By Samuel O'Slaine
Storytelling is an art. It is the art of entertaining an audience by creating a narrative. We’ve decided to try an experiment with this upcoming serial, and that is to include the readership in the narrative process. We’ll be telling a story as a serial; we encourage suggestions that we can include in later episodes of the story, and we’ll try to incorporate these if that is possible.
With one exception, the story is aiming for plausible, without supernatural or magical interventions. We’ll not be including impossible suggestions, and we can’t guarantee inclusion of the implausible. Still, we’ll do our best.
The serial will be written on a two-week cycle. We’ll take note of the suggestions in the first week after publication, and write the next part incorporating those suggestions in the second. Put simply: you’ve a week to get your suggestions into the comment section.
Episode 1 - A World Apart
Commander John Masters pushed a penny off the edge of the table, and then pushed another off the other side. Then he caught the first before it hit the floor, and then the second. It was a childish habit, but he enjoyed it. On Earth, the higher gravity meant that by the time he’d pushed the second penny off, the first had hit the ground. His record here on the Moon was four pennies. He would have to ask the boffins if it was possible to get into a rhythm and keep going indefinitely.
The Old Man was getting worried. They could make oxygen and dispose of carbon dioxide; they could grow food. What they couldn’t do what was make water. Once that had gone, that would be an end. To get the water, they needed the Selene to work. To get the Selene to work, they needed the gravity-opaquing cavorite. It was the only way to overcome the bonds of Earth’s gravity. There was no more cavorite on Earth; the last had been used to get them here. It was here on the Moon. They just had to get it. It was a race against time.
Every time he thought of that, he felt a little guilty. He wasn’t a boffin, who could find the cavorite. He wasn’t an engineer who could get the cavorite. He wasn’t an administrator who could run the place. He was responsible for security, which was the most useless job you can have on a Moon Base. There was no-one else within a quarter of a million miles. There were no natives, or wild animals. The only danger was from accidents.
It was time for him to do his rounds. On a boat, rounds would be to check the people and the state of the boat. Here, well, actually, here it was to check the people and the state of the base. On a boat, the first key thing was to keep the water out. A leaking submarine quickly becomes a coffin. On a Moon Base, the first key thing was to keep the air in. He’d thought carefully about the problem when they had left, and he was pleased with his solution. In coal mines, they used to use canaries to warn of troubles. He’d brought along a canary feather. He could use it to test for any breeze.
It was an affectation. Everyone knew that it was an affectation, but at least it made sure that everyone was aware that a breeze meant that there was a serious problem.
Unlike a submarine, repairs to the hull were easier. In a submarine, the pressure forced a patch on the hull into the boat, so the patch was best placed on the outside, with the pressure holding it in place. You needed to go outside to make effective repairs. In a moon base, a patch on the inside was held in place by pressure. Not that they’d needed to do any repairs. The caverns were solid, the rendering of good quality. That wasn’t a surprise to John; the people who did the drilling and the rendering lived here, and their lives depended on the quality of their work.
John wished that the people who built submarines had to go down in them when they first submerged. It would ensure fewer leaks, he was certain of that.
They’d learned a lot about building a Moon Base, John thought ruefully as he walked towards the Admin area. For a start, ceilings would be higher. An injudicious, enthusiastic step, and you found yourself jumping, and your head hit the ceiling. People had started to walk with their head hunched down, but the habits of a lifetime weren’t overcome in a month. Striding purposefully wasn’t a good idea, not if you valued your head. Until one got used to it, getting anywhere in a hurry was a painful process.
Administration was only a small section. It saw to organising the Base, and the Base didn’t need that much organising. Everyone knew their job, and everyone was dedicated enough to work hard at their job. But then, it was a simple issue: either they got the cavorite, or they died. That concentrated efforts considerably.
There were fifty people on the base, and eight of them were administrators. One from each of the contributing countries, each looking out for their national interest. Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Japan, America, and Italy. They were supposed to coordinate things, like the Concert of Nations. They were too much like the Concert of Nations; squabbling about petty things, point-scoring, and more intent on the national interest than working as a team.
Luckily, the technical people didn’t need them. They had technical problems to work on, and scientists adore talking to other scientists to solve these kinds of problems.
The administrators were having a meeting. This time it was about whether a processing plant would be best at this base, or building another base to process at a discovered site. John wanted to shout at them. It’s all moot if we can’t get it in the first place.
Edith was busy taking notes. Edith was their secretary, a patient, placid lass. She looked up as John arrived, and smiled ruefully. After these meetings, she always wanted to sound off about the frustrations she felt. The administrators continued to argue, and she caught the eye of the chairman, Mikhail. They’d decided to rotate chairmanship, and today was the turn of the Russian.
