Loss of Signal
by Ricky Ginsburg
part 1 of 2
“Tranquility, Houston: Loss Of Signal in 5.. 4.. 3.. 2..1...” A soft crackle replaced NASA’s voice from a quarter million miles away. LOS happened every thirty-seven minutes on the lunar surface. This was the twenty-ninth time; the crew of Apollo 11 on the moon for almost fifteen hours didn’t give it a second’s thought. They would be on their own for twenty-three minutes. This would be the last time before the long trip home.
“Tranquility, Colombia: there’s something blinking just to the right of your location. Did you guys leave a flashlight outside?”
“Negative, Columbia. All present and accounted for.”
“Well, take a look out Window Two and tell me what you see.”
Buzz Aldrin unhitched the binoculars from their Velcro storage strap and focused out the slightly dusty window of the Lunar Excursion Module. Off in the distance, maybe two hundred yards, a light was blinking. Off... on... off... on. If there had been sufficient gravity the binoculars would have probably hit the metal deck and shattered. Neil Armstrong had several seconds to reach out and snatch them in mid-air.
“Columbia we see it. Switch to ISC... now.” By switching to Intership Communications mode no one, hopefully no one, could hear what the three astronauts had to say. Houston and the rest of their earthly companions were now totally out of the loop. “Michael, there’s a blinking light about 200 yards out to our right. It’s on top of a... well it appears to be... appears to be a spaceship.”
“Neil, say again. You broke up on that last part.”
“I said it appears to be a spaceship.”
Very few people can hear you say “Holy shit” in space especially when you don’t want them to hear it in the first place. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins had uttered those words many times in Air Force jets and experimental planes when no other words seemed quite so apropos. From his orbiting command center Collins could only imagine what his two cohorts on the moon were saying.
Command, unfortunately, applied only to the ship, not the pilot; he was merely their chauffeur. But here in Columbia, just over one hundred miles above them, the fear of the unknown lit up the cabin like a Texas oil fire.
“Buzz, is he correct? Do you see it as well? Neil, check the oxygen gauges and make sure you guys are not hypoxic. Check ‘em now.”
“We’re fine, Michael, all the gauges are normal. I can see it as clear as the stars up above. It’s a dull gray color, almost the same color as the lunar dust. Must be fifteen, twenty feet tall, kinda triangle shaped. I can’t make out any markings on it. There’s a blue light blinking very slowly at the very top. It must have started blinking just after we returned to the LEM because it wasn’t there five minutes ago.”
“Neil, you two are going to have to take a look at it; make contact. We’ve got to let Houston know as soon as we clear LOS. We should abort the liftoff.”
“Whoa, Michael. Remember I’m still the mission commander. This isn’t some runaway steer we’re looking at; we don’t know what that thing really is just yet. Give me a minute to think this over.”
In the Lunar Excursion Module Neil Armstrong, first man — well, maybe — to have set foot on the moon pondered the possibilities. There was someone or something else here. Were they friends? Where did they come from? What did they want? And of the greatest concern — what should he do about them? He was the commander, the one who had to make the final decisions for his crew and several million dollars worth of taxpayer hardware. NASA had made most of those choices for him well in advance of their liftoff from Cape Canaveral three days ago. But NASA wasn’t here on the moon with a preplanned script for this event. They were supposed to be alone.
It had been a long, convoluted ride to this point. Neil had rallied his supporters and paid a heavy price to get his name placed at the top of a very short list of possible moonwalkers. He had made many new friends in his campaign but had estranged far too many others. The obsession with being first had almost cost him his marriage. His wife had gotten fed up with the late night phone calls and the cold dinners alone. She had moved back with her mother for most of his training and had only returned to his side ten days prior to liftoff when the decision was announced and the bickering between the three astronauts had finally been quelled.
Michael Collins knew from the start that he was the most qualified pilot, a skill that doomed him from lunar exploration. They needed the best pilot to fly them home in Columbia, so the job fell on his shoulders. With the exception of his military prowess, Buzz had considered Neil an equal, until the day the decision was made. There was only one ladder down from the LEM to the lunar surface. There was going to be only one first man on the moon, everyone else would be second.
Buzz made every effort to be gracious and conciliatory but it was always with a clenched jaw. Like John Glenn before him, Neil Armstrong was the All-American boy; hero test pilot, eminent scientist, every mother’s son with a smidge of apple pie on his chin. Buzz was an Air Force fighter jockey with a short fuse; he was yang to Armstrong’s yin. You just knew that in a tight spot Buzz Aldrin would be ready to kick ass and take names but he was not the guy they wanted on the cover of Life magazine; Neil Armstrong would be the first man on the moon.
“Okay, let’s start with this: Do we have the time, oxygen and fuel to make another lunar walk?”
Collins had the numbers before the last words came through his headset, “Yes. I figure we’ve got a two-orbit window. That gives you over 120 minutes, plenty of time to travel 200 yards and back with at least 35 minutes to investigate. With your oxygen supply at plus 47 you have a three percent excess which is just over 210 minutes. I would say you are good to go.” Even with the sudden discovery of possible alien life the man in the command module was calm and detached once he had a task to accomplish.
Buzz Aldrin was more easily shaken but he hid it well. “Who should go?” wondered the second man on the moon, “Should one of us stay here just in case there’s trouble?”
“Are you worried about little green men with blaster guns, Buzz?”
“We have to consider that they may not be friendly. What if they’re Russians?” It was easier for the military man to buy into a Cold War battle then an interstellar conflict.
“No. The Russians are at least a decade behind us. That ‘Space Race’ we started in the 50’s? They only won a single lap; we all know how that Five Year Plan ended. No, this spaceship does not come from around here and it’s certainly not one of ours.”
Neil picked up the binoculars and took another long look at the neighbors who just shouldn’t be there. One of the fundamental questions of all time was about to be answered with a simple ‘No, we are not alone’. The three men were military pilots first, engineers second, and scientists a distant third, there wasn’t a lot of room left for philosophy. Their military training kicked into high gear.
“Neil, Buzz, what if they have weapons?”
“Well, that would certainly ruin a pretty good day.” Buzz managed a smile as he remembered the conversation about firearms in the vacuum of outer space. Useless to bring a handgun with you unless you wanted to shoot someone inside the spacecraft. Where was Buck Rogers when you really needed him? How did anyone expect him to be a soldier without a weapon?
The military side of Commander Armstrong took control of the situation. He put the conflict into perspective, “We can’t go at them with the attitude that they’re hostile unless we’re prepared to start a fight. On top of that, we have nothing with us to fight a battle, especially with an unknown enemy. I should go alone and investigate. As commander of this mission it’s my responsibility.” Neil put down the clipboard and binoculars. “There is a risk and as commander I can not reassign that risk to any other crew member. If something does happen we still need to launch the LEM and get the samples and all the data back to Earth.”
“Pardon me, commander, but you don’t really think I would turn tail and run do you? Do you think I’d leave the first man on the moon behind? Look at it this way: you’ve already taken the first and greatest risk of this mission by taking that first step on to the moon. A second EVA should allow for the second crew member to go first.”
The second man on the moon was only going to let himself be second once. “This is not part of the mission. It’s not something we ever contemplated. There’s nothing in any of the training to deal with this. And I believe I’ve earned the right to go first this time.” Buzz Aldrin, fighter pilot, may not have brought any weapons but he was ready for a battle now. This was no longer just an exploration of the moon, this trip had become a military recon and the best soldier was the one who should now take command.
Copyright © 2006 by Ricky Ginsburg