“Why are we going to the Moon daddy?”
Stephano turned to look at his son. A mixture of curiosity and fear marring his son’s otherwise innocent features. The sight of which tugged at Stephano’s heart. Nicky was only four years old, but there was no doubt in Stephano’s mind that the little man was aware of the dangers involved.
Despite its best efforts, the Church of Earth First cannot conceal every shuttle tragedy. It was hard to hide the sight of a shuttle exploding into fragments and falling back to earth in a dismal rain.
“Mother Earth is sick Nicky, and we are the disease. The only hope for her now is for us to leave, quit poisoning her, and worship her from afar.” Stephano finally said in reply.
“Why are we poisoning Mother Earth?” Nicky followed up with after some thought. His features now showing concern and anger for what humanity was doing to the giver of all life.
“Because we don’t know any better my son.” Stephano replied.
“I am glad we are leaving Mother to heal.” Nicky said. His face then brightened as his young mind cleared of all concern for the peril ahead. “I think life on the moon will be pretty cool dad!”
“I think so too.” Stephano said, lying to his son.
In reality, Stephano wasn’t sure how life on the moon would be.
“It’s almost time for dinner. We will finish packing up your room tomorrow. Now go get ready.” He plucked his son off the bed, set him on the floor, and gently swatted his butt to get him moving.
“Ok daddy.” Nicky replied cheerfully.
Nicky was in bed, and at last check, sleeping peacefully. The dinner dishes long put away, and Stephano’s wife Katie was flicking through lists on her tablet. Tired of sorting and packing, Stephano looked around and took stock of their little home. Earth First Lunar settlement and Earth First reclamation containers filled the house in various states of packed.
The Lunar settlement containers packed with the things they will take with them. The reclamation containers, the things they had to part with. Relocating an entire planets population to another heavenly body is a massive undertaking. Space and weight are major considerations for the lunar colonization shuttles.
That is why the reclamation containers far outnumbered the lunar containers. In an effort to minimize the amount of resources stripped from Mother Earth, anything that can; is recycled for the effort.
“We will never be ready in time.” Katie said breaking through his thoughts with her frustration.
“What is that honey?” He said.
“We have to be ready for departure by Friday. I only have twenty lunar containers to pack our whole life into!” She looked around. “God, what if Nicky was still in diapers?”
“Well he isn’t.” Stephano said amused. “Besides, it’s not like the Moon is a barren rock these days. They do have the essentials, and we will have a home.”
Katie’s expression revealed her dissatisfaction with his answer. He sometimes wondered about her true feelings. On more than one night, Stephano laid awake after a nightmare pulled him from his slumber. In his nightmare, it was always the same. The Elite Guard of the High Priestess barging through their door and arresting his wife. Charging her with high treason, and crimes against the state. A penalty with only one conclusion…death.
“We have a home, we get to bring those things that are most prized. I have a job, our current bank accounts are not going anywhere, and the relocation allotment the Church gives us will help us replace a lot of what we are leaving behind.”
“Where not leaving it behind!’ Her frustration with this relocation showing through. “The Church is taking it from us, and using it to continue this fallacy about saving Mother Earth.” She finished with her fingers in the air, making virtual quotes sign around the last two words.
Stephano’s heart leaped into his throat, fear seized his balls. Quickly he stepped across the gap that separated them and took her in his arms. Not necessarily to comfort her, so much as to shut her up.
“Katie, you might be able to spout that kind of blasphemy here in our home. But once we get to the Moon, that kind of discourse will get you into deep trouble.”
The frustration and anger in her eyes gave way to fear as she realized of what she said. Stephano knew there would be no sleep tonight. Once again, he will lay awake in bed, waiting for the sounds of the Elite Guard shattering his front door.
“I am so sorry Steph.” She started, looking up into his eyes. “I am just so terrified. Not just for me, but also for little Nicky. I know we are a poison to this planet, but he is so young. What if something…”
“The launches are getting safer with each one, and there has not been a report of a shuttle accident after launch in months.” Stephano said cutting her off.
Keenly aware of the Churches tight lip about shuttle disaster, he knew his last words were empty ones. However, second only to his belief that Mother was the giver of all life, was his need to keep his family safe and together.
“We will be fine, I promise.” He said. “Let’s wrap this up for tonight. We have a long day tomorrow. The launch is in three days.”
“I know; I count down every minute.” She said testily and pulled herself his arms.
