Bob and the Allegory of the Cave
Tuesday, May 12th, 2082 AD
(Tuesday, May 12th, 75 IA)
(Tuesday, May 12th, 138 SA)
I stared at the cliff wall, which was sopping wet. I looked up and saw the arc of a huge transparent dome spread out over my head, vanishing over the horizon behind me. Impressive. The base of the dome was cut into the cliff, and the glass at the bottom of it was coated in ice. Condensation had been a problem here in Tranquility since the dome had been erected, back during the war, fifty years ago. There was a network of pipes who’s job was to collect the condensation, and run it back into the water recirculation system. I’d been futzing with the stupid access panel for more than two hours, but it was rusted and/or frozen shut. My bodyguard - a man with the unfortunate name of Lance Chaparral (Unfortunate because he was a Lance Corporal) had proved to be of no use. He was just a kid, nineteen years old. He didn’t even know which end of a screwdriver was the handle, and which end was the one you stab into the skull of someone who won’t shut up when you’re trying to do something difficult. I resisted the urge to show him, and in the most time-honored traditions of engineers, I hurled a hammer at the access panel instead. It was a five-pound sledge.
Ill-considered: It hit the hatch, deflected up, hit the layer of ice on the glass dome. There was a loud crack, a cloud of shards and that kind of frosty not-quite-snow you find coating the walls of a refrigerator freezer, and then the big hunk - a sheet easily ten feet square - fell straight for me.
Luckily, I had plenty of time to get out of the way. In the low lunar gravity, it would take nearly two seconds to hit. I was backing up when Lance Corporal Lance tackled me hard in the chest, and the two of us flew backward to end up in an awkward pile a yard away. A full second after that, the ice sheet hit.
“Not bad, huh?” Lance said, “I bet you could have used someone like me back when the SecGen’s goons tried to blow up Caspian that time, huh?”
He’d knocked the wind out of me, so I ignored him until I could breathe again. Ignoring prattling dopes was my standard Modus Operandi, but in fact I’d actually thought about saying something scathing and sarcastic like “Yeah, a flying tackle is really effective against an atomic bomb.” Curious. It seemed my entirely-unwanted adventures were making me chattier.
The ice - smaller bits of which were still falling - had ripped open the access panel. I stepped over to it while Chaparral asked me some question or other about the monastery on Gagarin. “When they came after you, I know you said it was the monks who defended you, but what kind of weapons were y-” Suddenly silence. It was unlike him to stop in the middle of a sentence, or even after one, so I gazed around. Sure enough, a smaller chunk of ice had clocked him on the head, knocking him out.
Well that was a freebie! Two annoyances solved with just one hammer throw. And yet people mock our engineering traditions.
It had been a mistake to take this assignment on the moon. Following all the drama in my life over the last couple years - two failed love affairs, two failed assassination attempts, three round trips to Tau Ceti, and having been eaten by a whale - I’d been a bit overwhelmed. When the Bahman docked at Caspian Station, Colonel Evans had given me a choice: stay on the Bahman and supervising an extremely boring refit of the cargo loaders, or going a temporary reassignment to the moon, where I could help with an extremely boring refit of the plumbing system. I chose the moon because of the stark minimalism it afforded: Grey ground, black sky, endless sterile quiet and the occasional roto-rooter-related problem to help me get my head back together.
Alas, it wasn’t like that anymore. The first dome - Tranquility Base - had gone up before I’d left earth the second time. I knew about this, of course, but I was completely unprepared for the urban sprawl: in the half century since, a dozen more domes sprung up. Some were military, some were scientific, industrial, or mining; some were resorts for the beautiful people - to be rich and beautiful were synonymous on this end of the 21st century - with more money than brains; some were historical sites, and there was even a retirement colony for the indolent and beautiful (Also synonymous). And then there was Tranquility: The Graveyard.
“That’s peculiar,” I said, lost in my thoughts and forgetting Lance was unconscious for the moment. The water pressure was abnormally low. Why?
