Ocean of Storms (March 2021)
By Davide Mana
She was spending too much time on the Moon.
That was what Marcel had said — the last time they had fought — before he packed up his things and left. Too much time on the Moon.
Sara sighed and fired up the workstation. While the unit initialized, she walked to the kitchen and checked the refrigerator. She fixed herself a sandwich and picked a can of soda. That was all that remained of Marcel. His soda. She put it back and took out a bottle of water. Healthier.
She checked the watch: five minutes before Xiu finished her shift. She brought her provisions to her post and sat in the chair. She lowered the visor over her head, her right hand on the joystick. The hi-res screen crackled into life and Xian Xiu’s face popped up in the corner of her field of vision. “Hello, partner,” she said. It was weird, this small Chinese woman that talked like John Wayne.
“Hello,” Sara said. Her HUD showed the readings from the remote unit.
“We are two-thirds full,” the Chinese woman said. A boy climbed in her lap and stared at Sara through the screen.
“Check,” Sara said. Two-thirds full meant she’d probably hit full during her shift. That would mean going back to the docking bay to download. It also meant time spent coming and going, time that would not add up to her bonus. Less money, in other words.
“The front left wheel is acting up again,” Xiu said.
Sara sighed. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Xiu nodded and smiled. Of course, she was relieved. Whatever the wheel problem, it had not gone critical on her shift. The Company was detracting repair fees from their salary, and repairing a wheel would also mean stopping the unit. More losses. But it was useless to worry. Sara dialed-in her code. “Ready when you are,” she said.
“Fine,” Xiu said. “Over to you.”
The screen in front of her pixelated swiftly, from left to right, and it came into focus showing an ash-gray landscape, a ridge to her right, and a vast stretch of the blackest black she had ever seen, going on forever.
“Three,” Xiu counted, “two, one. All yours, partner.”
Sara gave an absent-minded nod and Xiu’s window popped out. She was alone on the Moon.
Figures were coming in, about the track and the payload and the trends in the KREEP distribution. Other survey and surface processing rovers appeared as an overlay on the panoramic, pale red and green dots on a simplified map of the Oceanus Procellarum. Miles away. Sara relaxed in her chair. She switched off the AI, put on some Handel in her earphones and enjoyed the ride.
It was like driving a tractor in a cornfield or so she had been told. She just had to take her time and let the rover process the Moon dust, extracting the all-important rare-earth metals. The machine advanced, gobbling up dust and trailing a peacock-like fan of processed dust. All she had to do was monitor the proceedings — a job an AI could have done — but security regulations required a human to do it.
For eight hours a day, five days a week, plus overtime, she drove her rover on the surface of the Moon.
Earth-rise dawned on the horizon. Sara stopped the music, slowed down the rover, and just watched as the Earth — white and blue and a-whirl with an Atlantic super-storm cell — rose in the black sky, as beautiful today as when Armstrong and Aldrin had first witnessed it.
Time for a break, she decided. She took a gulp of water and got to work on the first half of her sandwich. She was four-fifths full, mostly Lutetium. She chewed and congratulated herself. Lutetium was at a premium and would bring in an extra bonus on her cheque.
Far in the distance, the tall plume of another rover twinkled under the Earth-light. Sara started her music again and concentrated on completing her load.
There was a group of Moon Impact activists in the park, when she walked there later that evening, on her way to the grocery store. A thin girl, barely out of her teens, approached her. “Sign the petition,” she said.
“What for?” Sara asked, humoring her. The sound of traffic was far away, and the autumn leaves were falling around them, twirling in the breeze.
“To keep the hands of Big Business off the Moon,” the girl said. She looked up, at the thin slice of Moon peeking through the thin clouds. “We must put a stop on mining activities on our satellite!”
“Would you rather go back to the old ways?” Sara asked. She had been so long without speaking with a human being that her voice was like a bitter croak. Or maybe it was the smog, and the cold. “You’d rather have other nations ravage again the African landscape for lanthanum and ytterbium, and blackmailing us all?”
The girl opened and closed her mouth. She looked around, like searching for help. Her friends were busy stopping other people, pushing pamphlets in their hands.
“Or would you renounce our technology?” Sara went on. “No more lasers, PET scans, computers, cancer treatments—?”
“There must be an alternative—” the girl said.
“Sure there is,” Sara said. “We should start mining the asteroids. Drag a few in the Lagrangian points and extract the hell out of them. But unless I’m mistaken, you guys also oppose the Luna 2 project—”
“It’s too dangerous—”
Sara snorted. “Breathing is dangerous.”
She turned to go.
“We are robbing our children of the view of a pristine Moon!” the girl said.
Sara turned sharply back. “Do you have children?” she snapped. She thought about Xiu’s boy, sitting in his mother’s lap as she worked on the Moon. She did not give the girl time to reply. “We are not causing any permanent damage. The probes are designed to process the surface layer and then re-distribute the processed dust. No scars, no traces. None visible from your nursery’s window.”
She scoffed. “Man’s old dream, to trace obscene scrawls on the face of the Moon, remains unfulfilled.”
The girl retreated to the small table where her friends were collecting signatures. This was the reason Sara liked so much being on the Moon. No goody-two-shoes demanding the impossible in the name of some principle they did not understand.
People did not understand, and that drove her mad.
She had started working on the Moon while doing her doctorate. It was a good part-time job, better than working a call centre or doing marketing focus groups. She had put down a deposit on the remote unit, installed it in a corner of her living room and hooked up with a network. She had to take an exam, but it had been a breeze. She metabolised fast the one-point-three seconds Earth-Moon communication delay. A four-hour a day gig, at first. But after her doctorate, she had found that there was not much demand for a paleontologist in 21st-century Europe, and so she had just upgraded to a full-time job.