Nicky’s squeals of joy warbled from Stephano’s helmet speakers as they struggled to emulate the highest notes. He turned his head to see Nicky floating towards him from one of the small platforms. The platforms, one at each of the two main hatches, afforded a horizontal place in this vertical world for colonists to stand while a technician rigged up the hoist.
One of the technicians just finished strapping Stephano in, and braced himself on an empty seat to receive Nicky. As Nicky floated into the vicinity, the technician reached up and stabilized the tiny space suit, guiding him into the seat.
Two by two, the technician packed them into the lunar colonial shuttles like a bunch of sardines. Stephano searched his memory before coming up with the name their instructor spouted during their orientation.
Lunar Colonization Shuttle Mark IV. Essentially, it was a cargo shuttle with view ports punched into the outboard bulkheads. To accommodate human cargo, engineers rigged flimsy looking seats that slotted into evenly spaced rails. As he looked out the viewport directly to his right, he could see another shuttle pointing at the heavens on a distant launch pad.
The shuttle looked like a box that tapered to a crew cockpit at the front, and flared out to stubby wings towards the rear. Stephano thought the profile looked sleek with its dual horizontal stabilizers, if not for the myriad of tanks and rockets strapped to its underside. Those made the Mark IV look pregnant.
It took a lot of fuel to get these oversized cattle trucks to the moon. As tanks and rocket stages expelled their fuel, explosive bolts facilitated the Mark IV shedding its bulk. Each tank and its miles of plumbing, creating multiple failure points. The dire by-product of quickly modifying a low earth orbiting shuttles for deep space travel.
Nicky’s excited voice pulled Stephano’s attention back into his families shuttle.
“How long until we blast off dad?”
“It will be a little while yet Nicky. It takes a while for the technicians to get forty-eight of us strapped in. I think twelve shuttles are launching this cycle. There is a lot that needs to get synced up before we launch.” Stephano said as he looked around to check the cattle loading progress.
Every time Nicky chirped, the excitement in his voice was clear. For Katie, it was quite the opposite; she choked on her fear with every word. Stephano hoped he was having more success concealing his own.
He could not help but reflect on how dangerous this all was. How little prepared him, his family, and the forty-five other Lunar colonists are for this expedition. In preparation for this day, Stephano read up on the original shuttle missions. The one the old space agency NASA used for supplying the long dead International Space Station and other near Earth orbit missions.
Anyone flying those missions trained for months, if not years. Even the civilian scientists who flew one-mission, trained for months. Yet, here he was with his wife and four-year-old son. Their only training, the equivalent of a pre-takeoff airlines briefing.
“In the unlikely event of a catastrophic failure, your suit will provide you with life support until rescue arrives. Each family has their own com channels. You can change com channels using the selector on your wrist cuff…etc.…etc.…etc.”
No real training, just enough of an orientation so that you might not kill yourself. Nicky was only four years old for Mothers sake! Stephano implored silently.
Yet, as he looked around, Nicky was not the only tiny space suit in these featureless rows of aluminum and Kevlar seats. Some were older, others younger, and a few, too small for suits with appendages. Instead, the smallest colonists rode out the launch in what amounted to cocoons.
“Couldn’t mother be saved some other way?” Stephano said into his faceplate after making sure his radio was off.
His coms remained off for several minutes as he wrestled with the emotions that overwhelmed him. Needing to be the face of strength for the last few months did not allow him to show his fear, now, the isolation of the suit and his window seat gave him that moment.
It took him way too long to wrest his emotions under control when he felt Katie shaking his shoulder. Stephano turned on his com to hear his wife asking.
“…are you ok?”
“Yeah, I am fine.” Stephano replied, after making a show of getting his radios working again.
“I must have accidentally touched the wrong icon.” He finally said hoping there was no trace of emotion in his voice.
“Well then you missed the ten minute warning.” she said. Her voices seeped with tears.
“We are in the ten minute countdown dad.” Nicky cried out excitedly, jumping into the conversation.
“I heard your mom Nicky.”
“We are supposed to switch to the all shuttle channel, and monitor the countdown.” Katie said, still struggling to control the emotion in her voice.
“Yes…all shuttle channel. Okay, let’s change, and listen. Nicky, you need to keep it down. Everything from here on out is listen only. Okay?” Stephano said, trying to lock eyes with his son to impart how serious he was.
“Roger dad.” Nicky said, embracing the whole astronaut thing.
