An essay by Evangeline Artemisia “Artie” Quelch, as provided by Fiona Moore
Art by America Jones
5 May 1963. Two weeks sealed in the pilot’s cabin on top of the gigantic Shackleton speed-of-light rocket had made me intimately familiar with the size of the universe. Of being approximately sixty-six thousand cubic centimetres of wet warmth pulsating in the dry cold.
“Final attempt,” I said to the picture of Ludmilla Kovalenko, the first human in space, taped up above the controls, as I closed the electrical panel on the left-hand wall. Better to look at the picture than out the window, better not to be reminded of the dark, the tiny, pitiless pointed stars that surrounded me, on and on forever. “Captain Evangeline Artemisia ‘Artie’ Quelch, late of the RAF, currently of the Commonwealth Space Programme, summative report. Communications still out, the surviving Mars colonists in the back wired into the medical tanks, not enough air for another space-walk. If the electrical fix doesn’t work, Milla, we’re just going to drift to Alpha Centauri. Won’t we be a surprise for the space archaeologists in a hundred years’ time?”
Ludmilla gazed back at me. After so long with nobody but Ludmilla to talk to, I fancied I could read the picture’s expressions. What was she saying now? Did she approve? I imagined Ludmilla urging me on.
Do it, comrade.
“Here goes nothing,” I said as I pressed the ignition switch.
7 July 1967. Dispatch: Mare Serenitatis! … Leading the Moonbase’s talented personnel roster is Commander Evangeline A. Quelch, forty-five, decorated space pilot and heroine of the Mars Expedition Disaster four and a half years ago. “Evie,” as the Commander is affectionately known by all her staff, is an American-born aviatrix, Royal Air Force veteran, and former commercial pilot for the British Imperial Airways Corporation, who started on the ground floor in the Commonwealth Space Programme, flying rockets to the Franklin orbital base. “I was just lucky, really,” Evie, a Londoner, says with a playful toss of her fetching blonde bob. “I’d always dreamed of going to the Moon, and Moonbase was simply the perfect opportunity …”
“‘Evie’?” Natalie snorted from the narrow bunk as she leafed through the photo-magazine. “Hardly you, is it?”
“The marketing department thought that ‘Artie’ was too masculine.” I peered round the corner of the tiny ablutions cubicle where I was, well, abluting. Being Moonbase Commander meant that I rated my own suite, and it was at least private, even if I’d seen larger “suites” at the Tokyo airport hotel. “It’s now my new way of telling if someone’s an insider or not. If they want to call me Evie, it’s pretty damn sure they’ve read the publicity and haven’t talked to the staff.”
The flimsy nylon sheet slipped gently, exposing Natalie’s dark brown breast and darker nipple to my gaze. Unconcerned, she continued to peruse the article. “I suppose it’s a step forward that they’re okay with having a female commander of the place at all.”
I shrugged, not-so-covertly admiring the dimensions of the abovementioned breast. “And at least now that I’m in my forties, they’ve given up hinting that I’m just waiting for the right man.”
Natalie giggled again, concealing herself coyly behind the magazine. “Still, you wouldn’t catch them referring to Admiral Mills’ fetching blonde bob, would you?”
“Fetching grey weave, more like.” I grinned, tightening the cord of my dressing-gown. “Can you imagine? ‘Leading the British Commonwealth Space Programme is Admiral Gerald Mills. Gerry, as the Admiral is affectionately known by all his staff, is a perfect forty-one, forty-six, forty-one, and a stunner in the delightful silver uniform designed by Sylvia’s of Carnaby Street. I was just lucky, really, he said with a playful toss of his combover–‘”
Natalie burst into full-blown laughter and threw the magazine at me. In the low gravity of the moon, it arced gracefully; I plucked it from the air.
