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Moonbase, Episode 5: A World Apart, Part 5

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. Episode 1 is here. Episode 2 is here. Episode 3 is here. Episode 4 is here.

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 5 - A World Apart, Part 5

There were 50 people on the base, 49 if Fochs was dead. That meant that John Masters had 48 potential suspects to consider, assuming it was a murder. It might not be a murder, but even if it was an accidental death, someone had to have concealed the body. Eight administrators, two commanders, four secretaries, ten maintenance and support staff, himself, and 24 scientists. Six women; three of them secretaries, two scientists, and one in support.

He would ask Edith to ask around the women, and see if any of them had strong views on Fochs. He suspected that the women would talk more freely to her than they did to him. Especially if there was a motive involving inappropriate advances.

Motive, Means, Opportunity. Opportunity depended on the time Fochs had died. As far as John could tell, the last time anyone had seen him was 50 hours ago. They kept to Earth time here. It had taken some debate, but they had decided to synchronise to Greenwich Time. The Old Man, Sumner J. Feldberg, had argued against it, wanting American time. His argument was that he was the commander, and that America had funded the bulk of the project.

Naturally, the Germans had argued for Berlin time, claiming that much of the scientific and design work of the Selene was German. The British argued for Greenwich time, pointing out that the Selene had left Earth from the launching site on the Isle of Wight.

They had solved the problem by chance. The Old Man had drawn lots. He had written out each country onto a separate piece of paper, put them into the helmet of a moon-suit, and drawn one out. That was how John had first noticed Edith. Feldberg gave the paper to Edith as he wrote it out, and she folded it up and put in the helmet. John was sure there was something odd about the way she had put the folded paper into the helmet. He knew that she had done something when Feldberg took out one piece of paper, grimaced, and announced that the Moon Base would be on Greenwich Time. He knew because she showed no sign of surprise at the announcement. She had been expecting it.

John decided that this had security implications, and that was reason enough to speak with her. Having done that, he then sought out further reasons to speak with her, and once he ran out of excuses, he stopped trying to find reasons, and just spent time in her company.

The first thing he needed to do was to ask Edith if any of the women had reason to dislike Fochs.

She glanced away and avoided his eyes when he asked her. He looked sharply. “Did he give any cause for offence?”

She paused a long time before answering. “You know that little joke that goes around?” she said. “When a lady says ‘No’, she means ‘Maybe’. When she says ‘Maybe’, she means ‘Yes’, and if she says ‘Yes’, then she’s no lady.” She paused before continuing. “He assumed that ‘No’ meant ‘Ask again later.’ He was a very tiresome man.”

John frowned. “Did he bother you?”

“It’s hardly an issue, now. But yes, he was a very tiresome man. None of us liked him.”

“He caused trouble with the other women?”

“It’s no longer important.”

John seethed with anger, but there was nothing to be done. “Why didn’t you tell me? He is supposed to be a gentleman! And I am responsible for security.”

“And there was no security problem. Just an annoyance.”

John asked her to find out who was the last woman to speak with him.

“Whoever it was, I know what she would have said to him.”

John wondered how else he could work out when Fochs had last been seen. There was the other issue. He asked how the scientists were getting on in finding a way to reach the cavorite.

Edith frowned. “They’re making progress by eliminating everything that won’t work.”

John snorted. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains has got to work.”

“Very good, John Masters, Consulting Detective.” She went on to explain that the first thing they had done was take an inventory of how long a drill they could make. The answer was just about long enough, assuming no part of the drill extensions snapped, which always happened from time to time. The machinists were working on making more extensions, but they explained that they didn’t have the facilities to make them as strong as on Earth. They could heat treat what they made, but to get the best results, they really needed the expertise of a skilled metallurgist.

Uwe Fochs was the metallurgist on the Base.

Edith also explained that the scientists were certain that the walls of any hole would keep collapsing. “On Earth, they’d just pump water into the hole to stop it collapsing. No water.”

John asked whether the lower gravity would mean that the walls didn’t collapse so easily.

“You’re confusing mass with weight,” Edith explained.

The scientists were working on a scheme. He needed to get on with solving the Fochs’ problem.

John tried to recall all that he could about Fochs as he walked, not too quickly and with his shoulders slouched, to the entranceway to look at the moon-suits. He’d gathered that Fochs was a philanderer, which could have caused issues, either with the ladies, or with any man courting a lady here. He was one of those arrogant superior types you often get at the top of their profession, who knew their speciality, and assumed that this meant that everyone else was an inferior idiot. No-one would commit murder for being annoyed with someone, and yet, John knew that in a small, enclosed environment like this, little annoyances can blow out of proportion. It was an issue on a submarine, where discipline kept it under control, and shore leave allowed sailors to blow off steam.

It wasn’t possible to have shore leave here on the Moon. Maybe something could be arranged for the next base. A relaxation area. John quirked his face into a brief smile. Perhaps a circus clown should be part of the next team. He knew that tensions could easily rise if there was no way to dispose of them. He had started to write notes on how so much effort had been put into getting the physical structure right, and not enough into the psychological impacts of the situation. John suspected that everyone on the base was preparing notes for when they got back.

If they got back. Without the cavorite, this base would be their tomb. That was, however, for the scientists to solve. His job was to determine the truth about Fochs’ disappearance. He had to do it quickly; there was the possibility that the death was an attempt to reduce water consumption, which implied possible further killings.

The first thing he had to do was to look at the moon-suits once again, and see if he had missed anything. With luck, he might get an idea of timing of events.

And, in future, he would make sure that there was automatic logging of when people went outside. A simple logbook wasn’t enough.

Time to check each moon-suit thoroughly. Previously, he had only been looking for tears and damage. This time, well, he didn’t know what he was looking for, so he would examine everything in minute detail. He started with the two tiny moon-suits. Start from the top and work down. The helmet. Solid, connecting lugs intact, all the connections tight and without any wear. No chips or marks on the outside, nothing on the inside. Face mask clear, unscratched, attached. Lugs with a light film of grease to ensure that it fastened to the rest of the suit easily and provided an air-tight seal.

Then he checked the jacket part of the suit. The exterior to see if there were any cuts or tears; the interior to check for wear and tear; the connections for helmet and trousers; the equipment clips, to see if anything had worked loose.

The same again for the trousers, feeling inside all the way to the feet. Nothing out of place, all as it should be. Then the boots. Separate, thick-soled, soft interior, with the sole purpose of protecting the feet of the trousers from damage from the rocks on the surface.

Then he checked the under-suit. This was an unpleasant task. With the best will in the world, these gathered dirt from being close to the skin. That was something that people tried not to think about. The under-suit could be cleaned, but it had to be cleaned without using water. With water in short supply, well, people tried not to think about this.

John finally finished checking the first suit. He had found nothing untoward. He sighed. This would take some time.

He started on the second suit, with the same result. And the third, and the fourth.

The fifth suit was looking the same, until John started to check the inside of the trousers. While he felt inside, his hand came across something rough and hard. He held it, felt it with his fingers, and then slowly drew it out.

Dirt on his fingertips, and he was holding a piece of moon rock.

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