Author Topic: 'A Smaller Step' - 2,442 words/scifi  (Read 2224 times)

Offline robertmblevins

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'A Smaller Step' - 2,442 words/scifi
« on: June 06, 2008, 10:28:14 PM »


The two astronauts waited patiently in the main corridor on the west side of the station, dressed in pressure suits and carrying helmets.

One of them sat on a metal bench; the other stood at the door to the Ready Room and peered through the glass porthole, watching the activity inside.

“What are they doing?” asked Matthews.

“They have a lunar map spread out on the table. They’re studying it and talking about something.”

“Talking about what?”

“Hell if I know, Rick. I don’t speak Russian.” Walt Davis peeked through the window again.

Matthews sipped from a small container of orange juice and shrugged. “They probably want to go on a rock hunt. This is the first time Russians have been allowed up to Lunar One since it opened. They don’t have too many moon rocks.”

Davis gave up spying on the cosmonauts and joined his partner on the bench. “Maybe we should take them over to site R-6. There’s a good representation in that area. They can collect all the rocks they want.”

“They don’t look like geologists to me.”

“Who do you think they are, then?”

“Could be your typical black-bag types. Probably sent here to check out the base.”

“Should we do anything?”

“No. If they got this far, they passed the security clearances. Just keep an eye on them.”

“Good idea. Those two give me the creeps.”

A few minutes later, the two Russians finally emerged from the Ready Room. They were dressed in dark blue coveralls with the initials of the Russian Federation stitched on the pockets. Both were about thirty years of age and wore serious expressions.

One of the Russians offered his hand. “I am Alexei Gordonov, and this is Mikhail Greshchenko. I can speak English fairly well, but I will have to act as interpreter for Mikhail.”

Matthews returned the handshake firmly. “Rick Matthews. I’m your Rover driver. This is Walt Davis from the lunar science team. We have orders to take you out from the base, but no one has said where you want to go.”

“It is about sixty kilometers from here," said Gordonov.

Davis interjected. “Are you joking? Sixty kilometers! No one has been more than ten klicks from this station since it went operational!”

“He’s right,” said Matthews. “What you ask is dangerous. If we drive out that far and have a problem with the Rover, rescue could be impossible. It’s extremely risky.”

“I am told your lunar rovers can travel over two hundred kilometers on a full battery charge.”

“Well, yes...”

“That’s not the point,” Davis interrupted angrily. “He said if something went wrong we could be in serious trouble. We’ve been out in the Rover more than twenty times in the last three months. We buried our axles in some loose dust on one trip. We had to wait for the B-team to pick us up. When they arrived, we were down to our last fifteen minutes of oxygen.” He paused, and then added, “We were only six kilometers from the base. You want to go ten times that distance. Impossible.”

The four astronauts stared at each other in silence. Finally, the one who had spoke first said something to his partner in Russian. It sounded like a question.

The other cosmonaut nodded in response.

“What is it?” asked Matthews. “What are you you two talking about?”

Gordonov took an envelope from his pocket and held it out reverently for examination. “Mikhail reminded me to show you this.”

Matthews opened the letter.

Office of the President The White House
Washington, D.C.

Please give cosmonauts Mikhail Greshchenko and Alexei Gordonov any assistance they require and the full use of all resources at Lunar One Research Station/NASA. This matter has been designated Top Secret. You are expressly forbidden to disclose any facts or discuss anything concerning this project, under penalty of law.

“What does it say?” asked Davis.

“It’s an order from the White House.” He thrust it to Davis. “It’s signed by the President.”

Davis read it quickly and groaned.

The cosmonaut plucked the letter from Davis’ hand and tucked it away. “We need to go to a certain site.”

“Where?”

The Russian held up a palm-sized computer. A series of numbers showing lunar surface coordinates scrolled across the tiny screen. “Here. Do you know of it?”

“Of course I do. Okay, so you know people in high places. The President says we have to help you. But he didn’t order us to throw our lives away. We’ll take you out, but if it is rocks you want, you will have to limit the load. We’re going to pack as much oxygen as we can cram into the Rover. If something happens, we’re not sitting out there waiting to die with our asses in the breeze.”

“Carry all the oxygen you wish,” replied Gordonov. “We are not seeking geological samples.”

******

Conversation was brief and uncomfortable as the four astronauts moved steadily across the stark landscape. The Rover was fully pressurized and rolled through the lunar dust at fifteen kilometers an hour. Thick windows comprised much of the upper section of the Rover, providing stunning views in all directions.