“Same story everywhere, innit,” Natalie continued, with a sigh. “I mean, in the pilots’ corps–we all do the same job, but I’m a lieutenant, and Paul’s already a captain, I mean, I trained that ignorant buckra son-of-a-bitch–”
I shrugged again. “Believe me, it’s not as bad as it used to be,” I said. Natalie was only twenty-five, I reminded myself. “After the war, the RAF dropped me without notice, remember? Said the public wouldn’t trust a woman pilot. ”
“But we’re with the Commonwealth Space Programme now,” Natalie said. “They’re different.”
“Not so much,” I said. “They only hired me because they were desperate to win the space race against the Russians.” It was hard to explain to her how real a threat that had seemed, in the early days of the computer revolution, with etherspace and ethermail such mysterious new things and the constant question of whether the Russian universal machines could beat Professor Turing’s.
“You’re just being modest,” Natalie countered. “You’re good, admit it. And I’m better. And we’re both miles ahead of Paul.”
I smiled. “Come on, Nats, we’ve both got jobs to get to,” I said, retreating back into the ablutions cubicle, hanging up my dressing gown and activating the spray-cleaner. “You’ve got to fly the rocket back to Earth, and I’ve got paperwork to fill out.”
“Which reminds me,” Natalie raised her voice over the sound of the spray-cleaner. “Could you write me a reference letter?”
“Sure, what for?” I called back, scrubbing.
“The deep-space exploration programme,” Natalie replied noncommittally.
I stopped scrubbing. Switched the spray-cleaner off. Looked back round the doorway, to where Natalie lay looking disingenuous. “Deep-space exploration?”
“Yeah, you know,” Natalie said. “The four-year mission to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Applicants must have stamina, ability to tolerate isolation and confined spaces, piloting skills …” The beautiful long fingers came out again, counted.
“You sure you want to?” My tone was serious. “Four years is a hell of a long time in a tin can.”
Natalie shrugged. “May as well. You know, what with that NASA report, about how women can handle isolation better, clearly, I must be naturally suited–” Registering the expression on my face, she sat up. “Hey,” she said softly, misunderstanding. “I’m not breaking up with you, right? I just really want to try for it. Make history.” She smiled, coaxing, flattering. “Like you did?”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll do it. Even if I risk losing you to some little green woman.”
Natalie giggled. “Thank you,” she said happily.
I smiled. Mostly to hide the tension I could feel building in my jaw.
Normally, I didn’t meet the weekly rocket from Earth. I’d made a point of doing it when I first become Moonbase Commander but had quickly learned that there wasn’t much to gain: most of the people arriving were either scientists, coming up to do a shift on one of the ongoing projects in the Moonbase’s science block or, increasingly, engineers and construction workers for the colony taking shape on the doorstep. Most of them had reacted to the welcoming committee with discomfort, embarrassment, or, in a few unfortunate cases, overfamiliarity, and so I now generally just left them to get on with it.
Today, however, was a little different.
“Professor Christopher Chatterjee?” I asked, with deadpan formality, as the last of this week’s scientists disembarked. His face had a few lines, and the figure under the regulation space-suit was broader and softer than I remembered from four years ago, the last time I’d seen him in person. His hair was still dark and thick–unlike Admiral Mills’, I couldn’t help thinking, wickedly–and he still looked far too young to be a professor.
His face lit up with welcome. “Artie!” he exclaimed. “Or, is it Evie now?”
I shook my head, smiling. “That’s just for the magazines.”
“Glad to hear it,” Kit smiled, teeth white in his tan face. “I was a little afraid you’d changed beyond all recognition. We haven’t met in person since … well, since we were setting up the Moonbase.”
“You should have ether-mailed, Kit,” I said, helping him store his suit and retrieve his bag. “I’ll show you the guest quarters. They’re not huge, but they’re better than most of the crew get.”
“I should have,” Kit replied. “But this is all a bit last-minute.”
“I know,” I said. “Professor Jaeger’s name was on the manifest, until I got the change of personnel notice this morning–”
“There was a visa hitch. Well, more a publicity hitch–the fact that he used to work for Herr Speer became an issue.”
