tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 22

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 22

bybradley_stoke©

Chapter Twenty Two
The Moon - 3751 C.E.



The Moon was the most substantial celestial body Paul had ever trodden on in all his eighty years of life in the Solar System. When Paul stepped out of the Milton's shuttle and onto the Moon's surface, his body was directly subject to a gravitational force that was just one sixth to what he was used to. Nevertheless, walking on the Moon was hardly effortless. Ungainly was the best description of Paul's forward locomotion when he tumbled face downwards onto the spaceport's thick carpeted floor.

The space ship Milton meanwhile was many kilometres away and circling high above Paul's head. A vessel of the Milton's size wasn't authorised to approach nearer to Earth than this. Risks could no longer be taken after the long distressing history of calamitous accidents involving space ships in terrestrial orbit. The most disastrous had caused more destruction than the very worst of the nuclear explosions that had periodically scarred the Earth's surface. Ever since Houston was annihilated by the cataclysmic collision of two space cruisers, no space ship of the Milton's dimensions was permitted any closer to Earth than the Moon. And even then it had to maintain an orbit of several thousand kilometres.

Paul was sure he should be thrilled about being on the Moon, but his most genuine enthusiasm was reserved for the blue satellite he could see above his head. He was sure he could discern the outline of the continents of Africa and South America. And weren't those clouds he could see over the brown continents and blue oceans?

"I don't think I've ever seen so many people!" gasped Beatrice as she stared through the windows of the walkway that led from the airstrip to the spaceport concourse.

Paul followed her gaze and noticed for the first time the teeming masses of the Moon. Beatrice and he were standing on the Moon's surface, but many kilometres beneath their feet were successive levels upon levels of streets, walkways, avenues and tall buildings. The surface area of the Moon might be much smaller than Earth's, but the lunar cities weren't restricted at all in their subsurface expansion. In fact the Moon's urban sprawl supported a much larger population than the whole of planet Earth.

Lunar citizens bobbed up and down in the low gravity when they walked as if it was the most natural thing in the Solar System. No amount of film footage of the Moon taken from any of its seventeen hundred years of colonisation properly prepared Paul for the awe-inspiring sight of thousands upon thousands of people hopping about like kangaroos under the glass domes that encased the greater part of the lunar surface.

Just the momentary distraction of taking his eyes off his stride was enough for Paul to once again trip forward onto the ground. However, he fell so slowly that he was less likely to hurt himself than the other more sure-footed pedestrians who warily avoided being in his vicinity. It wasn't strictly necessary to walk as he was being carried steadily forward by the moving walkway. Although it wouldn't take long for Paul and Beatrice to arrive at the reception area where Lieutenant Korolyov was waiting, Beatrice was in a peculiar hurry. It was difficult for Paul to keep up with her. This was especially so as she was already far better acclimatised to the low gravity than he was.

The Milton's shuttle had touched down on an airless open runway where it was now standing amongst hundreds of other lunar shuttles. Paul could glimpse behind him the occasional astronaut and the much larger number of scuttling robots dotted about the space craft in the bleak moon dust. The shuttles were overlooked from high above through the spaceport's windows and also those of the luxury penthouse suites where the Moon's most wealthy citizens lived.

The causeway trailed over and above the city of Nectaris, the second largest city on the Moon, and then through the walls of a four billion year old crater to overlook a barren plain. This served to remind Paul and Beatrice and the hundreds of others who were also making their way from the runway to the spaceport concourse that they were indeed on a hostile airless rock in space. Paul could see the distant bright lights that marked the site of a historic Twenty-Second century Lunar settlement known by the optimistic name of Plymouth, but which had shared more the unfortunate fate of the stillborn North American colony of Roanoke. A few space-suited tourists could be seen milling about in the crater's shadows.

Paul wanted to pause on the walkway to properly take in the beauty of this unique scene. There weren't many places in the Solar System with as much ancient history as Plymouth, except, of course, on the blue globe that shone above them in the sky and whose reflective light cast long shadows over the high crater walls.

Uncharacteristically, it was Beatrice who was the less inspired by such an evocative sight.

"We've got plenty of time to look at things like that later," she reminded Paul. "This is going to be our home for at least a month until we fly down to Earth."

"Oh come on, Beatrice," said Paul who'd been looking forward to looking at a view like this ever since he'd left Jupiter orbit. "I can't see what greater attraction our hotel suite could be."

"I'm tired," said Beatrice who rarely betrayed such human weaknesses. "It's been a long day."