Matthews drove in silence.

Davis sat in the passenger seat with the Russians behind him in the rear section. “So are we allowed to ask why we’re going out so far from the station?” said Davis.

“It is allowed," Gordonov replied. "I am surprised you did not ask sooner. We are headed for the site where a Russian spacecraft crashed many years ago. We are to take pictures and cut off samples of the spacecraft.”

“What kind of spacecraft?” said Matthews.

“A sample-collection lander. It failed to return to Earth.”

“I remember that,” said Davis. “The Luna missions, right?”

“Yes, it was called Luna, I believe.”

“I thought none of them made it to the moon.”

“This one did. The engine failed to re-ignite and it remained on the surface.”

The two Americans glanced at each other for a moment. An unspoken thought passed between them. Bullshit.

****

It was several hours later when Matthews stopped the Rover at the edge of a steep hill. “Well, this is as close as we can get. According to your coordinates, the spacecraft is in the canyon on the other side of this hill. Looks pretty steep to me.”

“Yes.” Gordonov said something in Russian to his partner and they began gathering up equipment and putting on their helmets. “We must try anyway.”

The two Americans followed suit, sealing their helmets so the Russians could exit. After everyone was secure, Matthews shut down the oxygen pumps and vented the atmosphere from the Rover. White crystals of suddenly frozen air poured from the vehicle and trickled slowly to the ground like snow.

The two cosmonauts opened a rear door and climbed out, shutting it behind them firmly. They walked to the base of the hill and began to climb hard for the summit.

They made good progress.

“Look at that,” said Davis. “Those two are in good shape.”

As they watched in fascination, the cosmonauts used short hiking poles to work their way up the hill. Occasionally, a rock would dislodge from under their feet and roll down, but they continued steadily upward. It was obvious they had been in training for the mission a long time.

Within a couple of minutes, the Russians had reached the top and disappeared over the other side.

“Gordonov,” Matthews called out over his suit radio. “Do you read me?”

“Affirmative. Everything is good.”

“Do you need any help?”

“No. We can see the spacecraft now. We are going down to it. The terrain is suitable. We do not require assistance.”

“Roger that.”

*****

Fifteen minutes later, Matthews looked at his partner. “What do you think?”

“I think we should go up there, buddy.”

“So do I. Get your helmet on.”

*****

The two Americans struggled up the rocky hill. When they reached the summit, they found themselves above a steep and narrow canyon.

They had turned off their helmet radios to avoid alerting the Russian cosmonauts to their presence. Davis pointed into the darkness below and gave a thumbs-up. They started their descent cautiously. Boulders the size of houses were scattered at the bottom of the canyon. At first, they could see nothing, and then a silvery glint from one of the cosmonauts’ suits flashed near some of the boulders.

Matthews switched on his suit radio. “Gordonov.”

“I hear you. We are fine. We do not require assistance.”

“Too bad. Look up. We’re already on our way into the canyon.”

A soft sigh came over the radio. “So be it. Do you see me? I am waving at you.”

“I see you.”

“The largest boulders. We are working behind them.”

As Matthews and Davis made their way into the canyon, they spotted the very top of a large spacecraft that had landed among the gigantic stones. Rounding the last of the massive obstacles, both men stopped and stared in shock at what they saw.

It was not an unmanned lander, or a sample-return craft. It was a manned spacecraft sitting on four legs, similar to an old Apollo Lunar Module.

Alexei Gordonov snapped a picture and moved to his right for another shot from a different angle.

Greshchenko was standing at the top of the access ladder on the lander and peering into a circular window built into the hatch door. He said something in Russian and Gordonov replied with a grunt.

“What the hell is it?” Matthews gasped.

Gordonov snapped another photograph. “It is an LK, the lunar lander section of a LOK system. It was launched from Earth by an N-1 rocket.”

“This isn’t for sample returns,” said Davis. “It’s almost as large as an Apollo LEM!”

“Yes. The LK was designed to carry one person to the lunar surface.”

“Is there someone inside?”

“Yes. He is dead, of course.”

Matthews was suddenly angry. “I don’t understand!” He approached Gordonov as quickly as his bulky moon suit would allow and grabbed him by the arm. “What the hell is this about? I’ve studied your lunar program. All the N-1 heavy-lift rockets exploded on the pad. The LOK system never made it to the moon.”

Alexei Gordonov answered the agitated Matthews calmly. “Try to understand. This is a historical site. Please stand aside and let us finish our work. I will explain everything afterward.” The cosmonaut pulled himself free of Matthews’ grip and continued snapping pictures from different angles.