“Half the engineers up here are ex-Nazis,” I shrugged. “Do I like it? No. Can I live with it? Got to, if I want a moonbase. I’ve known Joern Jaeger as long as I’ve known you, and the man’s not remotely politically minded.” Even if, I thought ruefully, he’d been happy enough to take the Nazis’ money and work on developing codebreaking computers for them during the war. Sometimes, a lack of political-mindedness could be blinding.
“Yes, well, the moral complexities aside,” Kit said, “one of the Baadermeinhof hacknik gangs has been conducting an ‘outing’ campaign of American, British, and other scientists who worked for the Nazis’ various science programmes. The lists are all over etherspace–shared via ether-mail, posted on ether-hubs, untraceable and international. Like a virus. In any case, to cut a long story short, he and Frau Doktor Jaeger are both lying low and avoiding the press.”
“Hacking’s still a problem for the Home Office, then?”
Kit nodded. “Where there’s a system, there will be crime, politically motivated and otherwise,” he said. “Practically as soon as Turing invented the Universal Machine, there were people figuring out how to access its files. And it’s only got worse with the invention of etherspace. Universal computer-to-computer communication means universal theft of data–”
“So, in any case,” I said, “what’s so important that they’d send Joern, or you, up to the Moon?” After the installation of the mainframes, most of the complicated computing work was done by the Moonbase’s own local technicians, and Kit and Joern, the CSP’s main computer scientists, were, as far as I could tell, mainly kept busy figuring out new computer applications.
“We’ve been asked to work on the new virtuality systems for the moon colony, with a potential view to developing something that will work for space colonies more generally–” Kit began.
“Hold on, ‘virtuality’?” We had reached the guest quarters–a corridor with small rooms not unlike my own, just large enough for a single bed (and a fold-down bed in case of population overflow), a bathing cubicle, some coathooks, and a tiny desklet with a computer console and a telescreen. I started to show Kit how to unlock the door with his identity card, but he recognised the system right away–he’d probably invented it–and unlocked it himself.
“Virtuality. It’s the newest thing in computing. It’s continuous, virtual, realtime communication. Like that kind of communal transcendental experience the dropouts and the hippies are always trying to find. But through computing.” Kit dropped his bag on the bed, extracted what looked like a pilot’s helmet attached to a metal shoebox with silk-wrapped telephone cord. “I’ll show you. This is a demo model, so it’s not very sophisticated, but it works for testing.” He plugged the other end in to the box, then handed me the helmet, gesturing for me to put it on.
I did, then gasped and pulled it off.
“Takes some getting used to,” Kit said sympathetically.
“What is that?” I asked. “It was like being inside a drawing. Literally inside it.”
“We can’t do very realistic landscapes yet,” Kit said. “But people are working on it. Before long, we’ll be able to do a very convincing imitation of reality.”
“Those blades of grass … and the snails–” I shook my head. “Like pieces of paper, and yet they were around me, and I saw that snail move–”
“That’s our Alice in Wonderland simulation–we do a shrunk-down landscape. We also do a very-tall landscape, where you’re towering over a village,” Kit said. “We’re working on how to make the images more realistic, and to add colour, but the technology’s still very new.”
“But what are the applications?” I demanded. “It’s a bit of fun, okay, something for the kids to stare at when they’re tripping out, but beyond that … what?”
“Communication,” Kit said. “Especially long distance. Think how much etherspace and the vid-phone have done to bring people together, to make it easier to keep in touch with family in Canada, Australia, Palestine, India … now think about how hard it will be for colonists on the Moon, or Mars, with vid-phone so difficult and expensive out here.”
“Good point,” I said. Even with all our resources, we could barely manage a twenty-minute weekly vid-phone briefing with Space Control at Woomera, and the lag time was ridiculous. We did most of our interplanetary work via ether-mail.
