Nils departed Conrad Lunar Station, driving his pressurized crawler. He imagined the station would become the hub of lunar activity associated with the Lunadyne Corporation. His hab wasn’t far off, allowing him to be away from the center of activity and on his own. The whole point of his being here had been to build up the Moon. He knew Lunadyne was an excellent group to be associated with, but he didn’t work for the company. He was an independent–one of the first.
The crawler was the center of his life on the Moon. He knew it was necessary for transportation and work. Nils knew that without the crawler, it would limit him to Conrad Station and the company would either conscript him for work or send him back to Earth. Neither of which appealed to him. He planned to do freelance activities. Before he arrived, Nils knew there would always be someone on Earth that needed a pair of hands on the Moon. The crawler enabled him to travel and offer his skills wherever they were required.
As he drove, he considered the list of jobs that had arrived through his broker. Using the broker had been a last-minute consideration. He wanted to handle it himself, but connections to enough people would prove impossible on the Moon’s surface. The broker would send a list, Nils would review it and select a job, negotiate a price, and pay ten percent as a fee. He’d worked through the last list, enabling him to make a down payment on the delivery of supplies.
Scanning the list while the crawler automatically drove the path toward his habitat, Nils noticed one that he realized he needed to avoid taking. Someone wanted to hire him to look for diamonds on the rim of Copernicus Crater. He knew that was impossible. The geology for the Moon was all wrong to form diamond. There wasn’t a sufficient source of carbon on the lifeless Moon. Knowing the answer beforehand, he didn’t want to spend a significant amount of money on conducting the survey. He called the brokerage firm.
“This is Nils Carmike,” he said once he reached the voice of a human operator. “I need to review one of the potential clients that is on my list.”
“Is there a problem with the price of the job, Mister Carmike?” asked the Broker in her smooth voice after the two second delay to Earth. “We established the prices based upon the work instructions that you provided to us.”
“Regardless, the price is outrageous for this job. Obviously, someone has deceived the individual who made the request at this outrageous price. There are no diamonds on the Moon, other than the once we brought with us.”
“That’s a shame, Mister Carmike. We have no processes to deal with this kind of discrepancy.”
“Tell you what,” said Nils. “We need to fix this, or I will end my contract with your firm. Because of my reputation, I cannot exploit someone’s lack of knowledge about the Moon on purpose.”
“Hold on a moment, Mister Carmike. I will arrange for you to discuss this with the client.”
“What is wrong with diamonds?” asked the man, called Herald.
Nils could tell that he was elderly but did not know how old.
“Sir, you don’t know me,” said Nils. “But I’ve been working on the Moon already more than anyone and been studying it far longer. Believe me when I say that the Moon doesn’t have diamonds.”
“I’m afraid that my nephew insists that this is correct.”
“If I may, how much did the mineral rights to the area cost you?”
“I think it was about three million,” said Herald. “I’ll have to look at my accounts to get the exact amount.”
“Did you get the rights because the seller insisted there were diamonds?”
“Yeah, I’m no fool. I wouldn’t have got rights without a sample.”
“You have raw diamonds that they claim came from the Moon?” asked Nils.
“Yes. I have them in a baggy in the drawer. One second, let me get them.”
“Yeah,” said Harald. “I have them here.”
“Can you describe them to me?”
“They are little rocks, mostly clear.”
“Are there any inclusions that are colored?” asked Nils.
“I see some color. What was that word you said?”
“Inclusion. It means that it’s buried inside the crystal.”
“I can’t really tell,” Herald said. “Some look on the surface.”
“What color are the stones?”
“Mostly gray, maybe slightly green.”
“Herald, I can tell you that these rocks might not be diamonds. I would get them tested. The cost of the survey means it will take me a day to complete. That cost covers all the expenses of me being on the Moon for that day.”
“That means that covers the cost of shipping all the water I drink, the food I eat, and even the air I breathe. That is a roundabout way of saying my services are expensive. I’d like you to have your samples checked first. If your samples are legitimately diamonds and the examiners will verify that they are not from the Earth, then I’ll go out to your site and look for diamonds.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes Harold, I fear that they have duped you and I don’t want to add to your financial burden to prove that to you by taking a day at your site and finding nothing. I would call your local police as well and report the fraud. You can give them my number.”