Greshchenko, standing at the top of the access ladder, spoke in Russian and pointed at the porthole.

Gordonov waved in response.

“What did he say?” Matthews demanded.

“The cosmonaut inside the craft is holding a notebook. He wants to retrieve it.”

“Baloney.” Matthews walked toward the spacecraft and stopped at the bottom of the ladder. “Greshchenko! Come on down from there!”

The cosmonaut turned up his palms and looked to his partner for advice.

Gordonov waved for him to come down and motioned to let Matthews take his place.

The cosmonaut shrugged and started down. As soon as he reached the ground, Matthews took the rungs in his hands.

Greshchenko grabbed Matthews by the arm and spoke angrily in Russian. Matthews shook him off brusquely and started up the ladder. “What did he say now, Gordonov?”

“He says you should be more respectful of the dead. I agree with him. The man inside that spacecraft was a person of great courage.”

Matthews continued climbing.

Walt Davis pointed to the ground as he studied the area surrounding the lander. “You can still see the ejector blanket from the descent engine throwing dust.”

“Yes,” said Gordonov. “The pilot was extremely lucky during the landing. You can see he had to put down between these boulders. He was our best pilot at the time.”

“Why didn’t he just fire his ascent engine and go home? Did something go wrong?”

“Not exactly. He could have fired the engine anytime and lifted off. He chose to stay.”

“Why?”

“He knew we would return for him someday.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Of course it does.”

*****

Matthews peered through the thick round glass. It was dark inside the cabin. He adjusted his helmet light to maximum and shined it into the spacecraft.

He saw a figure lying on its side dressed in a pressure suit and a helmet with the head down. Matthews could not see a face. “There’s something in there. It could be a dummy in a suit. I can’t tell.”

“It is a man,” said Gordonov.

“I’d like to check for myself.”

“As you wish. Do you see the four small handles, one on each corner of the hatch?”

“I see them.”

“Turn each one to the left ninety degrees until you feel a solid click. Grasp the larger handle-not too quickly-and pull it toward you.”

Matthews did as he was told and slowly opened the hatch. He reached inside and grasped the arm of the suited figure, rolling it over on its back. It was like moving a stone statue. As the front of the helmet became visible, he saw the face of a man with his eyes closed as if asleep.

The man’s features were still recognizable, although the skin on the skull had dried and given him a mummified appearance.

“Oh, my God...” Matthews let the body roll back onto its face and backed out of the hatch. This isn’t possible, he thought. That man was killed in a jet crash. He started down the ladder.

“Carefully now,” said Gordonov.

Matthews joined the other astronauts and stood side-by-side with them. All four stared at the spider-legged craft in awe.

“It’s Yuri Gagarin, isn’t it?” Matthews finally asked.

“Yes. He was supposed to test the LOK system in Earth orbit,” said Gordonov. “Everything was going flawlessly until Ground Control discovered the heat shield for the reentry capsule had been seriously damaged during liftoff. He could not return to Earth.”

“And he asked if he could try for the moon...” Davis whispered.

“Yes. The LK does not need a heat shield to land on the moon. Ground Control said yes, so he fired the rockets on the LOK and reached lunar orbit four days later. He disengaged the LK from the LOK and made his descent. He could have fired the ascent engine, but it would have served no purpose. He kept up a running commentary for eighteen hours until his oxygen was exhausted.”

“How long has he been here?” said Matthews.

“Since June twenty-ninth, nineteen sixty-eight.”

“No...”

“Yes,” said Gordonov. “More than a year before Neil Armstrong.”

The End
« Last Edit: June 07, 2008, 04:40:36 PM by robertmblevins »

Offline Andrewf

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Re: 'A Smaller Step' - 2,442 words/scifi
« Reply #1 on: June 07, 2008, 02:15:51 PM »
A nicely written short story that is right up my street. :)
"If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion." - L. Long.

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Offline Gyppo

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Re: 'A Smaller Step' - 2,442 words/scifi
« Reply #2 on: June 07, 2008, 05:13:15 PM »
I remember Yuri Gagarin.  I always thought it ironic that the first man into space died in a plane crash..

An excellent little tale.

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Offline Akeith (Gray)

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Re: 'A Smaller Step' - 2,442 words/scifi
« Reply #3 on: June 15, 2008, 05:37:54 PM »
Robert

Excellent story, one I couldn't stop reading until the end.  Nice surprise ending.

Gray