Paul nodded, although the day had only been long because of the delay in boarding the Milton's shuttle. The departure was complicated by the pressing need to observe established protocol when the passenger list included trillionaires, diplomats and celebrities. Paul and Beatrice were undoubtedly the lowest ranked of all the passengers. The only people who had to wait behind them in the disembarkation queue were the waiters, bar-keepers and tourist guides. Just ahead was the Ambassador for Sycorax, a very minor moon colony of Uranus. Highest ranking of all was Buzzy Mao, a pop singer from the Jupiter orbit colony of Tyne who was fabulously popular in the Inner Solar System even though his fame hadn't quite spread as far as the Kuiper Belt. He was anticipating a rapturous welcome from his adoring fans on the Moon.

Such was Beatrice's pace that the newly-weds soon overtook the entourage of even the Ambassador of Amalthea who had dawdled by the viewpoint in the walkway that offered the best view of the ancient Plymouth colony. His various wives and husbands were gathered about him in their provocative and sexually explicit outfits.

It is rare for there to be much warning when a disaster happens.

The memory of the event often promotes an originally inauspicious event to the status of a retrospective alert.

Perhaps it was the woman who detached herself from the Amalthean ambassador's company and scurried along the walkway with renewed determination. Perhaps it was the small bag that lay only a few meters away from the huddle of Amalthean tourists. Perhaps it was the robotic vacuum cleaner that was steadily rolling along the edge of the rubberised walkway floor. Perhaps it was none of these.

But the actual event, like everything else on the Moon, happened in characteristic slow motion. The walkway between Paul and the Amalthean ambassador's dawdling entourage first folded in on itself and then rather more abruptly exploded outwards during which shards of glass and luxury carpeting were flung still relatively slowly into the near-vacuum outside. Paul's direct experience, as opposed to what he could later observe replayed at his leisure, was of an intense tug as the walkway's pressurised air pulled him backwards to where the Amaltheans were being sucked out through a widening fracture in the surrounding glass onto the bleak earthlit lunar dust. It wasn't the impact of landing on the dusty ground below that killed them even though they bounced several times off its surface to a height of several metres. They'd died well within the first second of the explosion from a combination of extreme cold, lack of atmospheric pressure and, most obviously, a total absence of breathable air.

This was a fate Paul could easily have shared. Like the scattered remnants of eerily exploded corpses restrained by fetishistic outfits that displayed genitalia and bosoms and were now much more grotesque and blood-splattered than provocative, Paul's body could have been tossed carelessly about the ground several tens of metres below. But once again Beatrice saved his life. And once more in a way that seemed more by chance than circumstance.

Paul somehow managed to be on just the right side of the emergency hatch that slammed shut well within a second of the walkway suddenly and unaccountably exploding. Paul later learnt that the walkway had always suffered from a design fault, so in a sense such a catastrophe was just waiting to happen. When towards the end of the third millennium the proud Lunar citizens built the long walkway that wound from the city of Nectaris to overlook the first settlement in the Mare of the same name, it was already known that a meteorite of little more than a few centimetres' width could easily crack open the glass surface. Even the centuries of reinforcement that now protected it from many times that scale of impact wasn't guaranteed to withstand the impact of a sizeable rock falling onto the Moon from the open sky. In any case, there were many other small objects that a potential terrorist could employ to shatter the protective glass. Once even the smallest kink cracked the surface, the combination of high internal air-pressure, a near vacuum outside and a dramatic temperature differential would turn the historic walkway into an inescapable death-trap.

And on this occasion there was no escape from death for all twenty-seven Amalthean delegates, a further dozen ancillary staff, and the High Priest of the Synod of Triton and his entourage who'd disembarked from another space-ship.

Paul and Beatrice were more fortunate. Beatrice had grabbed Paul by his collar just in time and heaved him through the walkway partition before it either sealed the couple on the wrong side of safety or, in its haste, severed their bodies in half. The distance to the walkway hatch that a moment ago seemed fifty or so metres away, suddenly became a whisker on the other side.

Paul didn't see much of the explosion. This was because he was lying prostrate on the carpet-covered floor of the walkway; or at least in one truncated branch of it. He was battered and bruised by the shock of being pushed to the ground before the hatch sealed itself behind him. The violence with which Beatrice grabbed his arm caused it to be torn by agony when he tried to pick himself. A sharp pain blanked out from his consciousness most of where he was and what had happened.

"You poor darling!" said Beatrice who was remarkably prompt in identifying the source of her husband's discomfort. She soothingly stroked his forearm while they slumped down on the ground. "How much does it hurt?"