Words could not describe the fresh fear that welled up within Stephano. Nausea gripped his stomach, turning the rest of his intestines to liquid. His chest tightened, making breathing difficult. He barely registered the distant feeling of his wife trying to hold his hand through bulky gloves. Gloves designed to give them hope for survival in an unlikely event, but lousy for imparting comfort.
If not for his wife and son, Stephano knew he would be in full fledge panic mode. Judging by the muffled whimpers and cries coming across the all shuttle channel, he was not the only one struggling with his fear. He knew his wife and son heard what he was hearing.
Stephano muted his microphone, and did the same for his family. Then, straining against their restraints, he joined faceplates with the three of them.
“We will be fine. I promise you, we will all be fine. Don’t let the sounds of others worry you. Dozens of shuttles make it to the moon every month. Okay” He said to his family.
Katie’s eyes relaxed a bit, comforted by the strength in her husband’s voice. Nicky’s danced with excitement at his dad’s brave words and all that was happening around them.
Much to Stephano’s surprise, as the countdown passed through thirty seconds, a crescendo of voices started to rise up over the all shuttle channel.
As each second passed, the sound of sobbing and praying gave way to more voices joining into the countdown. At twenty seconds, all voices were one.
A shuddering tremor ran through the shuttle, as the countdown ticked past 10 to go, signaling engine ignition. At five seconds, a thundering explosion rocked his family’s shuttle and the right side of the shuttle cabin glowed orange. Stephano turned his head to see a fireball were the shuttle on the distant launch pad used to stand. Nevertheless, the countdown continued without regard to the tragedy outside his port.
As all voices called out the number “one”, the shaking change in pitch and fervor. It no longer felt restrained; instead, it felt powerful and liberated. Stephano afforded a glance out the view port, and was astonished at the pace the shuttle was accelerating. His angle to the horizon was changing rapidly, and the pace of change increasing with each passing second.
The radio traffic between ground control and the shuttles hurtling towards space ceased for a moment after launch. Instead, the cries of fear and the groans of passengers straining under the G forces came through his helmet speakers. Stephano wanted to lift his arm and change the channels of his and his family’s suits, but he could not lift his arms.
“All shuttles, your first separation will occur on my mark. 3…2…1…mark.” Came through Stephano’s helmet speakers.
He felt and heard a small disturbance in the mind numbing shaking as explosive bolts blew the first spent tanks away from the shuttles under belly. Collectively everyone in the cabin held his or her breath. Then, as seconds passed, and the vibration continued, a collective sigh followed.
Baby steps, Stephon thought. With each successful transition, they were that much closer to their new home.
A few minutes later, ground control announced and performed another countdown, followed by yet another unsettling disturbance in the endless shaking. This time, Stephano thought he caught the orange glow of another shuttle becoming a growing fireball outside the left view ports. Yet, he was so wore down by the damn shaking and noise; he wasn’t sure what was happening. Then, without notice, the powerful shaking and mind-numbing roar stopped.
They were weightless.
The only thing visible through all the viewports in Stephano’s range was black, with tiny pinpricks of light. They reached space. The most dangerous part of the journey was behind them. No longer was gravity trying to wrest his hurtling cattle truck back to earth.
He was not naive enough to believe that this part of the journey was without peril. There was still several metric tons of propellant strapped to their belly. This shuttle and those that survived the launch still had a couple of burns left. Space debris, uncharted comets, structural failure. All those were possibilities over the next few days.
Nevertheless, launch failures were the most common. In his mind, the worst was behind them.
* * * * *
Stephano was not sure what the reentry method was going to be for a vehicle designed to fly in atmosphere. This shuttle was a second-generation low earth orbital spacecraft. Part of a program in the development stage, as the Church rose to power. Its airframe and stubby airfoils needed earth’s heavy atmosphere for the craft to land. Nothing in their lunar colony orientation covered what actually happened once they reached the moon.
Maybe the odds were worse than he anticipated. Stephano thought grimly to himself.
However, based on the passage of days since launch, and the frequent firing of deceleration and maneuvering rockets, Stephano knew they were close to their destination. Nothing about the passenger cabin afforded a foreword view. Therefore, it was all speculation as to how close they were to the Moon.
Initially, the Moon came into view out of the left view ports, as they seemed to establish an orbit. It was not until he watched one of the other shuttles maneuver into the docking clamps of a massive space station did he have a clue as to how they would get to the moon’s surface.
