Bewildering Stories

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If a Tree Falls in Space

by Alex Shternshain

The blue glow, which was until now filling the cabin of the “Sparrow,” went dim as the Earth began disappearing behind the lunar horizon. The orbital module, with its sole occupant, entered an eighteen-minute period of silence. Currently, Lt. Col. Jeff Olsen (USAF) was the loneliest person in the universe. Not the Columbian-era mariners on their leaky wooden ships, nor the polar explorers in the Arctic wilderness, not even the first astronauts in their Mercury capsules, knew what it was like to be 2,500 miles away from the nearest other human beings — Cmdr. Tom Frost (U.S. Navy) and Captain Pete Nakamura (USMC), who were right now busy digging up some rocks down on the slopes of Tycho crater.

And if you discount those two, it was almost 250,000 miles, over a full light-second, to his home base in Houston. Not that it mattered now; light, or any other electromagnetic radiation, could not reach him from earth. The huge, dark body of the Moon was firmly stuck between him and the blue planet, blocking all communications.

By now the azure disk of his home world had descended below the horizon in its entirety, and Jeff only had a handful of stars and control lamps to assist his vision. He raised his gloved hand and touched a panel above him. A small source of soft light came to life. It was synthetic and orange-colored, not at all like the friendly blue glow he had left behind. Its unnaturalness disgusted Jeff.

But work was work, and soon he set his personal feelings aside, and welcomed the orange light, if not as a friend than at least as a useful companion. It was time for a routine scheduled systems check. “What if I skip the check?” thought Jeff to himself bemusedly. “Will anybody know? If a tree falls in space, does anyone hear it? If an astronaut on the other side of the Moon doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, does Mission Control know it?” But Jeff was too well trained to let those thoughts distract him, and even now his fingers were pressing buttons and pulling levers, and his eyes were examining the consoles.

The “Sparrow” had no surprises in store for him; all its systems were operating within accepted parameters. Jeff announced this result into the flight recorder and glanced on the clock. In six more minutes, the Earth would rise over the other side. Six more minutes of solitude. Jeff tried to look down and discern some elements of the lunar terrain, but his hatch was pointing up into the black sky. He gazed on the fuel gauge: more than enough for orbital maneuvers, reconnection with the landing module, and for the way back home. Yes, it was not something he was supposed to do, but he made his choice.

The quiet murmur of the rotation-control nozzles was a signal for the “Sparrow” to start turning gently around its axis. Soon, he had the softly starlit lunar surface in his view. Sharp peaks, steep ravines and deep craters, as old as the world itself, passed at breakneck speed below him. Or was it above? This lack of gravity really confused things.

Two more minutes. He’d better straighten his ship into proper position again. Another shot of the nozzles, and there it was, back on its feet again. Ten seconds... five... three... two... one... and right there, beyond the jagged edge of the Moon, the Earth, in all its beauty and splendor WAS NOT. Jeff gave the clock a thorough examination. Yes, the time was right. The place was right. All the stars were at their proper locations. There was Regulus, and there, 3 degrees below it — ahem, a patch of black sky!? What the...? Was Mother Earth playing a cosmic game of “Where is Waldo” with him?

Befuddled, he tried the radio, at first calling Houston Control, then the Tycho base, then Houston again, until finally admitting that something had gone extremely wrong. There are things we take for granted, which form the core of our existence, and when they are gone, all we want is to end the nightmare. Jeff looked above him. The red button. No, he would have none of that now. As strange and inexplicable things looked now, there were still plenty of things he could do.

He checked his flight course: his path was to lead him 171 miles south of Tycho. Slowly and methodically, he started to run some calculations with the help of the abysmal number-crunching ability of the on-board computer. If he could only outsource some calculations to Houston... But then again, if he could contact Houston, he wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place, right?

After some time, he had his results. As he suspected, he couldn’t make the necessary change in his trajectory with one engine activation. He needed to alter it by a small angle now, and a make a small adjustment after continuing one more loop around the Moon. He performed all pre burn procedures, and programmed the main engine for an 11.5-second burn. The pressure glued him to his seat, restoring the welcome feeling of gravity once again, if only for a very short time.

Soon, he was on the dark side of the moon again. At least so his clock told him, because now both sides were equally dark and devoid of the familiar blue glow. Tick tock, tick tock. Time for the second burn, a shorter one this time. He descended lower. Even at this speed, he knew he could see the Tycho base, an island of civilization on the face of this maiden world. He passed less than a quarter-mile above the rock-strewn patch where Frost and Nakamura landed yesterday, his eyes alert to every change to the terrain. No huge reflective antenna (25 yards when unfolded). No landing module. No rover. No tracks from the rover in the Lunar dust. Nothing. Another second or two, and the crater was already far behind him. Jeff tried the radio again and again. No response.

Reluctantly, his eyes rose again to observe the round red button in the ceiling of the command module. It was safely covered with a Plexiglas protector, to prevent an astronaut from pressing it inadvertently in a split second of momentary distress or even turbulence. No, pressing this particular button was only done in moments of absolute dire straits, when not a glimmer of hope loomed ahead, and after a heavy and long contemplation. At least it was a better way to end it all than crashing on the Moon’s unfriendly surface.

His fingers caressed the Plexiglas cover. His thoughts roamed around from Earth to Moon and back. He didn’t want it to end like that. But if not the button, then what? Just circling around a dead planet, waiting for a miracle? A whole world doesn’t just disappear like that, you know... It’s not a minor malfunction that can be fixed in no time. He drank some water and tried the radio again, scanning every available frequency. No response. He checked his air supply. It was supposed to keep a crew of three alive during the weeklong voyage back to Earth. If he uses it sparingly, he could last almost a month. And then — who knows? He can still try all sorts of orbital maneuvers... But Jeff knew he was merely kidding himself. He touched the cover again, and this time he opened it, leaving the button exposed.

Two more revolutions around the Moon didn’t produce any meaningful change. Jeff made up his mind. His arm went up towards the button again. With one swift motion, he replaced the cover and it closed with a light click. No. He will not end it like that. He was sent here with a job to do, and even if nobody in the universe will know that he’s doing it, he will proceed as planned. But first things first. Just in case the radio comes back to life, he pushed the “Send Auto Beacon” button and increased the volume in his earphones to maximum. The next systems check was due in 2 hours and 43 minutes. He could use the sleep. Leaning back in his flight chair, Jeff closed his eyes. Soon, not only the Earth, but also the stars were gone, and he drifted into darkness.

* * *

“What’s he doing?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. He’s sleeping.”

“Did we have problems with the abort simulation button?” asked the Chief Training Coordinator.

“No, he just didn’t use it,” replied the Simulation Technician.

“That’s a first.”

“Should I wake him up?”

“No, he’ll need the sleep. Some pretty strenuous tests coming up next.”

And the Chief Training Coordinator walked away, but not before making a big fat check-mark on his clipboard, right in the middle of the “Mental Stability” box — which was located below “Intellectual Capacity” and above “Physical Stamina.”

Copyright © 2003 by Alex Shternshain

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