Nils closed the connection after reassuring the man that the situation was serious. Even though the money would have been easy, he knew someone other than him might take it. He hoped Harold would take his advice and verify those diamonds.
From his Texas Office, Nils fell into the routine since they landed the remote-control crawler on the lunar surface. For about two weeks, he’d work nearly fourteen-hour days. Then once the sun had set on the landing site, he’d spend the next two weeks relaxing and working only a couple of hours a day. He’d been through two full cycles, awaiting the sunrise on the third cycle, starting in two days when the sun rises on the landing site.
He grabbed the coffee from the convenience store across the street from the office. Even though he only planned to spend two hours in the office, he felt it would be a long day. He realized he needed more time to prepare the site at Mare Frigoris for landings and start building the road to the North Pole before he could go to the Moon. Based on their timetable after the accident, Orbitdyne won’t be able to send humans to the Moon until next year at the earliest. Meanwhile, Nils prepared everything with automated rovers and a remote-controlled crawler. There was four months.
Once in the office, Nils dialed the vendor waiting for the teleconference to start between him and the KG vendor.
“Nils,” said Zia Hill, the woman who appeared on the screen. “I hope the Texas summer hasn’t totally wiped you out.” Zia was the flight director for the KG launch services in Savanah. She was the technical face of the company and provided Nils a powerful level of confidence in KG’s abilities. Zia never sugar-coated an issue, but she didn’t dwell on trivialities that meant nothing to the overall operation.
“Hi Zia,” said Nils. “It cooled off overnight, so it’s been quite pleasant this morning.”
“That’s good. Georgia summer hasn’t been too bad here either.”
“What’s the status?”
“We’ve got your payloads secure. Your partner is overseeing the final lockdown of the fairing. We expect to complete the stack tomorrow.”
“How is Milt?” asked Nils, wondering about his business partner, Milt Johnson. Milt had been mostly absent from the office during the past two months since landing on the Moon. He left Nils in charge of the daily operations of the Moon landings while he dealt with funding and technical issues across the country. “I haven’t spoken to him since last week’s telecon.”
“You know Milt—always on the move. We spoke just enough this morning that he could verify the crates and the rovers. Then he was off to another meeting.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“No,” said Zia. “But I didn’t ask.”
“Okay, that’s fine. I was just wondering. What do you have for me?”
“We’ve completed the trajectories. We’ll land sunrise plus 27 hours at the landing site at Frigoris. The lander will need to be unloaded so we can launch it back into lunar orbit in five days.”
“That doesn’t give me much time,” said Nils. “That’s a lot of cargo on this run.”
“We can’t do anything about it. The agency has another payload that they want delivered to Shackleton by the seventeenth of the month. They are very insistent and spend a lot to make it happen. Offloaded or not, we launch five days after landing.”
“I got it. We’ll get her unloaded.”
“On another note, I have the preliminary time of landing based upon current estimated launch time,” said Zia. “I’ll send that out with the morning report.”
“Are we going to increase the pace of the meetings after launch?”
“We can provide you with a twice daily briefing, but it will offer little more than our twice a week briefing.”
“Okay, we’ll forget that for now,” said Nils, realizing the extra expense wouldn’t be justified. In fact, delays associated with Orbitdyne’s accident had seriously compromised their venture. Since Milt had handled most of the funding side, all Nils did was to worry about it and keep operations going. But there had been this persistent nagging in his mind that he was overlooking something.
Nils drove out of Richardson and headed to his apartment in Dallas. He was planning to take everything and put it in storage months ago as he felt he’d already headed to the Moon. Now, the landlord sought him to sign another six-month lease. It was damn inconvenient. He had to handle a dozen things, including getting ready for his own voyage to the Moon. The necessities of Earthbound life just never seemed to make sense to him. He planned to leave, so tying himself financially or otherwise seemed non sequitur.
He continued driving, heading toward the apartment office. And he got caught in another traffic signal. It turned out unfortunate, but the signals weren’t in sync during that time of day. In fact, he knew better than to try going home this time of day. It would take close to an hour to make a twenty-minute drive. As he came to the stop, his phone rang. He touched the button on his earpiece.
“Yup,” he said.
“Hi, this is Milt,” said his partner. “We’ve got a problem.”
“We always have problems. What kind do we have today?”
“Lunacorp wants to have a look at operations. Lunacorp wants to inspect our operations because of our delay. I promised their auditor a chance to look at operations.”