The paramedics arrived in jetpacks and a ludicrously tiny helicopter that looked like something from a play mobile little people set. (High pressure and low gravity make possible things here that would be aeronautical suicide on earth. Or Gagarin for that matter. Or probably Ares.) They poked and prodded Lance the Lance, and pronounced him “Not dead.” They expected once they got to the hospital, they’d be able to upgrade his status to “Significantly Not Dead.” I couldn’t tell if that was a joke or not - I sometimes have trouble with such things - but they didn’t seem to be taking his injury too seriously, so I didn’t either. They offered to let me go with him, but I said no, then went back to work.
Seriously, what was up with the pressure? As the oldest dome on the moon, and the one with the most half-assed design, it was always having odd problems, but this seemed more than could be accounted for by a bad weld. I used my compy to call up water usage charts for the last half century. Startled, I unfolded its cyber paper screen to full size to get a better look at the spreadsheets. I was more than startled, I was interested.
Tranquility Base was, of course, the site of the first manned landing on the moon. Our side claimed it during the war, for reasons that never really amounted to more than “It’s cool, we want it, and we’re winning.” There were actually two domes, one inside the other. The inner, smaller dome - about a quarter mile across, situated in the center of the larger one - housed the Apollo 11 landing site, *The* footprint, and all the other crap Armstrong and Aldrin had left behind. It was hermetically sealed, the inside still in full vacuum, and was covered with something like one of those children’s geodesic climbing domes you find in parks. Climbing the thing was encouraged, so you could see the site from any angle. Surrounding all this was a much huger dome twelve miles in diameter, pumped full of air, with lots of water and grass and trees and fish, and heroic statuary and, of course, graves. Acres and acres of graves.
It was sort of like Arlington National Cemetery for us. Our honored dead are buried here, if at all possible, and there were empty graves and markers for such heroes as were unrecoverable - the several hundred of us who got blown up, or fed to sharks in the war, for instance. The theory seemed to be that visitors to the landing site would have to be aware of what space cost us, in human terms. The only road to the center dome led straight through rows of neat little crosses, with some stars of David and crescent moons and that Baha’I nine-pointed circle/star thing mixed in here and there. In fact, most of the graves were empty, with little generic placeholder tombstones, but we were a young and ambitious people. There was little doubt that we’d fill ‘em up quickly.
Emily and her dad had come here once, before the place was open to the public, and it wasn‘t even completely finished. She told me it had been the happiest moment of her life. Her dad’s memoir/suicide note said it had been his, too. They’d left together, but come back separately, years apart. Both of them were still here.
Two more bodyguards came out by jetpack, told me their names - which I promptly forgot - showed me their ID - which I didn’t bother to look at - and rattled off their reason for being here - which I didn’t bother to listen to - then set about doing Marine things - which I didn’t comprehend. I called the base commander on my compy to complain.
“I get it, I get it, I get it: the guy who runs the earth wants me dead,” I said, “it isn’t safe for me to go there. But do I really need *two* guards *here*?”
“Of course you do,” Colonel Yu said. He was the base commander for Tranquility. “There’s too many people coming through here every day for us to keep an eye on everyone.”
“But still…” I spluttered.
“Corporal Chaparral’s accident looks very suspicious to us. It may not have been an accident,” Colonel Yu said.
“Of course it was,” I said, “I caused it myself.”
“Well then consider the first guard there to protect you, and the second guard there to protect the first guard
from you.” He hung up.
I called the chief hydrological engineer for Tranquility Base, who was over in Taurus-Littrow for a conference of some sort. He didn’t seem to care much. He confirmed that the water loss for the section I was examining had always been abnormally high, but the whole system had been skitchy to begin with, and decades of overhauls and overtakes and retrofitting had made it even more so. They’d never been able to pin the problem down. Sometimes, for brief periods, the water flow in the area even shut down entirely. Again, no one knew why.
“Huh,” I said, and hung up, letting him get back to whatever he’d been doing in the stripper bar before I called. Clearly not an academic conference. Perhaps a research trip?
If none of the local authorities were taking the problem seriously, perhaps I should take a research trip?
If I’d been reticent to visit Emily’s grave, I sort of which I’d been reticent enough to avoid it entirely, even though I know that would only have postponed things.