But Kit was still talking. “If they link up with virtuality, through an etherspace connection, they’ll be able to interact with people in real time. I’ll show you.” He took out a second box-and-helmet apparatus from the bag, put it on with the goggles up, pressed a few switches on the box, plugged his helmet in, and then put his goggles down. “Try it again,” he said.
I did. “Hot damn,” I swore, and Kit chuckled.
“You’re there! Well, a sort of paper cutout of you is. This is funny,” I said. “What do I look like?”
“A stick figure,” Kit said. “It’s the default image if we don’t have a portrait to work from. I can show you how to set one up for yourself, later.”
“So, a paper cutout of me here on the Moon, could talk with a paper cutout of you, back on Earth?”
“Yes, that’s the idea,” said the paper Kit. “If you plug your box into your computer monitor port, once your mainframe’s set up for it, you can use it like a three-dimensional vid-phone. Or if you’ve got two boxes, they can communicate unit-to-unit. Eventually, you’ll be able to use virtuality for your weekly briefings with Space Control.”
“You going to leave one of those helmet things here for me, then?”
The paper Kit laughed, a weird tinny noise overlaid onto Kit’s actual laugh. “Of course. That’s what it’s here for.”
After stowing the clumsy box-and-helmet apparatus in my quarters, for lack of a better place to put it, I took Kit to lunch in the spare, cramped canteen, then gave him the three-penny tour of the starfish-shaped establishment–square corridors, extending from the central operating hub to end in hemispherical modules. I showed him the rocket bay, the hydroponics system, the medical suite, and the four different laboratories. Showed him the view through the observation window in Lab Two, where you could just distantly see the American moonbase, maintaining a friendly but watchful presence under the black sky and bright stars. It was night, but the Earth was full, and the reflected light showed the base clearly enough to allow us to pick out the tiny stars-and-stripes on its flanks. The Chinese Republic’s base was too far for us to see, as was the tiny Brazilian outpost, but I could just make out what looked like a Chinese moon-buggy (they had larger tires and more protective cladding than the American ones) inching along one of the mountains, ostensibly on a research mission. Closer by, the teetering spires and struts of what was going to be the Commonwealth moon colony were gradually taking shape. The boom of an automatic crane moved steadily to and fro, casting a hazy shadow over the Moonbase. I turned my back on the sight, took him to see the leisure centre.
“It’s a lot less formal than the publicity suggests,” Kit remarked as Serge, a dour Canadian with a large moustache, long curly hair, and five o’clock shadow, slouched by moodily in his green leisure-suit, looking less like the Chief of Security and more like a space-going dropout who had somehow broken in to the base.
I smiled. “The propaganda, you mean,” I said. “We strike a balance between the uniforms and the leisure-suits. For the magazines, we scrub up and we’re the perfect showcase for British space adventures. For private, well, nobody’s got secrets. It’s like family. A place where you don’t have to keep up the facade.”
“D’you have a girlfriend up here?” Kit asked.
I nodded. “One of the rocket pilots. Natalie. Jamaican girl. We hook up whenever our locations coincide. I don’t advertise it, but I doubt there’s any of the core staff who don’t know.”
“That hasn’t caused any problems back home …?”
I shook my head. “So long as I maintain plausible deniability,” I said.
“Looks like you’ve got it made,” Kit said, as I showed him the computer room with its giant mainframes. “Top job, space programme, girlfriend who’s steady but not too domestic–everything you ever wanted.”
I smiled. “Life’s good.”
“I’ll confess I was a bit worried,” Kit said after a pause. “When you got back from Mars–it just didn’t seem like you. Taking a desk job … I mean, I remember the effort you went through to get the CSP to take you on as a rocket pilot … and the way you used to fret whenever you were grounded for one reason or another–”
“Oh, it’s me all right,” I said. “Definitely me. Highest-ranking woman in the Space Programme, first female Moonbase Commander … Mills keeps hinting he’d like me to take over from him when he retires. I’m in space all the time, not just when the rocketry schedule allows. Can’t ever be grounded. It’s great.”