“When did you make this promise?” asked Nils, fearing the answer.
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Shit. That’s absolutely the worst day.”
“We can’t do anything about it. They think we are not using their investment effectively,” said Milt. “You will need to prove it.”
“This is going to be difficult,” said Nils. “But you are welcome to watch.”
“That is what I am here for,” said the auditor.
“The sun came up a few hours ago, and I am waiting until the ambient temperature reaches about freezing before I turn the heater on with the solar power.”
“I don’t want too large of temperature gradients across the electronics as things warm up,” explained Nils.
“Temperature gradients? I don’t understand.”
“Large changes in temperature over short distances between components. That creates a situation where it’s possible to crack wires or components because they expand unevenly. If it breaks, its dead until Milt and I get up there to fix it.”
“Assuming you can,” said the auditor.
“Yup, assuming we can.”
“You seem to have built a lot of your operation off of assumptions.”
“Not as many as you would think,” said Nils, realizing that the auditor was poking at their business plan.
“Well, I build my plans based on setting priorities. Those priorities are often to deal with an assumption that another piece of the construction depends upon.”
“Like you are working so hard on the solar arrays the past two months?” asked the auditor.
“Exactly. Without power, we are helpless to do much. Part of that power has to keep us alive during the long lunar nights. The first cycle presented the major challenge of providing enough power to keep the crawler alive through the lunar night. He set up solar panels and connected them to a battery pack, using as little power as possible.”
That first two-week lunar night had been frustrating. Nils couldn’t help the feeling of screwing up and leaving a dead rover on the Moon’s surface. The crawler had enough power, even more than he expected, when it came back to life after sunrise. To double the usable energy on site, he spent the next lunar day building a second power station.
“By doing this,” Nils continued. “We can bring AR1 and AR2 to Frigoris tomorrow on the third cycle’s cargo run after we settle at base camp for a bit.”
“Oh,” said the auditor. “That means you are too busy for this audit.”
“Yup. You could not have arrived at a worse time.”
“I’m sorry, but this is essential to Lunacorp.”
“Someone has said that,” said Nils. “If Lunacorp wants a scapegoat for the delay, it’s Orbitdyne. Their flyer has been out of service because of their accident. What I am doing is keeping us on some kind of schedule despite the delay in their system. Go back and tell Lunacorp whatever you want to tell them, but I’m really too busy to feed them a report because they are scared.”
“If that’s the way you feel.”
“Feeling has nothing to do with it. Those are the facts.”
“Well, I can say one thing,” said the auditor. “If you’re the one working on it, it’s likely going to succeed. However, I can say that you and your partner gave Lunacorp a line of shit a half million kilometers long. This plan is about a likely to succeed as putting a cork in Yellowstone.”
“Have a good day.”
Nils answered the phone.
“What the hell did you do?” asked Milt.
“What do you mean?”
“You know full well what I mean. That could lead to Lunacorp canceling the contract. We’re building the road for them, remember?”
“No,” said Nils. “We’re building it for ourselves, they are a facilitator.”
“How in the hell can’t you separate the two in your head?”
“If they can’t stay the hell out of the way of the work, then they are of no use to us. When that auditor started digging yesterday for me to justify what I was doing. He admitted I didn’t have time for it, but when he persisted. I laid it on the line. The facts were that his mere presence was putting the Lunacorp investment at risk.”
“Did you say it in those words?” asked Milt.
“Then you might have as well said nothing.”
“What the hell do you mean?” asked Nils.
“Exactly what I’ve been saying. You put the whole thing at risk over a few hours of your time.”
“No. They jeopardized everything by taking away my work time. I could have done it in two weeks, but you didn’t bother consulting with me.”
“I—,” started Milt.
“The schedule is too tight during the lunar day to allow for that kind of nonsense. You should know better. It’s what we spent years training for maximizing our use of favorable time.”
“With you not here helping me during the daytime, I’m left with trying to work sixteen to twenty-hour shifts on my own to keep the activity going,” said Nils. “Without you taking the other shifts, it puts us against the wall.”
“We need to keep the investors happy.”
“Yes, but not at the expense of the work.”
“Okay,” said Milt. “I’ll see what I can do about rescheduling.”