Soon after the sounds of his own shuttle docking subsided, the cabin speakers came alive with announcements.
“Colonists with last names starting with the letters A through M, you are designated blue alpha. Colonists with last names starting with the letters N through Z, you are designated blue bravo. Each of you will follow the lighted signs to your designated lunar surface shuttle. Once you reach the end of the boarding coupling, turn left, the lighted signs will be overhead with arrows pointing you in the right direction. Your personal belonging will travel to the moon’s surface on a different lunar shuttle.
“May Mother Earth bless you all, and safe journeys.”
Within a second or two of the overhead announcements ending, a crewmember held up her hand and called for everyone’s attention.
“If you have not already done so, please make sure your launch suit is complete, and properly stashed under your seats.” She said, her voice coming over the overhead speakers.
Stephano looked around, then down at his son. Most of his son’s space suit lay scattered about their three seats, with the bulk of it stuffed under the seat. Katie was already gathering it up as the crewmember spoke. Stephano wondered if they cleaned them at all before reissuing them to the next bunch of cattle.
“There is a boarding coupling at the rear of the cabin, and one towards the front. Please head to the nearest coupling. Do not delay; the landing shuttles are on a programmed schedule, and missing yours could lead to long delays before you make it to the surface.
“Thank you, and enjoy your life in your new home.” She finished with.
Stephano did not see, nor hear any sincerity in her voice. For her, it was a trip back to Earth in this tin can, and another launch. He wondered how many cycles this shuttle made to date. Then wondered how many cycles a shuttle can make. Finally, the grim realization that there likely has never been a retired shuttle sent a shiver down his spine.
“Good thing we all have the same last name.” Katie said to him as they finished stowing launch suits. “Hate to ride down with nothing but strangers.”
“Funny how that worked out.” Stephano quipped back.
They boarded the landing shuttle through a hatch in the shuttles topside. Stephano motioned for his wife and son to precede him. As his head cleared the hatch, he was surprised to see large open glass along both sides of the landing shuttle. The space station side of the shuttle only showed an up-close view of the station. However, the Moon side afforded a spectacular view of their new home.
There was no doubt about humanities intentions on the Moon’s surface. Small domes pocked the surface, twinkling in the suns unfiltered light. In what looked like the center of the near side, Stephano could see that a very large dome was under construction. He wondered if the clear material was that new transparalloy he read about in the technology forums. He doubted the building material was simple glass. Especially in this hostile environment.
Before taking his seat and strapping in, he checked Nicky’s straps, and gave Katie’s a cursory inspection. His chivalrous nature kicked in when at the slightest sign of danger. As he finished buckling in, a robotic voice came from the overhead speakers.
“Lunar drop in three minutes.”
A two-minute warning followed, then the one minute. Finally, a second by second countdown started at thirty seconds. Once they reached one, the meaning of the word drop became apparent. The holding clamps released, and the shuttle slowly fell away from the lunar space station. There was no sensation of falling, just an eerily quiet change in perspective. The Moons own gravity slowly pulled the landing shuttle away from the station.
Stephano craned his neck around, hoping to get a look at the station, and to fulfil his morbid curiosity. Slowly the tails of lunar colonial shuttles came into view. He counted them, and only made it to nine. Maybe the others docked at an angle he could not see. Yet, a part of his mind knew that was not the case. He knew for sure he saw one explode on its launch pad. A second one, just before they cleared Earth’s atmosphere.
For a moment, he wondered if the loss of all that life was worth saving Mother Earth. The moment was brief, and he returned his attention to their descent to the Moon.
Stephano clawed himself to wakefulness in an attempt to escape the nightmare. As he sat upright in bed, the cool air chilled his sweat-dampened body. For a long time he stared into the darkness before slipping out of bed. Once he was on his feet, he waited a moment to see if Katie would ask what was wrong. She didn’t stir.
Stephano felt around with his feet for his jumpsuit, stepped into it, and pulled it on. The remnants of the nightmare still haunting him as he fumbled his way to the living and dining area of their small apartment. There he retrieved his boots, laced them up, and headed towards the hatch. Just as he touched a finger to the keypad, he heard a faint sound behind him.
“Where you going daddy?” Nicky’s sleepy voice called from behind.
Not even the sight of his sons innocent, sleep puffy face, and rocket ship pajamas, could ease the terror of tonight’s nightmare on his soul.
