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Sea of Rains - A Science Fiction story

Clouds appear 
and bring to men
a chance to rest

from looking at the moon.
Matsuo Basho

The flash of the meteoroid impact registered in the corner of his eye. It was a small strike, probably under 10 kg, but the light was as bright as the sun for almost three fifths of a second. Ulysses turned to watch the plume of ejected lunar dust as it rose and fell soundlessly only a few hundred metres away. It gave him an idea.

He turned back to look at the figure in the distance. Adjusting his focus he noted no change in the purposeful stride; the suited figure was still headed away from him and clearly hadn’t noticed the impact.

Ulysses transmitted a tight beam of radio waves and watched, satisfied, as the space-suited figure stiffened suddenly in mid-stride and keeled over. The figure fell forwards into the soft regolith and raised a small cloud of dust which soon began to settle. Ulysses smiled inwardly. He relished the poetry of the figure’s impact reflecting the meteoroid’s own slap into the lunar surface.

Almost immediately, the transmissions began.

“Lukas,” squawked the voice. “I have suffered a complete suit failure.” The voice sounded scared but not frantic. “Oxygen production is normal. Repeat, normal. Viewscreen has turned opaque. Suit servos have seized making movement impossible. Are you receiving, Lukas? Over.”

A pause. “Lukas. Please respond. Lukas, get your arse out here. Respond. Over.”

The figure seemed to be rocking from side-to-side in an attempt to turn the suit over and his panting from the exertion was audible in his transmissions. Unfortunately, the heavy suit's smart fabric had system-locked and it was impossible to do more than dig himself deeper into the surface dust.

Another pause. Heavy breathing. “Come on. Jeez, Lukas! I’m face down in the dirt. Lukas? Anybody? Lunar Base Seven-Alpha-Two. Over. Is anybody receiving? This is a Mayday transmission. This is Grant Lignam, Prospector Registration F6269RRT52. My suit has suffered a catastrophic system failure. Please respond, Over. I am immobilised. Repeat, I have suffered a catastrophic system failure of all suit systems except life support. I am unable to move. Please respond, Over.”

Two hours later the transmissions had become less frequent. “Anyone in range of this transmission. This is a Mayday. This is Grant Lignam, Prospector Registration F6269RRT52. I have suffered a total suit system failure. Unable to move. Please respond, Over.” Lignam must have finally realised that the relay satellite would be down for another ten hours and the chances of contacting a passerby was slim. There was only Lukas who Lignam knew to be in range, but he wasn't responding. Ulysses approached from the south and at two hundred metres out, sent a tightbeam.

“Transmission received. Please stand by. I am nearing your position.”

“Oh, thank God.”

On his approach Ulysses ran a full scan of the suited figure. A thin layer of dust coated the surface of the suit and made the once-pristine material look old and grey. Under infrared there was a minimal heat signature, but he had expected that given the insulation efficiency of the suit. Lignam's temperature barely registered as different to the surroundings and he would be difficult to find without knowing his exact location. Or having a radio transmission to triangulate.

“Grant, I'm going to run a diagnostics check.”

Ulysses made a show of checking the oxygen pack on Lignam's back, before turning him over and accessing the computer panel. “Your system isn't responding,” he said, “but oxygen recycling seems normal.”

“Yes. I'm registering two days worth of oxygen and heat. I can't get any readings on GPS or any other system. The viewscreen is blank as well.”

“There's nothing to see,” said Ulysses, “except dust.”

“Who are you?”

“Name's Ulysses,” he replied. “Don't worry. I'm going to try dragging you out of here.” He grabbed the left ankle of the suit and started to pull Lignam through the soft dirt.

“Thank you, Ulysses. I thought I might be stranded until my recycler ran out. I've never known one of these suits to have a complete system failure. I thought I was dead.”

Lignam's suit dug into the soft dust as Ulysses dragged him along the uneven ground. The suit's smart fabric adjusted to the contours of the ground and absorbed the rough treatment.