Phew. A whole bunch of stuff to cover here, much of it interpersonal, and I’m bad with that. Where to begin?
A recap, I guess: My one true love - a girl named Asia McFadden - had dumped me for a lawyer. On the rebound, I’d hooked up with that same lawyer’s daughter, who was named “Emily.” I’m an engineer, so I’m notoriously uncomfortable defining squishy concepts like love, but before he turned in to a creepy incest-obsessed swinger, Robert Heinlein said “Love is when your own happiness becomes entirely dependent upon the happiness of another.“ Lets go with that: I had boatloads of that for Asia, perhaps more than I did before she dumped me. I didn’t have it for Emily. I had feelings for her, they were strong, they’re unresolved, but they weren’t love. Asia and I got assigned to different ships, and given the exigencies of interstellar travel at relativistic speeds, that was pretty much that. Likewise, when I left Caspian station, some months after Asia did, that was that was pretty much that for Emily and me as well. I was twenty-four when I’d left earth that time, twenty-six when I returned a quarter-century later. Emily was forty when I’d left, she’d have been sixty-five when I returned.
I’d intended to look her up - or at least I said I did - but what do you say in a situation like that? I’d read “Home Again,” I was full well aware of how badly attempting to reconnect with past loves who were now decades older than you was likely to go. I chickened out.
It wasn’t hard to find her grave because the index told me she’d been buried next to her father. Even without that, I’d have found it easily since I’d been ordered to attend his funeral. His original grave had been a simple VA affair - standard headstone, cross, foot marker. Since then they’d built an art deco tomb out of marble shipped up from earth. Emily’s grave - itself a humble VA thing -was next to his.
I got close and there were several pilgrims or tourists or gawkers or whatever milling about. I waited patiently for them to leave, then went down, and just stood at her footstone, unsure what to do. I’ve never been a ‘talking to the dead’ kind of guy, so I just stood there, staring. Thinking.
I noticed a guy standing off to one side. I ignored him. He kept staring, and I kept ignoring, until I realized he was checking me out. I motioned to my Marine Corps goons, and the two of them told him to beat it. He didn’t, he just stared at me with an unreadable expression. Well, unreadable for me. I have trouble with that.
Ok, fine, my concentration was blown, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to get from this exercise anyway. I decided to leave, and glanced at the guy. Very tall, thin if a bit paunchy, black hair turning grey at the temples, coffee-with-cream-colored skin, lighter than mine. About fifty, I guessed. Funny, he had the same nose I did. We made eye contact accidentally. He had Emily’s eyes. In fact, he had…oh my God.
I’m not a man who curses much. I never developed the habit, so when I do it means I’ve been frightened and startled badly.
“Hello, Father,” the stranger said.
Oh. My. God.
On my own initiative, I’d checked out a moon buggy, a nice big Winnebago-sized one, with plenty of sleeping space for me and my two goons. I had borrowed some sensing equipment from the quartermaster, and was driving slowly in an arcing course out from the Tranquility dome. I could not figure out the loss of water. Condensation in the dome didn’t account for it, water in the soil didn’t account for it, I couldn’t find any leaks in the structure itself, but it had to be somewhere around the middle third of the northwest quadrant, given the figures. My thinking was that if the water wasn’t leaking inside the complex, it must be leaking outside, perhaps a long-forgotten pipe sunk into the cliff wall or something. If the water was leaking outside, it would be instantly boiling off into space, leaving some very sparse hydrogen atoms behind. The sniffer I‘d bolted on to the outside of the buggy should detect that easily. I figured tooling around outside for a few days would be more interesting than re-routing fire sprinklers inside.
Just as I’d assumed the Moon would be less boring than upgrading cargo loaders on my ship, though, I was wrong. My two goons - who I’d taken to calling “Tweedle-Dum” and “Tweedle-Freakishly Huge” - were arguing about why no one was allowed to have children on the moon. Dum felt that it was an army thing to keep people in line; Huge felt it had something to do with the Catholic church. I didn’t bother to correct them. Instead, I mused about things that might result in children. The big schedule board on Caspian Station said Asia’s ship was three years out from earth, and heading closer every day. Should I stay? This was quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and if I missed it, her ship wouldn’t be back here for another forty-one years. It was now or never.