Stephano forced a smile before answering.
“I was thinking of taking a little stroll Nicky.”
“To where?” Nicky followed up with after giving his dads answer some thought.
“I think I was headed towards the Earth First dome. Mother should look spectacular at this time of night.” Stephano replied.
“Can I come with?” Nicky asked meekly.
“Sure, get some socks.” He replied.
They opened the Earth First Dome a couple of Earth weeks ago. It offered a park, which was open to anyone who worked in essential services. His plum piped coveralls, and Systems Engineer ID badge allowed him twenty-four seven access. This would be his third trip with his family since it opened.
Well, two thirds this trip, he thought to himself as he helped Nicky with his socks, then boots. This trip, it would just be the guys.
It was the early hours of the morning by Moon time, and as a result, Nicky was not his usual chatty self. As they walked, Nicky asked only the occasional question, and did so in a whisper.
Stephano was enjoying his sons company. Not often did he get the opportunity to have some time alone with him. From the moment just before launch, coupled with everyday life in a vacuum, made him forever thankful to have a son, a family, and a life to enjoy.
Upon reaching the park, they headed directly to the pond. Stephano thought it was a fitting tribute to all humanity gained since starting the process of settling the Moon. Standing water on the Moon’s surface. It might be under a transparalloy dome, and processed from recycled waste, but the Moon now supported water.
Stephano looked at the reflection of Mother Earth in the still water and placed a hand on his sons head. He and his family settled the moon just over a year ago. Ever since, Stephano was keenly aware of new families arriving weekly.
On occasion, when he looked into cloudless black void that served as his new homes sky, he could see the twinkling of arriving shuttles. He used to count how many, but now refrained from doing so. It would do no good, he convinced himself. Since he had no idea how many launched at a time these days. In reality, the count was never what he expected.
“Mother is going to be okay now…right dad?” Nicky asked, shifting his focus from the reflection of Earth, to the real thing, then back.
“I think so Nicky.” Stephano said, lying to his son.
In reality, if the rumors were true, fires ravaged Mother Earth. Tanks and bombs turned her soil. Since their departure just over a year ago, war spread across Mother Earth. The voices of opposition to the Exodus turned violent. Not everyone believed humanity was a blight on Mother Earth. By the time the powerful armies of the Church of Earth First silenced those voices, the damage to Mother might be irreversible.
Nicky looked up at him, and smiled. Stephano smiled back. Nicky’s smile broadened before his four-year-old attention changed focus, and he started to walk along the edge of the pond.
Relieved that he was not imparting his trouble thoughts on his son. Stephano closed his eyes, and visions of his nightmare came rushing forward.
Thousands of souls floating aimlessly in space. The lives of those slaughtered in the endless list of shuttle accidents. Men, woman, and children.
Souls forever lost in the empty void. No longer knowing where home was. Unsure of their final resting place. Wrenched from their homes and families on Earth, fired into the heavens only to die there. Forever lost in space, forming an ever-expanding spectral cloud between Mother Earth, and this lifeless rock.
It was just a nightmare, he reminded himself.
Nicky once again stood at his side, innocent face looking up at him.
“How long until all people are gone from Mother Earth?” Nicky asked.
Stephano craned his head back, raising his eyes up to Mother Earth. North America stood prominently before him. A storm system spun across the Rockies.
“There is over seven billion people on Earth Nicky. It will take some time.” He said in response to his son’s question.
In reality, he had no idea how long it would take. The Church was firing human beings into space as fast as they could recover shuttles, and build new ones.
“It will take a few years I think.” Stephano followed up with, hating to leave his sons questions unanswered.
Nicky was now looking up through the transparalloy dome. It looks like a big blue marble.” He said. “I am so glad we are making her better.”
Stephano looked down at his son, the blue orb of Earth reflecting in his hazel eyes, the innocence in his sons features calming his troubled soul.
“So am I Nicky, so am I.”
Stephano closed his eyes again. The nightmare was gone. His son’s faith in the Church and its mission driving it from his conscience.
“This is the only way.” Stephano whispered.
He stared up at the Earth for a moment longer, and then turned to his son.
“Let’s go make your mom some breakfast.”
“Okay.” Nicky shot back.
Stephano listened to his sons banter, answering an endless stream of questions. A part of him was conscious of the new wave of shuttles approaching the orbital space station. However, he chose to ignore that there was only six.