“You aren't going to drag me all the way to Seven-Alpha-Two, are you?”

Ulyssess laughed. “I have a buggy. It's about five clicks away.”

“Good. This isn't the best way to travel.”

“You are a long way from the nearest base.” It was an observation but held a question in its tone. “Where's your rover?”

“I'm a prospector,” explained Lignam. “PGM's mostly. I tend to find more targets wandering around on foot rather than by rover.”

“You don't have transport, then?”

Lignam paused, as if considering what to reveal. With the nearest lunar outpost around a hundred klicks away he knew it would be considered foolhardy to travel this far without a vehicle. “Yes, I have a tractor,” he said finally. “It's five clicks north.”

Ulysses smiled. It's seven clicks east, he thought. “So you're looking for big meteor strikes to find platinum?”

“Not just platinum,” he replied, “impact sites are the best place to find all of the Platinum Group Metals. Platinum, osmium, rhodium and all the rest. It's hard work to get them out, but they're worth a lot of money.”

Very convincing explanation, thought Ulysses. “And I guess none of the mining consortiums think it's worth the effort to find individual meteors.”

“Exactly,” he agreed. “You're not a prospector then?”

“No. Too much like hard work to me. I suppose I'd be best described as an explorer.”

“An explorer. What's to explore on the moon?”

“You'd be surprised. There's a lot of history littered about the moon.”

Lignam fell silent and Ulysses wondered if he had gone too far. It was a none too subtle hint about Lignam's real purpose. A brief pause later and Lignam started talking again, so perhaps hadn't realised the significance of the comment. “What's your last name? You aren't just Ulysses, are you?”

“Yes, just Ulysses,” he said. “I'm a Nuh-man.”

“Hell, I should have guessed. You're a talking mech.”

Ulysses didn't respond. It was the usual xenophobic response he regularly heard from the ignorant. He knew that he was as valid a living, intelligent creature as Lignam was himself; perhaps more so. The United Nations had even granted Nuhmans full legal rights equivalent to human rights. The comment still grated though and Ulysses gritted his figurative teeth.

“Look, I…,” started Lignam, 'that sounded all wrong. I'm sorry. I mean…I didn't mean to put you down. I really didn't. I'm not like that. I don't have a problem with Nuhmans. I just meant that, well, that I wasn't surprised that you are one. I mean, who else would be wandering around in the middle of nowhere on the moon? You know what I mean, don't you, Ulysses?”

“Sure, I know what you mean.” He let go of his ankle. “I just need to check the route ahead so I'm going to leave you here a minute.”

“Wait,” wailed Lignam. “I said I was sorry. Please don't leave me.”

“Relax. It gets rocky up ahead and I don't want to damage your oxygen pack dragging you through it. I'm not going to leave you here. I'll be back soon.”

“Ok.” Lignam sighed. “Ok. I'm just a bit scared, that's all. I don't mind admitting it. I just feel helpless, and being blind makes it even worse.”

“I understand,” said Ulysses. “Just try and relax.”

It was only moments before Ulysses returned and started to drag Lignam once more. “Who is Lukas?”

“What?”

“You were calling for help from someone called Lukas when I found you.”

Lignam answered nonchalantly. “Lukas is someone I met at the base. Another prospector. I wasn't thinking clearly when my suit failed. Who knows why I called his name?”

I know, thought Ulysses.

He dragged him for another hundred metres and stopped again. “I'm going to try and bypass the actuator controls so I can sit you up.”

“What for?”

“And I'll see if I can get your viewscreen working.”

“Yes, good,” said Lignam, “but why have we stopped again?”

“I need to do something,” explained Ulysses, “and I have something to show you.”

“What?”

“You'll soon see. Can I ask you something though? Do you know where you were when I found you?”

Lignam sighed. He was getting fed up of the conversation but knew he was at Ulysses' mercy. “I was off the grid. The positioning satellite was down.”

“Roughly?”

“I was about 38.33 North and 325.74 East.”