There was a crazy need for orbital construction engineers here. In addition to Caspian station, there were twenty-six other big space station colonies, and fifty four more in construction! I was sure my C.O. would let me transfer off the Bahman to one of those. Three years later Asia would be home again, and we run off happily ever after.
Assuming the ship was coming back here as planned, and not going somewhere else. Assuming she was still alive - interstellar travel is dangerous business. Assuming she was even still on the ship, and hadn’t decided to settle on Fort Sheppard. Assuming she wasn’t with someone else. Assuming…well, there were a lot of conditionals in there. Still: My happiness was contingent upon hers. What choice did I have? I weighed it out in my head, not really paying attention when my sniffer began to bleep like crazy.
The readings were off the chart. I’d put the thing on auto drive, and it had taken us in the shadow of a church-sized boulder. It wasn’t unheard of to find a bit of water or some other volatile in the shadows on the moon, but that was all at the poles, in deeper craters where sunlight never hit. Here at the equator? Impossible! There were no such sunless spots. This must be my leak. I hit ‘stop’ and the buggy skidded to a halt.
Skidded? We weren’t moving that fast. We weren’t *capable* of moving that fast. I turned off the window tinting so I could see better. We were in shadow, so we didn’t really need it anyway. I was staggered.
We were on a frozen lake, perfectly frozen. On the moon! My head spun. I felt dizzy. I felt like I needed to sit down before I fell down. Then I fell down anyway, because it turned out I hadn’t actually been dizzy, the floor was simply inching downward. Picking myself up, looking though the tinted front window, I could make out large cracks on the ice.
“Well this can’t be good,” Huge said.
Emily had rooked me. I’d always wondered why she’d chased after me. I’d assumed it was just the excitement of the war, or loneliness, or maybe even pity. If she’d wanted a roll in the hay, there were far easier people and places to get it. But now I knew: She wanted a kid. Specifically, she wanted a kid but not a father around to mess him up. What was it Asia had called them? Babydaddy? I was a babydaddy? And my baby was twice as old as I was? My knees went weak, my eyes went out of focus. I needed time to think, it was just too much to take in all at once.
Even so, I think I could have handled it if he hadn’t tried to hug me. I ran. I just ran. He must’ve chased after me or something, because behind me I heard the thud of someone being tackled. I didn’t look back.
Under the surface sheet, the ice must have been mostly slush. We sank pretty fast. This wasn’t a crater, more like some kind of rift or cave. There were few of these on the moon, but they weren’t unheard of. Tweedle-Dum was calm, Tweedle-Freakishly Huge was panicking. We were gradually tipping as we sank, undoubtedly we’d roll over, but how far down would we go? I didn’t know what the crush depth on a moon Winnebago was - I’m assuming no one did - but I couldn’t imagine we’d go that deep. Of course, I couldn’t imagine an open seam of ice on the moon either, so what did I know? A mystery was just the thing to get my mind off my woes. In one of her darker moods, Asia once accused me of not having a heart. That wasn’t true, I had one. I just didn’t like having one. I realized with a shock that I was happy for the first time since leaving Gagarin. There, sinking in the ice, cut off from the outside, death pretty certain, all these things conspired to get my mind off my troubles.
I visited my son in Jail.
“Come to visit the black sheep before they haul me off to Juvie,” he said. He was smiling.
“It’s a joke.”
“Oh. Ah. I have trouble with those,” I admitted.
“So mom said. Look, I’m sorry I scared you. There’s a million better ways I could have handled that, I just, well, if I overwhelmed you, you’ve got to understand that just seeing you overwhelmed me.”
That seemed plausible. “The cops tell me your story checks out, you really are who you claim to be. I’m…uhm…sorry I didn’t….well. I’ll have you let out of here ASAP,” I said. I found I couldn’t look at his face. I wondered why. It was quiet for a while.
“It’s a big deal for women to have kids up here, you know.” He said.
“Yeah, in the colony worlds, too.” Most of them had laws requiring women have a certain number of children.