We were now back in the main operations area, a big open-plan room at the centre of the base–white, circular and spare, a high domed roof with a few thin slices of window providing a view of the star-studded blackness. Curving desks and work tables punctuated the floor area, most piled high with papers, models, objects that might be pieces of abstract sculpture or designs for new building systems. “Another example of facade and reality,” I commented, stopping by my own desk. “Looks like a bustling hub of activity, a command post for coordinating the base. In practice, it’s where the boring paperwork gets done. Most of these are shared, but as Commander, I get my own workstation.”
“Huh,” Kit reached out, gently touched the one, framed, picture on my desk. “Interesting choice of décor.”
“Ludmilla Kovalenko,” I nodded, picking it up. “The first human in space.”
“Not the first to make the round trip safely, though.”
I shrugged. “She died, I know. But she was the first one up there, and that’s what matters to me.”
Never mind what else the picture meant to me.
After Kit had gone off to begin his work in the computer room, I turned my attention to the aforementioned paperwork. Approved another set of allocations for what I was increasingly coming to think of as “the neighbours,” with all the mixed feelings that entailed. I liked the crowded feel of the base, the spare, small quarters, and the near-uninterrupted dusty plains outside the observation windows; I wasn’t too sure how I’d feel when the base expanded, and the view became just another suburb. Remembered the crane, swinging back and forth, wondered exactly how high they were planning to make those buildings. I ignored a reminder from the medical section that I hadn’t been on Earth in four years, and it was time I took some Earthside leave for the good of my bone density. I sent a proposal for a project to study mouse reproduction in low-gravity environments–now that should get some attention from the press–to the allocations committee.
My hands, sifting through the file of correspondence, suddenly found Natalie’s job application.
I held it up, felt myself frown. Deep-space exploration. I could understand why Natalie wanted to go. Six or seven years ago, I’d’ve wanted the same. Flying one of the big new faster-than-light rockets, being the first human being to set eyes on a new planet …
I shook my head once, briskly. Four years in isolation. Huh. When it came down to it, I hadn’t been able to cope with a fortnight. Some space explorer I turned out to be. So much for Natalie’s famous NASA report.
So, in the end, it had been the safe option. Accept the job as Moonbase Commander. Tell myself that I was still breaking boundaries, still pushing the envelope–first female commander, after all! But in the end, I was just another administrator.
A suitable post for a woman.
A job for Evie. Not Artie.
It’s like family, I remembered myself saying. But a family was what I’d never wanted.
A small chime went off in my ear, startling me. Time for the weekly briefing with Admiral Mills. I turned to the monitor, waited for the static to disperse and the flickering image to appear onscreen.
“Anything on your mind?” the Admiral said, after we’d gone through the usual niceties about quotas, duty rosters, and supplies.
I thought for a minute. “The deep-space exploration programme,” I said, then waited for the reply to come through.
Mills’ eyebrows rose, his surprise visible even through the slow, distorted connection. “What about it?”
“One of the pilots is applying, and asked for a reference,” I replied. “Just wondering if there’s anything I should know, to make it a good one.”
“It’s not actually up to all that much at present,” Mills admitted. “We’re recruiting possible candidates, and working on the technology, but the big insurmountable is going to be the isolation.”
“Larger ships?” I suggested. “With bigger crews?”
“That’s an avenue we’re pursuing,” Mills said. “But however large the crew, it’s still going to be a four-year round trip at minimum. And it could be real isolation; we’ve figured out how to move rockets and ether-mail faster than light, but not radio-waves or micro-waves, in a crisis, they’re literally on their own. If anybody on the base comes up with suggestions for improvement, we’re open to them.”
“Did you read the report out of NASA?” I asked. “The one about women having greater tolerances for isolation and confined spaces?”