“Sure, but do you know where that is?”

Lignam sounded puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Mare Imbrium,” explained Ulysses, “The sea of rains, that's where you were.”

“Yes, ok. Mare Imbrium. I've heard of it, but nobody talks about places like that anymore.”

“I know they don't. It's a shame though, don't you think? I mean, we use a string of numbers when people used to give places names with meanings.” Ulysses pulled Lignam into a sitting position. “If I said to you 34 degrees 22 minutes North, 109 degrees 15 minutes East, what would that mean to you?”

“That isn't a place on the moon?”

“That's right,” agreed Ulysses, “it's on Earth. It's the location of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of China.”

“Who?”

“Qin Shi Huang. He brought all the kingdoms of China into one country. Impressive character.”

“I don't understand.”

“The only thing you need to understand is that the location of the first Emperor's tomb has been known for hundreds of years,” said Ulysses, “but it is still sealed.”

“What's your point?”

Ulysses sighed. “The Emperor's tomb has never been opened because it is considered to be of incredible historical significance. Opening it would expose it to the elements and might destroy everything inside it. The Chinese government has decided to leave it untouched. They seem to think it's enough to know it's there!”

“So what? You aren't making any sense.”

Ulysses pushed some buttons on the suit's control panel. The opaque filter faded and Ulysses and Lignam came face-to-face through the thin glass dome. Lignam's face looked drawn and fearful, with beads of sweat running into his eyes from his lank hair. Ulysses' metallic lines showed no expression except for his part-organic azure blue eyes which hinted at curiousity. A kind of cruel curiosity like a cat viewing a trapped mouse.

“So I looked in the back of your tractor.”

The look of fear moved towards terror. “It's not what you think.”

“Of course it is.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We'll get to that,” said Ulysses, “but first I want you to tell me why you were going to steal Lunokhod.”

Ulysses stood up and took a step backwards. Lignam strained his head to look past him at a shadow in the dust. A gloved hand thrust up from a mound of dirt in a rigid claw, as if reaching for something. “Oh, god,” he said, “is that Lukas?”

Ulysses glanced over his shoulder. “Yes.”

“You're going to kill me then?”

Ulysses turned and walked past the mound of dirt and picked up what looked like a rake. It was makeshift and had wires running from a battery pack to the tines. He planted it at the edge of the mound and started pulling it backwards. “Lukas tried to kill me so I cracked his visor.” He held up an alloy finger for emphasis. “It was self-defence.”

“You're crazy. You murdered him, and for what? An old machine that nobody cares about.”

Ulysses kept walking in a line, pulling the makeshift rake behind him. Every twenty metres he would turn and come back beside the previous runnels, like ploughing a field. “I've been watching the pair of you for days now, since you arrived at the base. To be fair I thought you were going to try for something from the Apollo 11 site, but even you must realise that you can't get within ten clicks of Tranquility base without setting off dozens of sensor alarms. But Lunokhod? It didn't occur to me at first, but it is genius.” He paused and leaned on the rake for a moment. “It is on the UN protected list but has no sensors near it. The only security comes from the lunar positioning satellites and they have dozens of other protected sites to monitor as well as other functions. It must have been quite simple to scramble the system for a few hours so you wouldn't be noticed.”

“Lukas did that. It was all his idea.”

“Yes, I realise that Lukas was the brains of the operation.” Ulysses resumed his marching with the rake. He passed behind Lignam but kept transmitting. “The replica in the back of your tractor was a very good idea, I have to say. If you simply stole Lunokhod it would be missed eventually, maybe as soon as the satellites came back up, and then you'd be tracked down. But put a replica in its place and it could be years before anybody discovered the switch.”

“Look, Ulysses, we haven't taken it,” said Lignam. “You stopped us. It was a good plan, but Lukas is dead now. We needed the money. Please, just let me go. I'll go back to Earth. You can have Lunokhod for yourself.”

“I don't want it,” he replied, “and I don't want to let you go.”

“Just kill me then. Get it over with.”