“She’d always wanted to be a mother. She was forty, time was running out. She met you, you were smart, healthy, you were nice to her, you were favored of Gene…”
“I have good teeth,” I offered.
“You have good teeth,” he laughed, “And so she took the plunge. She didn’t figure you’d mind.”
“She figured wrong,” I said.
“Why are we upside down?” Tweedle-Freakishly Huge asked. He was calm. Tweedle-dum had slapped a happy juicer from the emergency kit on him. He was eyeing the other once anxiously for himself. Me? I was happy as a clam. Despite my floor now being a ceiling, it was nice in here. Cozy. Well-lit. This was the stark minimalism that I’d been hoping for when I took the moon job.
“The wheelbase is wider than the body of the buggy,“ I said, “So it acted like a drogue or the fins on the back of a bomb and…you know what, it doesn’t matter. Suit up.”
“We’re going out?” Dum asked.
“In space suits?” Huge asked.
“If it’ll keep air in, it’ll keep water out, for a while at least.”
“How can you be so calm at a time like this?” Dum asked.
“I dunno. Kind of nostalgic, I guess. Reminds me of the time I got eaten by a whale.”
Dum started freaking out, Huge, his mood regulated by the Happyjuicer, said calmly, “Relax, dude, if he survived that…”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “If you want to avoid getting eaten by whales, you probably don’t want to go fishing with me. If, on the other hand, you want to survive getting eaten by whales, I’m your boy.”
We cycled through the airlock into the slush. There was a slight current. We couldn’t see anything, so we all held hands and stayed in constant radio contact. I tongued the heads up display on my suit visor, and figured out the temperature differential between the top and the bottom of the shaft.
“I think I know how this works,” I said, mostly in order to get them to stop their steady stream of “Oh God! Oh God! We’re all gonna’ die” and “Relax, Dude, it’s cool” comments. “The slush rises because it’s slightly warm compared to the rock around here, it hits the surface and boils off,” I explained, “Taking more heat with it. What stays behind is cooler, and since it’s in the shade of that huge rock, it probably ices up pretty quickly.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means the lake surface probably freezes up quickly, maybe in just a couple hours. We need to hurry,” I said.
“Hurry and climb out before it freezes, right?” Huge asked.
“No, once it freezes the current will effectively stop. We need to head *into* the flow and figure out where it’s coming from.”
“Did she love me?” I asked.
“No. She had strong feelings for you that were never really resolved, she liked you, she thought you were a good man, she felt you got done wrong by that chick who shacked up with my granddad, but no.”
I winced, but I felt better. I’d always felt very very bad about how things had ended up with Emily. I felt like I’d used her. Finding out that she’d been using me was a load off my mind.
The shaft wasn’t very long, but it took us more than an hour to get through it. It led to a more watery, less slushy frozen-over lake. I could see lights above the ice. I expected it was some forgotten anteroom in the water processing plant for tranquility, or perhaps some old disused service tunnel that got flooded. I was totally not prepared for what I saw when our heads broke through the ice. And then a bullet shattered Huge’s skull.
I had them let out of jail, but I asked him to please leave me alone. He promised he would, but then he kept calling me and wanting to meet and talk about feelings and stuff. After a few days, I volunteered to try and track down a mysterious water leak in the northwest quadrant, just to get away from him.
There were dozens of them, some very old, all very odd looking. The ones that seemed youngest seemed the most alien, like a hairless gorilla painted by El Greco, only much taller. They had huge, limpid eyes that I was pretty sure were blind. They twitched and sniffed around. Their legs and - I assume - arms seemed dangerously thin, almost like pipe cleaners. The old ones were obviously human, though bent and gaunt, and with a strange aspect to them. The remaining ones were humanoid, but much too tall, with long, distorted faces. One of the hairless gorillas was singing quietly to itself, and stroking the hair on a tattered Raggedy Ann.
“Aliens!” shouted Tweedle-Dum, and one of the old ones shot at him. The aliens startled and brayed around nervously, but the old man had been a bad shot, and merely took off a big chunk of Dum’s helmet. Chastened, they hauled us out of the drink, tied us up, and debated what to do with us.
To Be Continued here:
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