Lunar Voices (On the Solar Wind)
Nicks’s story is the winning entrant in our Accessible Futures Contest.
The lunar rover rolled to a halt in the shadow of Shackleton crater and a chill entered Phulani’s bones. His suit had registered a drop of 250 degrees Celsius on his visor display within just a few minutes. He could well imagine the sparse, rare ice locked within the crater’s frigid soil the other side of these walls, gradually being mined and piped back to Base.
But the full extent of the temperature gauge crash had locked his throat with shock, he couldn’t even speak.
Baines could: “Give your suit time to adjust. They’ve built these bastards well.”
Phulani’s helmet-lamp kicked in, bringing the person in the spacesuit next to him out of the darkness. He could spot the Scottish Soltaire stitched in the left side and could just about make out her name underneath, perhaps because he knew it already and knew it well, Mary Patrick.
Baines himself sat at the front, the driver and always in control, a voice crackling out of the dark: “We’re out of radio com from Base now, as we haven’t got any satellite relays in lunar orbit yet. Just listen…”
Phulani wanted to say something to Baines, anything that would get an affirming response, an acknowledgement. He felt very much a raw novice. But he could think of nothing impressive to say, so he reluctantly kept quiet…and listened.
There was nothing to hear in that long empty silence.
Absolutely no sound. The silence seemed to want a voice, shrilling in his eardrums like a thin static radio whine. Perhaps it was a sub-threshold crackle in their interpersonal communication system or perhaps it was just his ears straining for a sound, any sound?
His lamp picked out the stiff, aloof back of Baines’ sitting suit, and he noticed his helmet was craned back, as if Baines was searching the sky. Involuntarily, he slowly arched his own neck too, joints in the articulated neck-piece attached to his helmet groaning in his ears, although he knew no noise could be relayed in this frigid vacuum. It was then that he saw them.
Thousands of sharp, brightly coloured stars, spattering across his vision, ice cold and crisp, red, yellow, blue. Not flickering, but steady, piercing, and skewering something inside him, so that he almost winced with pain. Old light, many of those stars millions of years old, but burning so brightly still in this ongoing, empty darkness.
A flutter of two green electronic hands washed across his visor’s com display top right – Mary had clicked her suit and British Sign Language (BSL) words formed from scalp electrodes reading her brain, registering her holographic visualisation of how she intended to move her hands.
He didn’t need to read the tiny text translation below those flurrying hand shapes. Baines needed that, he didn’t.
Beautiful, burning now, both before we be and after we be, yet not caring *if* we be.
(Holographic hands had glowed on ‘if’, as if emphasising the word.)
Mary was looking up at the stars too. He half-wished he could touch her real hand, so well had she signed some of the thoughts that danced around his own. But there was not even a hint of his other thoughts there, so he kept his gloves to himself. He knew it was crazy, but still he also had a sense of Heavenly Cattle feet tramping the sky, opening up holes of starry light, a way through to iNkosi yaphezulu, Lord-of-the-Sky. That had been grandfather’s favourite story, dead grandfather’s favourite story, ukuhamba dead grandfather, who continues on.
But he had to forget those stories. Science alone would keep him alive on this dead and dusty world.
“There!” Baines pointed to the right, rupturing Phulani’s silence and his thoughts. Phulani spotted a particularly bright red-orange star, but Baines rattled on without pausing: “Mars. If you’re lucky, you’ll be chosen to go there. But first you still need to show us what you’re made of – and that you can manage this silence and isolation.”