“I'm not going to kill you. What would be the point?”

“You killed Lukas!”

“I told you,” said Ulysses, “self-defence. I infected your suit easily with a Trojan virus, but Lukas had military grade security installed and I couldn't hack his suit. He also had a projectile weapon; a lunar-adapted one too. And he really wanted me to stop talking to him. At least, I assume that was the reason for shooting me. Lucky for me I'm quite tough.” He stepped into Lignam's line of sight and tapped his chest. “I'm the Tin Man. No heart, and no wizard to help me get one. Stops bullets though.”

Lignam sobbed. “You're a fucking crazy android. Let me gooooooooooo!” he yelled. “Somebody help me. Hellllp!”

“No use shouting. Your transmissions have been on tightbeam since I took over your suit. Nobody can hear you except me.”

Lignam sobbed. “What do you want from me?”

“Patience.” Ulysses walked back into view just beyond the lines he had made in the dusty regolith. “Do you know anything about Lunokhod? No need to answer, it was rhetorical. All you needed to know was that its worth an awful lot of money to a rich collector on Earth. Right?”

“Fuck you, Ulysses.”

“Lunokhod was a pioneer robot rover. It landed on the moon just after the Americans sent men here. The Russians didn't realise the space race was over, and they had lost, or maybe they didn't care. Or maybe they believed they were the tortoise against the hare. I mean, fifty years later they were leading the race again. The point though, is that a century-and-a-half ago Lunokhod was at the cutting edge of technology and space exploration. It was built to last three months but kept trundling along in this harsh environment for almost a year.”

“Yeah, and so it's worth a fortune.”

“Lunokhod is a piece of history. It deserves to be protected. It belongs to all mankind. It's part of our heritage.”

“Our heritage,” he snarled, “you're a fucking machine.”

“My body is a machine; my brain functions just like yours. Probably better. At least I have scruples.” Ulysses held up the makeshift rake. “See this, I made it myself. It's a sintering rake.” Lignam said nothing. “Lunar soil has some interesting properties. Like it sticks to everything.” He looked down at his alloy feet. “I have to keep emitting a mild negative charge to stop it sticking to me.”

“Please let me go.”

Ulysses ignored him. “The tines of this rake emit concentrated microwaves which cause the lunar dust to coalesce. It means the marks I've made will stay in place, perhaps forever.”

“Am I supposed to care? You made some lines in the dirt. No doubt they have some obscure significance that I'm meant to understand.” He spat into his visor. “Fuck you, Ulysses. I don't care about your stupid game anymore. Just let me go.”

“Don't worry,” responded Ulysses. “I'm almost at the end now.” He lifted the rake onto his shoulder. “These lines I've made are a Japanese rock garden. You are sitting in a meteoroid impact crater and, along with our friend Lukas over there, you represent islands. The parallel lines I've made in the dust represent water, an ocean. Quite fitting, really, because this is Mare Imbrium, the sea of rains.”

Lignam sat silently. His watery eyes reflected his fear. He was alone and helpless and there was nothing he could do about it.

“I'm leaving now,” said Ulysses.

“Are you going to let me go?”

“No, but I'm leaving you with a fighting chance.”

“What chance?”

Ulysses spread his arm to encompass the rock garden. “The relay satellite will be working again soon and the software is smart enough to spot this garden as an anomaly. You have two days of air left. You just have to hope that somebody thinks this is interesting enough to come and take a look.”

“No, Ulysses,” he said, “you're condemning me to death. You may as well kill me now.”

“I'm giving you a chance.”

“Please, Ulysses.”

“Do you know what this type of rock garden is also called? A Garden of Contemplation.” Ulysses turned and began to walk away. “You have a lot to think about. Use the time wisely.”

Lignam began to plead and wail, but Ulysses cut off the transmission. The silence fit the landscape and his mood. Ulysses had a long walk back to the lunar base, but he never tired of the sublime beauty of the moon. It's a good day to be alive, he thought.

Fiction


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