Marcel thought it was for the money. Or, even more stupidly, that it was because of him. Everything turned around him, in his mind. But Sara was not spending long hours cocooned in her unit because she wanted to be alone. She did it because she had fallen in love with the world that she was remotely roaming. She had even tried to explain it to Marcel, she had invited him to share the seat and the wraparound screen. Totally against regulations but he had been important back then. Him understanding what was going on with her had been important once.
She had tried to explain the silver dust and the sharp, knife-like edges of the craters, and the star-studded darkness, but without success. She had shown him Surveyor 3 — where it slept on the cold lunar surface — and the Apollo 12 landing module over the horizon. She had told him about the Streptococcus bacteria that were said to have survived for over two years in the probe. Marcel had not been impressed.
It was a boundless world, Sara had said, devoid of people, and filled with a kind of light that Earth did not know. She was alone, there, rolling over the Oceanus Procelarum, and yet she felt a sense of connection with the other seven billions of human beings crawling on the Earth. Something that she did not feel when she was walking the streets, when she was shopping, when she was posting useless CVs for a research post in Ulaanbaatar, or an assistantship in Buenos Aires. She had tried to write it down — this thing that she felt when she was out there — but it would require a poet’s language that she did not possess. The precise, crisp mathematical discipline of Bach and Handel and Haydn, could convey what it felt like, to her. But Marcel was into trap music. People talking about money and stuff.
So now Sara was alone here, on this overcrowded planet, and this was her life. Eight hours a day driving a machine two hundred and fifty thousand miles away, digesting the Moon’s dust into pellets of precious metals, strutting a tail of processed dust two miles long. Eight hours sleeping her dreamless sleep, in her big double bed. And eight hours walking, or running, or reading books, or watching films, or keeping busy in some way. She did not get out much with her friends any more. They were too noisy, too grounded into their everyday routines. They talked about money, and kids, and stuff. None seemed to have time to look up at the night sky any more. They made her melancholy and lonely.
That was all that she had right now: her loneliness and a shitty remote job.
“I was there, you know,” the old man said.
Sara turned to him, only now realizing that he was sitting on the bench by her side. She had stopped on one of her runs, her heart pounding in her chest, and her fingers cold. Time to break the rhythm. She had a protein bar in her pocket and she had found a bench.
Running was good after the long hours in the remote. She had driven her rover through a patch of landscape that was like the Adagio from Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D-Major. Smooth and deceptively commonplace, strewn with Thulium-rich rocks.
The sun was going down and the temperature was dropping. The concrete bench was cold and rough under her. She had peeled back the wrapper of the protein bar and given it a tentative taste. Cardboard. She needed to take better care of herself, she decided. Enough sandwiches and processed foods and protein bars. Then the man had started talking to her.
He was in his seventies, wearing a long black coat and a cap, his face cradled by a thick, soft scarf. Lined face and hazel eyes framed by glasses. The man now pointed a gnarled finger at the sky. “The night they walked on the moon,” he said. “I was there.”
Sara stared at him, her protein bar forgotten, and then up at the sky, at the almost transparent disc hanging in the dark blue of the evening. “Were you?” she asked softly.
The man nodded. “I was two years old, and I did not understand what all the fuss was about. We had black and white TVs back then, and everybody was so excited.”
He sighed, and shook his head. “A ghost of a memory,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said.
He smiled at her, kindly.
“Why did you tell me?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Old men are like that,” he smirked.
Again he looked up at the sky. “I was thinking about the Moon, and all these years that have passed. We had so many hopes, you know. So many dreams. Moon bases and cities under domes and who knows what more. And then you were sitting there and I—” He shrugged again. “Old people live of memories. I did not mean to bother you.”
The man stood, and pushed his hands in his pockets.
“You did not.” She paused. “I work there, you know? On the Moon, I mean.”
His eyes widened. “Do you?”
Once again words failed her. “It’s a glorified temp job,” she said. “The sort that people without qualifications can do. Like playing a video game. A very dull video game.”
The man chuckled. “Sure beats darning socks for a living, don’t you think?”
She laughed. “Yes, I think so.” And then, “It’s beautiful out there, you know?” she said. “It’s clean and quiet.” She felt a spike of desperation at her inadequacy. “Like a concerto by Haydn.”
“Haydn, uh?” His smile softened. “Yes, I think I always knew it must be like that, or Bach.”
“It makes you feel small,” she said, her throat tightening.
“But in a good way,” he replied. Again he looked up, a strange expression, like nostalgia, on his lined face.
Sara felt warmth surging in her. “Yes,” she whispered, “in a good way.”
“We should all get there,” the old man said. “Like you do, I mean. Would make things between us easier, don’t you think? Give us perspective, maybe?”
Then he tipped his hat at her and wished her a good night. Sara watched him go, a lanky shape fading in the growing darkness, like a ghost. The Moon was more defined, now, bolder in the autumn sky.
Sara dropped the remains of her protein bar in a waste basket, and started back towards home. She took a deep breath of the cold evening air and looked at the silver coin hanging in the dark above the white trail of a blinking plane.
Soon she would be up there again and that was all she needed right now.
Text copyright © 2020 by Davide Mana. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Davide Mana (@davide_mana) was born in Turin, Italy in 1967. He pursued a career in science, with a degree in paleontology and a PhD in geology. A specialist in environmental data analysis, after a number of odd jobs he was a teacher and a researcher in the field of Earth & Environmental Sciences. Since 2013, he's been making a living as a writer, translator and game designer, publishing both in Italian and English. Currently based in the wine country of north-western Italy, Davide writes full time, and takes some moments off to cook for his family and to maintain his blog, Karavansara.live. He is the co-host of the Italian-language movie podcast "Paura & Delirio".