There was a pause, longer than the lag should account for. “You’re a great Moonbase Commander, Quelch,” Mills said awkwardly.
I cursed myself, silently. I was just trying to give Natalie a boost, but now he thinks …
“Thank you. It’s a job I enjoy, sir.” Don’t rock the boat, Evie.
Another overlong pause. “That’s good.” Mills was back in full confidence mode again. “Until next week, then.”
I sat bolt upright as a shockwave ran through me and, almost at the same time, a klaxon sounded in my ears. In the darkness, my half-asleep brain made wild associations. It’s an air-raid, there are Germans overhead, scramble the fighters … but then I remembered–the war was long over, and the nearest Germans, outside of the ex-Nazis in the engineering corps, were almost half a million kilometres away. A red light pulsed above the telescreen.
Scrambling forward, I touched the red light, pressed it. The sound faded, though the light continued to flash. My mind raced through the possibilities. A fire? I couldn’t feel any heat, hear any noise, so that seemed unlikely. A bomb? Could be, given the shockwave … a wall breach? I tried the room lights. They stayed off. Worrying. Power loss somewhere.
I found the communicator grille and pressed the intercom, turning the dial to the main operations area. “Status report, Serge,” I said.
“Serge?” I turned the dial through the different channels, then realised the communicator was dead. No response, but no hiss of dull static either. Tried the room lights again. Then the telescreen, then the computer monitor.
Tried the door. It stayed locked.
Power outage, I thought, feeling the panic surging and fighting to keep it down. Clearly not total, because the emergency alert system is working. The backup generator must be okay. For the moment, at least. I could see a dim grey light under the door, though whether that meant some of the lamps were still working, I didn’t know. It could be ambient light, from the Earth and stars. My quarters were on one of the arms of the starfish, close to the main operating area, down the hall from the medical suite and Lab Four. The corridors were designed to seal off in case of hull breaches; it could be that I was closed in, isolated from the rest of the base, left to live or die until the situation was stabilised.
I slumped down by the bed, curled my knees to my chest and buried my face in my arms, like a child. Wouldn’t do to have the staff see you like this … part of me said, but then another part said, the staff aren’t here, and they could be dead, or you could be dead … how much air would we have if the life support systems went off?
I remembered the Mars mission, landing for what should have been a routine supply drop, finding instead the broken dome, the dead and injured scientists. Deliberate sabotage to the interior atmospheric systems by a hacknik gang, they said later. Baadermeinhofs, determined to destroy what they saw as an extension of the Nazi space programme. But I didn’t know that then, as I worked frantically on my own to evacuate the survivors, nor did I know about the final piece of sabotage, to the electrical systems of the rescue rocket …
They’re all dead, and I’m the only one alive in here …
Stop. I forced myself to raise my face. You don’t know it’s sabotage. You don’t know you’re the only one left. And even if you are, think about all the people back on Earth. You owe it to them to find out what’s happening, fix it if you can.
Ludmilla’s voice sounded in my mind. Do it, comrade.
Ludmilla, shot into orbit in the Soviets’ first, fatal, attempt at manned spaceflight in 1957, the recording of her final moments as her spacecraft burned, accidentally captured by an experimental wireless computing system, leaked to the world, blowing the secret Russian space programme wide open. Even dying in space, the most isolated a human being could be, Ludmilla had been connected to humanity.
And Ludmilla’s message had kick-started the world’s space race. New rocket technology, married to the new computing systems developed during the war … if it weren’t for Ludmilla, I could have lived the rest of my life as an ex-pilot. Never flown rockets. Never seen the Moon.
Do it, comrade. Who knows what it’ll achieve?
I opened my eyes, scanned the blackness.
My peripheral vision caught a flicker of green light.
The virtuality box.
My hands found it, brushed over it. Of course. He didn’t plug it into the mains, when he demonstrated it earlier. It must run on batteries. I switched it on, and the lights began to blink along its side. I fumbled the helmet on, pulled down the goggles. Do it, comrade.
