I had intended to publish a short story on this blog as part of my 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11, but with one thing and another I never actually finished the story. Recently, however, I needed to come up with a flash fiction piece (i.e., under 1,000 words) as part of my writing group’s contribution to a local literary festival. And it occurred to me that the story I’d planned to publish here would be perfect. But first I had to finish it. And then chop it down to 1,000 words. Which I did. And I think it came out quite well.
So here it is:
“Radar lights are out.”
“That’s a Verb 57?”
Capcom confirms, “You’re go for a Verb 57.”
“Descent rate 70 feet per second… passing through 36 thousand… pitch 72…”
Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon.
The LM approaches the Mare Ingenii, a lava-flooded crater. It looks like a real sea. Except it’s grey, a flat featureless grey like an under-exposed black and white photograph. A collapsed rim resembles two fjords. Carr can imagine a fishing port at the shore, a cluster of monochrome houses, with a monochrome jetty and little monochrome dories. Carr is USMC, he knows boats.
“Okay at 20,000,” Carr says. “Computer and PNGS on the button. 1:20 to pitchover.”
He feeds flight data to Roosa. They pitch over and begin to descend vertically.
“Ready for touchdown.”
“20 feet… 10 feet… contact.”
Not even a vibration through his boots. Carr feels a moment of vertigo, the moonscape visible through the window tips one way then the other. He blows out noisily; it’s enough to break the spell.
He says, “Engine stop, engine arm, command override off, PNGS on auto.”
Roosa says the magic words, but Houston can’t hear them:
“Centaurus has landed.”
Both astronauts want to go out onto the lunar surface, but they’re not scheduled for EVA for another three hours. First is a rest period, but they’re too keyed-up to sleep.
“What they used to call this?” Carr asks.
“Sea of…” His Latin isn’t up to it.
“Sea of Dreams. But it’s not a mare. Except this bit, so they called it Sea of Cleverness. Ironic, huh?”
“I guess.” Carr is not big on irony. He’s a marine.
Roosa bounces round to face Carr. “What’s what?”
“I saw something flash.” Carr points north-east. The rim of Thomson there is broken, forming inlets into the “sea” of the crater’s floor.
“A flash? Like a reflection off a mineral?”
“Worth checking out.” It’s some 12 kilometres away, so about an hour on the LRV.
“Be careful,” says Weitz.
Roosa acknowledges. He turns to look at the LM — bright silver, with its golden skirt. He got to come here, he marvels. Three days on the dark side. He made a first, he’s going down in the history books.
Like Neil Armstrong.
The floor of Thomson could have been made for the LRV, the going is so smooth. Roosa pushes the T-bar forward, and the speedometer needle creeps up to 15 kph.
“Boy,” says Carr, “we’re really motoring here.”
“Yeah. Who needs a Corvette?”
Carr directs Roosa to where he saw the flash. Roosa nudges the T-bar and the LRV arcs to the right.
Ahead, something sparkles. Sunlight spilling over the horizon makes the lunar surface a place of black shadows and grey twilight. But there’s something bright hiding in a fold in the tumbled-down rim.
From a kilometre away, it’s hard to tell what it is, though vision is sharp in the vacuum. Carr squints and makes out a suggestion of…
… something regular?
“You think it might be a Luna? One of those Russian probes?”
No, it’s too big. Carr has seen photos of the Luna probes: they looked like boilers on legs, like some robot from a 1950s B-movie.
The LRV slows to a stop. Roosa sits and stares at the object in the shadows. It’s a spacecraft. It lies crumpled against the slope, broken-backed, its engine bell towards them.
They disembark, and Roosa approaches the crashed spacecraft slowly. Is it alien? He’s heard of UFOs, of lights buzzing planes; but he doesn’t subscribe.
He can see the upper half of the craft. It looks familiar.
“Holy shit,” he says. “You’re not gonna believe this.”
It’s obvious now. Roosa can see exactly what it is:
A Mercury capsule.
Just like the ones flown by Al, John, Gus, the Original Seven. He can see the words “United States” on its side.
“Jesus,” says Carr. “How the hell did that get here?”
Roosa moves up the slope. The capsule looks undamaged. He’s close enough to see the hatch… and the curve of a helmet within.
“Stay back,” he warns.
There’s no movement, but it pays to be cautious. His breath is louder than the PLSS fans. The hatch is cracked open a few inches. He hauls it up.
Inside, belted into the single seat, sits a figure in a silver pressure suit. His head is slumped forward, hiding his face.
“No way is Houston going to believe this.”
The dead astronaut has the Star and Stripes on his shoulder. It’s impossible.
Roosa reaches in and shifts the body. Now he can see the nametag:
“Jesus,” says Carr. “I found a flag stuck on a pole here.”
“Stars and Stripes?” asks Roosa. He’s still staring at the dead astronaut.
Roosa steps back from the capsule. He looks down at his feet, and sees his bootprints. They’ll last a million years. He sees more bootprints, not his. Kincheloe survived the crash.
“Know what this is?” Roosa remembers now. “I heard about it back at Edwards. Project Pilgrim. A one-way shot to the Moon.”
They actually went and did it. They sent a man to the Moon on a one-way ticket. He planted a flag here, then he died.
“Neil will be pissed,” Roosa says.