“Do it. Once the sun sets at Frigoris, I can chat with the auditor for two weeks. I barely have enough to do as it is.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Now,” said Nils. “About my other concern…”
“You mean I can’t contribute because of all the investor meetings?”
“Yup. What are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing,” said Milt. “But before you get pissed off, let me explain.”
“I expect that during the better part of the next year, we’re going to be on the Moon. The investors and Lunacorp need to get a good sense of me before we put a screen and a quarter million miles between us. They need a sense of trust to keep us moving without me being here to hold their hand. Lunacorp is going to be tough enough, but we need to keep our construction company investors happy. And I’ve got to get into a meeting with them in the next five minutes so we can get this issue to blow over.”
“Okay, we’ll talk more later,” said Nils. Switching off the phone, he wondered why he still felt that Milt was feeding him a line of bull.
Time to go, the alarm indicated. Jacob Conner dreaded the announcement, regarding it as a horrible turn of events. It meant he needed to get to Houston to support the space station for NASA. As a lead Astronaut, it was his job, forcing him to make the commutes from his home in Dallas.
I hate this drive to Houston, thought Jacob.
The trip from Dallas to Houston had always been difficult, but now, in the falling ash of Yellowstone, it neared impossible. The ash was everywhere since the explosion. Nothing escaped it. Ash wreaked havoc on cars, clogging up windshields, air vents, radiators and even causing overheating. Anyone who drove carried a broom, brush, or compressed air hose to clear the ash from key points in the car–especially the radiator. Now that the ash was falling, Jacob realized he would spend more time clearing the ash from his car than driving to Houston.
However, he realized he had no choice. He needed to be at mission control to support abandoning the space station. NASA was shutting down. In fact, everything not related to producing food without the benefit of sunlight was being shut down. The country had undertaken a massive effort to move all farming inside. People were building warehouses covering acres, installing millions of wide spectrum lights, collecting tons of coal, oil, and natural gas, and constructing power plants — all to convert energy to food. They intended to keep as many people alive as possible. The government ended all activities that were not related to that effort. The government shut down space stations and military bases to focus on converting energy to food for survival. They ignored other issues.
Jacob grabbed his cooler, filled with individually wrapped sandwiches, ice, and bottled water for the trip. He knew the ice would be a mushy mix of volcanic ash before lunch, but he knew it would keep the water and food cold.
Jacob arrived in building 10 at the space center with continued darkness enveloping the Houston skyline. Jacob could only tell it was morning by looking at the clock as he arrived at building 10 in the space center, enveloped by the darkness of the Houston skyline. Upon arriving at the conference room, Jacob quickly sat down with William Ackers, Sarah James, and Kyle Yarrow. Ackers had recently taken over as the head of the astronaut office because of several departures. As Roskosmos coordinator for the astronaut office, Jacob had recently become the default ISS coordinator.
“Have they checked in yet?” asked Jacob, glancing at the blank feed on the screen at the end of the table.
“TDRS is switching over at the moment,” answered Sarah. “We should have them back momentarily.”
“Good,” Jacob nodded, “Anything new?”
“We’ve still been trying to figure out the planned descent.” Kyle answered, “The Russians are still talking about keeping their half and just boosting it to as high of orbit as possible.”
“Can they do that?”
“Assuming they can launch the progress.” Kyle stated.
“So that means we’re going to delay departure?”
“Yes,” Kyle answered meekly.
“Program Director is going to have a fit with that one,” said William, annoyed with the outcome.
“Can we help it?” Jacob asked, then continued to answer his own question. “We must support our mission partners. There is no way to know how soon we will need them. I would rather push back by deferring to the engineering judgment of our mission partners.”
“Jacob,” said William. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” Jacob said defiantly. “With Yellowstone exploding, we could be extinct. If we survive, we’ll need to move the program far faster than we have imagined.”
“Not the colony idea again,” said William.
“Isn’t it obvious, William? If we survive, we’ll need that off world population as insurance.”
“Jacob is right,” said Sarah. “We’ve been a danger to ourselves for such a long time, we’ve forgotten that nature can do it to us too. Yellowstone blew up on its own schedule. We didn’t have a doomsday clock letting us know when we were getting close.”
“Shouldn’t we just try to survive this disaster before planning for the next?” William countered.
“I think it’s prudent to salvage at least part of the station. There is a lot of benefit for minimal added risk.”