I was in the paper garden again, black-and white two-dimensional cartoon snails sliding up and down giant stalks of grass. Already I began to feel calmer. More rational thoughts began to proceed through my mind. And if Kit’s got his box with him, that’ll run on batteries too … maybe I can communicate with him. How? “Kit!” I called out, feeling stupid but not sure what else to do. “Kit! You out there?”
I saw the paper Kit materialise, with relief. “Yes, I’m here,” he said.
“Anytime somebody joins the system, the amber light at the centre flashes,” he said. “I’ll explain it all later. What’s going on out there? I can hear an alarm, and the door won’t open … the instructions we got on the rocket up said just to await rescue in case of emergency, so I’ve been doing that, but no rescue has thus far been forthcoming.”
“The power’s gone out,” I said, with relief at hearing his Oxford-pedant tones. I’m not alone. I’m not the only one alive in here. “At least for some of the base. I take it you’re in the computer room?”
“Yes. You know me, I work late.” I could hear the sheepishness in his voice, smiled.
“Good thing you do,” I said. “Are your lights working?”
“No,” came the reply straight away. “About one-third of the computer mainframe is, but nothing else. I guess it’s the part of the mainframe that’s on the emergency power circuit.”
I swore. “Damn. I was hoping the outage wasn’t total. Still, emergency power’s better than nothing. Could you check the life support systems?”
“Take a look at the computer bank third from the end. Also should be working. Is it?”
The paper cutout froze. I guessed that this meant Kit was out of the system. A minute later it moved again. “Yes.”
“That’s great news. Can you go there and get me a readout?”
There was another pause, during which the little paper Kit stood motionless. Then it began to move again. “Got it. Forty-two, a hundred and three, twenty-four.”
“Sounds like the heating and oxygenation is holding for the moment. But for some reason the air pressure’s dropping,” I said. Mars, all over again … I concentrated hard on one of the snails, described its movement. I can do this. “Can you tell why?”
Another pause. “Okay, I think I’ve got something,” Kit replied. “The readout says there’s been some kind of catastrophic failure in Lab Two.”
I swore again. Lab Two was on the starfish-arm out by the colony construction site, and “catastrophic failure” usually denoted an explosion. “That explains the power outage, not the pressure drop,” I said. “The emergency system is working, and there should have been an automatic foam extrusion, sealing off the damaged area. There’s one on the door of every room that abuts the outside, and another on each of the corridors, in case of hull breaches. Again, can you tell what happened?”
A pause, then a return. “Could you tell me what switch controls the foam extrusion?”
“Um …” I pushed up my goggles, groped around until I found my copy of the base systems manual, held it up to the dim green-and-amber lights of the box. Shoved the goggles back down. “Yeah. Forty-three black.”
“Then it doesn’t seem to have triggered. Is there a fallback?”
I thought, quickly. “The computer should be doing it, and it’s automatic … Kit, do you think you could trigger it manually, from the system computer?”
The figure went still, then moved again. “Yeah. I might wind up triggering it all over the base, though.”
“Do it,” I said. “Worst-case scenario, we’re all sealed into our corridors for a while.” Medical teams unable to reach the injured … I pushed that thought away.
“Okay, getting the cover off … ah, there’s the switch … and, go!”
I heard a sudden distant roar of the foam releasing. “You did it, Kit!” I cheered. “Now we just have to wait for rescue.”
“Will you be okay, in your room?” Kit asked. Meaning, in the dark, in an enclosed space.
But, I thought, I’m not in my room, I’m in the tall grass, with the snails. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just keep the virtuality switched on.”
12 October 1969. I made the final checks to the system, turning dials and flicking rocker switches.
“T minus thirty minutes.” An unfamiliar technician’s voice sounded in my ear, female and businesslike. Then, in a friendlier tone, “Nearly time for launch.”
“Understood,” I replied formally.