The administrators hadn’t been pleased when the specialists on Earth had explained how women were smaller than men, and therefore used less food, water, and air, and that therefore women were better suited than men to fulfil non-essential tasks – note-taking, lab-cleaning, and so on. It was annoying, and John’s biggest headache. Ensuring the safety of the ladies was a problem. Privacy is hard to arrange on a base such as this.
“We shall take a break,” Mikhail said on seeing John. “Is it necessary to keep checking the structure? There is no breeze; everything is secure.”
“I also need to make sure water collection is taking place. Your breath contains water, it condenses on the walls, we collect it.”
“It is little.”
“Fifty people. It builds up. We collect three gallons a day. Buys us more time for our work.”
No-one knew why Mikhail was obsessed with secrecy about these discussions. It wasn’t as though they could tell anyone off the base. Theoretically, they could send a radio signal, but after a quarter of a million miles, there would be nothing left of the signal. Nothing could send a signal sufficiently focused over that distance. Despite that, there was a communications specialist on the base.
The administrators took a break while John checked the room. Edith had something she wanted to say, but she was waiting for John to ask her about it. They’d started playing the game of seeing who gave in first. This time, it was Edith.
“You know, I was talking to Hercule, the astronomer. Apparently, astronomy is much easier when you’re not trying to look through atmosphere. He’s been thinking about the water problem, and he thinks we can solve it once we get the cavorite. Those asteroids near Mars and a bit further, well, he’s checked their libido, and some of them are basically ice. All we need to do is grab one, and we’ll have ample water.”
“Sorry, I meant albedo,” Edith said with a hint of a smile.
“Aren’t the distances a problem? It’s what, a hundred million miles away. That’s four hundred times the distance between the Earth and here, and it took us a week to get here, so that’s an eight-year trip there.”
“Oh, no. We can keep accelerating for much longer. It would take eighteen months, Hercule thought.”
As always, there was nothing untoward about the area. There had to have been a better layout for the base than the one used. A central living area, with six corridors leading off of it, like short spokes from a wheel hub. One to the administration area, one to the storage area, one to the power supply, one to the laboratories, one for the recycling and growing areas, and one to the outside. Heavy doors at each end of each corridor, and it was impossible for two doors in a corridor to be open at the same time. The living area had a small section for the women, their refuge.
The trouble was, there was no rim corridor, and to get from one area to another, you had to go via the living area. The doors were far heavier than they needed to be, and it was irritating when you wanted to open a door, and the door at the other end was being held open while someone moved equipment.
There wasn’t much to check at what everyone called the front door. A series of moon-suits, like a deep-sea diver’s suit, with air canisters on the back. He counted the suits, and all twelve were there. Then he checked each of them to make sure everything seemed to be in order. Anyone going outside would go through the checks, but in this environment, you always double-checked everything.
The laboratories were busy. The scientists were aware that they needed to find the cavorite. The measurements had indicated that there were gravitational anomalies on the Moon that could only be explained by large deposits of unrefined cavorite, centred on this region.
There was cavorite here, no question. The scientists had been clear about that. The only way the gravitational anomalies could be explained was through a large deposit. However, getting a location was proving elusive. If they had a second base, they could get a second bearing of a good concentration, and thus locate it. As it was, it was hard to distinguish a small deposit close to the base from a large deposit farther away.
He checked the recycling and growing area. He did it quickly, because of the smell. Every bit of waste that could not be used in any other way ended up here. Then the other areas, finishing with the laboratories and the scientists.
Check the areas, check the people. It was a never-ending task, and a bit pointless, on the face of it. If something went wrong with the base, it would be an immediate problem, and a daily check wouldn’t make any difference. As for the people, where could anyone go?
It wasn’t pointless, though. Like Sunday Rounds on a ship, it wasn’t to find problems, although that’s what you pointed out. It was to get a feel for brewing problems, especially among the men. You got a feel for changes of mood. Someone who was normally cheerful might seem a bit sullen, or some change of mood. It was a sure guide for telling when the men were concerned.
The scientists were surprisingly happy. They had a problem to solve, and they had access to all the resources available to solve the problem, and the administrators had to listen to them. Unlike the administrators, the scientists weren’t competing with each other, but fighting against the problem. At present, they seemed to be discussing whether to send a party along the bearing of the strongest reading, to take another reading, and the difference in strength would tell how far away the deposit was; or to send out a party at right angles, to get another angle so that two different bearings could be used to get a location.
The discussion was fraught, because going outside was a risk, and everyone was aware that time was running out.
Something niggled at him. He’d not seen Uwe Fochs, the German metallurgist. He asked the others, and no-one could remember seeing him for the last hour or so, and this was unexpected. “He knew there would be a meeting, and he loves speaking at meetings. Loves the sound of his own voice.”
John went back to the front door area, and rechecked the moon-suits. They were all there, none missing. That meant that no-one had left the base, and that meant that Uwe was still somewhere on the base.
But he’d just checked the whole of the base, and he wasn’t there, either.