it Commander. Eagle One out.”
Koenig clipped the comlock back onto his belt. “Let’s go,” he said unceremoniously, before dashing back into the command module of Eagle Six. Before the two geologists had chance to take their seats, the vertical thrusters activated and with a swift turn that made his passengers stumble and grasp for something to hold onto, Koenig powered back in the direction of Moonbase Alpha.
Ka’ne stumbled into a rock, and sat down on it. It didn’t make any sense. He was travelling at some speed before he hit the rock, but he couldn’t have traveled far. But there was no sign of the buggy, of the rest of the team, or the enormous rock they had come here to study. He looked at his O2 gauge again – just short of 15 minutes. His mind went back to basic training, decompression drills, hypoxia in decompression chambers, the the actual thing during parachute training. He knew that the suit would do everything it could to keep him alive for as long as possible, but even after he eventually lost consciousness, it wouldn’t even last an hour before he’d be practically brain dead.
He searched the pockets and clips on his harness. His comlock was gone, he already knew that, but he still had his laser. He unsnapped the holster and took it out, fitting the chubby fingers of his gloves through the grip. He put it on mimmim setting, and fired at a small rock. His helmet speakers buzzed as a bolt of yellow light shot out of the emitter and pushed the rock a couple of inches along the ground. For a second he considered saving himself any further suffering and just shooting himself – but dismissed the thought as fast as it appeared. He didn’t have an emergency flare – but perhaps there was some way he could use the laser as some sort of beacon? He lifted the gun closer to his visor, peering again round the adhesive patch that was obstructing his vision almost totally, whilst at the same time keeping him alive.
Whilst he was trying to figure out which setting to use, he began to get the feeling that he was not alone – that he was being watched. He slowly lowered the gun and peered from side to side. A shadow! A shadow that moved? He reached up to key his suit radio, smiling to himself, relieved… but then stopped. He could see the shadow approaching, and then two booted feet, and then legs.
But the space suit wasn’t orange like his.
It was silver…
To be continued in Part Four!