“Are you sure we can’t change your mind about this?” Mills’ voice cut in. “You could still go back to the Moonbase.”
I smiled, though I knew he couldn’t see it. “It’ll wait for me,” I said. Already, my years on the Moonbase seemed dreamlike, a brief grounded interlude between space missions. A moment of lunacy, so to speak, that had lasted five years. Back to reality, now.
“It will,” Mills acknowledged. “If you still want it when you return, that is.”
“Who’s to say?” I replied cheekily. “It might not want me, you know; it’s the second space emergency I’ve been involved with, I’m sure it doesn’t want to risk a third.”
Mills hesitated for a moment. “Oh, yes, the crane accident.”
“Yes, the crane accident.”
After all that panic, all that fear I’d had to overcome, it hadn’t been sabotage, Baadermeinhof or otherwise. Just a simple case of an improperly calibrated crane boom toppling and hitting the observation window in Lab Two. No fatalities, thanks to my quick action, was what they’d said afterwards.
But of course, that wasn’t the real reason why I left.
“All right, virtuality check,” The technician was back. “Flip your goggles down, test the system.”
I complied, focused on the familiar test pattern. “Working,” I said.
“Acknowledged,” the technician said. “T minus twenty-five minutes.”
I waited a moment, then switched the channel.
They were all there, the paper dolls, standing among the oversized blades of grass from the Alice in Wonderland demonstration environment. Kit, and Joern, and Joern’s Valkyrie of a wife, and all my friends and colleagues from the Moonbase–Serge with his moustache, Dennis with his ridiculous spectacles, deadpan Beryl–and others too, Flanagan from his commune in the Orkneys, and Krishna in London, and even Natalie, who had gone up the week before, transmitting from her own rocket. You get to be first, Nats. All there not to say goodbye, but to say hello to the new way of meeting in etherspace.
The paper Kit held up a paper square. Zooming in on it, I saw that it was a picture of a news article from Metropolitan magazine:
Joining the pilots’ programme is former Moonbase Commander Evangeline Artemesia Quelch. “Artie,” as she is affectionately known to all her friends, is a skilled aviatrix with decades of experience in surface and space piloting, as well as having pioneered the virtuality system with which all the long-distance rockets are now equipped, to communicate via etherspace with scientists and with the public back home over the four-year trip. I’m sure our readers will join the Moonbase personnel in wishing Artie a successful mission!
I grinned. “I’ll be back to talk to you soon,” I promised. “I’ll take pictures and show you every little star out there.” Still smiling, I flipped the goggles up.
“T minus twenty minutes,” another voice said.
I took a tiny piece of glossy paper out of a pocket of my drab brown uniform. Peeled the backing off, stuck it on top of the console.
Ludmilla Kovalenko now looked back at me, distant, and formal.
She looked like she approved.
Do it, comrade.
I was still smiling as I settled back into my seat.
It was going to be a great trip.
Evangeline Artemisia “Artie” Quelch is an American-born aviatrix and a cosmonaut for the Commonwealth Space Programme. A veteran of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she defied a postwar gender ban by disguising herself as a man to fly for the British Imperial Airways Corporation. In 1957, she enlisted in the CSP, and was decorated for her role in the rescue of the doomed Mars expedition. Following a term as commander of the Commonwealth Moonbase, she re-enlisted in the Deep Space Rocket Corps and is currently on her way to Alpha Centauri.
Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose first novel, Driving Ambition, is published by Bundoran Press in autumn 2018. She has written and cowritten a number of articles and guidebooks on cult television, three stage plays and four audio plays. Her short fiction has appeared in, among others, Interzone, Asimov, On Spec, Unlikely Story, and the award-winning anthology Blood and Water. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London. More details, and free content, can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.
AJ is an illustrator and comic artist with a passion for neon colors and queer culture. Catch them being antisocial on social media @thehauntedboy.
“Every Little Star” is © 2018 Fiona Moore
Art accompanying story is © 2018 America Jones