Lunar Voices (On the Solar Wind)
“Hello,” Phulani said, “Hello?”
He could hear no words, see no electronic hand signs, but he sensed a soft subliminal hissing that penetrated deep into his skull. Was that the sound of the sun in his ears or perhaps even residual noise from the birth of the Universe?
He saw Mary helping Baines into her seat. Get a grip, Phulani, time to focus, time to help.
He took a slow and careful breath, a pang of isolation spearing him, along with a sudden sense of radioactive particles piercing his skin, poisoning his organs. He turned to scan the horizon, looking for signs of their Base. The craters and scattered boulders with deep shadows dark enough to drown in looked unfamiliar and alien. He could see no sign of Base, of home. Then again, it would only be a dust covered door leading below a crater wall for maximal shielding, hard to spot unless you knew exactly where you were going. And they had no guidance now, no radio signals to reel them in.
No rover tracks to trace either, Baines had obviously been driving the shortest route back, focused by his deep, almost unique knowledge of this terrain.
Mary turned to face him and he could tell from the helpless hang of her arms she did not know where they were either.
Baines sat strapped into Mary’s seat, immobile. Phulani could not tell whether he was conscious or unconscious, dead or alive.
Panic rose with the bile in his stomach. He focused desperately on one smaller craggy crater wall off to his left, wondering if he could reach it in a few bounds and leap inside, to find a spot where he could hide himself – they could hide themselves – against the sun’s invisible rage. He stepped off the buggy and with a further step away, braced himself for a run.
But there, on the cratered wall, tall and thin, grandfather stood with his old dog Inja by his side. Grandfather was shaking his head, even though he was three weeks dead now. The old man stood upright and pointed behind Phulani with his stick. Phulani could see it was the long knobkierie with which grandfather used to walk and shake at stupid youngsters who were rude with their new city ways, when they pushed him aside and failed to show him hlonipha, the elder respect due him. He was pointing back at the lunar buggy. Although he knew no words could soar in the vacuum between them, Phulani could hear the old man’s voice ring in his head.
“You’re Amazulu boy and a Matlala, with a job to do. Now go and do it!”
Phulani turned and walked back to the buggy. He knew he must hold onto the experience-hardening memories within him, negotiating peace through volatile communication conflicts on the training Antarctic winter base.
Hello to you too, grandfather, nice to see you again too.
He hesitated by the rover, wondering where he should sit, what he should do. Mary was crouched in his seat, studying a laminated map.
They’d warned him about this, about how massive solar particle ejections could disrupt electrical communications systems. He’d just never expected to experience it so closely, so intimately and with such absolute terror, completely isolated inside his hot, sweaty, bombarded body.
They were dying as they just waited there, that he knew.
An idea thudded into him, as if punched in by a high energy particle.
Phulani took a deep breath, glad his suit’s oxygen and cooling system continued to run, even if he wasn’t sure for how much longer. Okay, so he did speak nine languages and was communications officer for the International Lunar Base, now was the time that he should really earn his keep.
He turned to face Mary and held his hands up, grateful that NASA had built such cleverly dexterous gloves, in their constant search for maximising working suit efficiency. Still, even so, as he fumbled a few words in the ninth language he knew, he wondered if they would be dexterous enough.
Mary laid the map down and clumsily fisted some finger and hand positions back to him, Not still know where we are.
She picked up the map and handed it to him. He took it with difficulty and peered at it. The shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Perhaps he could try and track a straight line from the curve of Shackleton to the Base. But where exactly did the crater’s shadow lie? The curve of the rim was kilometres wide and Baines had been careering to avoid obstacles. Carrying on in the direction of travel would be a hit and miss affair.