“So what are we talking about?” William asked, after waving a sign of surrender.
“They’re talking about jettisoning everything except the Zvezda and Zarya. They would love to hold on to Node 1, but the solar arrays add too much drag.” Kyle said. “They are looking at a de-orbit burn for the stack, then jettisoning, and then burning to boost the orbit of the two modules.”
“How about our folks?” Jacob asked. “Have they run the numbers themselves?”
“It looks like it’s barely within the safety margin.” Kyle answered. “First, undock Soyuz and de-orbit, then remotely fire Progress, detach the cargo block, and finally start burning on the Russian section.”
“Meanwhile, the rest of the station burns up.” William stated. He tapped his fingers on the table for a moment. “I guess I can convince the Program Director that this is the way to go.”
“You might point out we would have a destination for Shuttle,” Sarah added.
“Good point. We can meet post Columbia restrictions.” Kyle said. “Then fly the shuttle as soon as we are ready.”
“Yes,” Jacob answered. “We have two major sections we can bring up and take to a destination once we are operational again.”
“You really think that will happen?” asked William.
“I’m making it my mission to see that it does.”
“Look Jacob,” said Neil, Director of the ISS program. “I’ve kept you out of the firing line so far, but the Administrator wasn’t happy about telling the President that our people would not be coming home yesterday.”
“I hope you told him it was an astronaut office decision.”
“I did,” Neil shook his head. “He understands. But you know the associate administrator. She isn’t likely to take kindly to the astronauts not following their office’s recommendations.”
“She can go to hell.”
“Jacob,” Neil warned.
“I’m serious.” Jacob countered. “We have astronauts that still want to fly. They want to have a space program to come back to. It’s not a decision for the bureaucrats. It’s for the program and the astronauts.”
“There isn’t a program anymore.”
“I have hardware and I have people. Once we get the dollars again, we’ll have a program.”
“Mose,” said Jacob, looking at the astronaut floating on the screen.
“Jacob,” answered Moses Crane. “What have you got for me?”
“A bunch of bureaucrats that aren’t comfortable with the Russian plan,” Jacob answered. “Though the office and engineering seem convinced that the plan has merit.”
“I’m surprised engineering is on board.”
“Oh, they are uncomfortable. They dislike the bureaucratic assumption that the Yellowstone eruption is the end of the world more than anything.”
“Roger that,” Mose nodded. “Announcement of the end was premature.”
“How about you? Does the plan make sense?”
“It looks good to me,” Mose answered. “I think we’ll need to gut the Zvezda and Zarya with everything we can remove and put into the lab. Lucia thinks we can get most of the non-essential equipment moved by the end of the day.”
“I’ll let you go then,” said Jacob. “I buy you a beer once you get back.”
“Buy me several.”
“Dammit,” Jacob said, hearing the feed from control room one. He picked up the phone. “Stan?”
“What’s the word?”
“According to the Russian controllers in Kazakhstan, Soyuz was off target.”
“How about the crew?”
“No word.” Stan continued, “They have announced that the station reached a higher orbit.”
“Good news, but unimportant. We need confirmation on the crew.”
“Jacob,” said William, the new administrator on the television screen. “We need you to head the operations division of the new space agency.”
“So, I’m being fired?” Jacob looked sour.
“Promoted,” said William.
“Regardless, I almost lost that crew.”
“Jacob,” William shook his head. “Mose and Lucia knew the risk, and they took it.”
“On my recommendation. It could have killed them.”
“It took eighteen months, Conner. Our people knew what they were doing and survived, even though the retrieval choppers crashed into each other, and the region collapsed into chaos. But Mose and Lucia figured out how to survive and get home. Though I am surprised that they got out of the Soyuz on their own and didn’t break a dozen bones as they crawled out.”
“Sorry, I can’t take the job William,” Jacob shook his head. “You can’t have me pushing my agenda every time I get a burr up my ass about something.”
“Look, we assumed that Mose and Lucia were dead. We were wrong. Some people blamed you. They were wrong.”
“Sorry,” Jacob said.
“Enough. You don’t need to fall on your sword. I need someone that foresaw we would restart the program in less than two years. Someone that can rebuild the station and get us back up there. That person is you.”
“But there are better people in–”
“Conner, I need an astronaut in charge of operations. I need you here in Houston.”
“You know, I hate the drive to Houston.”