"A lot!" said Paul.

"But at least we're alive," said Beatrice.

She turned her head round behind them and beckoned Paul to do the same. Through the transparent doorway that had slid into place they could see a stretch of glass corridor that protruded fifty metres over the dust-swept rocks below. Hanging to the jagged edges of shattered glass was an arm torn off at the sleeve and so frozen by the unmediated cold night air that the patches of blood had formed into dark crystals. The scattered bodies of other unfortunate passengers were below but too distant for Paul to identify. A few dozen bodies were slumped on the carpeted walkway killed more by the sudden cold and loss of air pressure than the impact of the explosion. The ruptured faces and burst eyeballs were evidence of a disagreeable but thankfully nearly instant death.

Paul could hear moans from travellers on the safe side of the security hatch who'd been hit by the abrupt outrush of air that sucked back anything that was loose. These included not only bags, paper and plastics, but even other people. It was further testament to how lucky they were that Beatrice had managed to get them through to safety in time in the face of such a ferocious force.

Lieutenant Korolyov's welcome party on the other side of the Passport Check Zone had to wait much longer for Paul and Beatrice than they'd expected. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the formalities of Immigration Control couldn't be dispensed with. The couple weren't permitted into the spaceport's concourse until the proper checks were completed, even though they had to be transported by hovering stretchers to the hospital ward where within minutes Paul's broken arm was repaired by medical robots.

Then, while still in the hospital ward, the couple's details were validated and verified and they were asked formal questions about why they were visiting the Moon. Such was the demand to visit the Moon, either for vacation or employment, that after Earth this was the most securely guarded tourist destination in the Solar System. Almost everyone beyond Earth's orbit could trace their ancestry to the Moon. And for those with no hope of actually being allowed to visit Earth there was the opportunity to view the home planet from the relatively short distance of a mere four hundred thousand kilometres.

It would be a while until Paul and Beatrice could at last relax in their luxury suite in the Tranquillity Hotel. Although the pain from his repaired arm had receded and the bone felt as good as new (as, in fact, it now very nearly was), Paul was required to rest on the hospital bed for the remainder of the day. Fortunately, Beatrice was allowed to accompany him by his bedside. She was still anxious and insisted on seeing proof of identity from the procession of doctors, nurses, immigration controllers and police inspectors that came in succession to question the couple.

"You don't think the explosion was an accident, do you?" Paul asked when the interrogations were over.

Beatrice smiled at her husband, whilst also keeping a watchful eye on the door through which Police Inspector Daniel Wong had just departed with a frown creasing his forehead. "It could have just been an accident," she said. "There are so many things could have caused it. As Inspector Wong reminded us, the walkway is nearly a thousand years old and there has been a recent upsurge in meteorite activity."

"But after so many assassination attempts since we left Ecstasy, you don't really believe that," said Paul sadly. "I'm sorry to have brought all this on you. Everywhere I go there's been one near lethal incident after another. It's a miracle we're both still alive. You must really regret having married me."

"Of course not, sweetest," said Beatrice, who leaned over to kiss him but still maintained a watchful gaze towards the doorway. "The marriage vows do say: 'For better or worse'. I guess these are the worse times. But there have been many better times, haven't there?"

"Yes," said Paul gratefully. He'd had more sex in his months of married life than in the whole of the rest of his life put together.

"I wish I knew who it is that wants to assassinate me," said Paul reflectively. "And why do they want to kill me? What possible harm am I to anyone?"

"Nothing, sweetheart," said Beatrice, who squeezed Paul's hand tightly in hers. "There's nobody in the Solar System you could harm."

"At least not intentionally," said Paul, who was now feeling very sorry for himself or at least for his current predicament. "There must be hundreds who've died just because they happened to be in my proximity. And another twenty or thirty people must have died just now. That ambassador and his entourage. The spaceline hostesses. That artist from Pluto and his husband. And all the others they're still trying to identify. If it wasn't for me, they'd all still be alive."

"You mustn't blame yourself, darling," said Beatrice. "None of it was your fault."

"And what about all the others who'd be alive now?" Paul continued. "What about those who died on the Ulysses? Some of those were children. And all those other incidents... If I'd never left Godwin, never done research on this accursed Anomaly, never got involved in this kind of research, they'd all be alive now."

"You're not the one who killed them," Beatrice said as she leaned over to kiss her husband's lips.

"But who are the ones who killed them? I've not met even one of them. I've not seen an assassin even from the distance. What kind of people are they?"

"The Saturnians said they were fanatics," Beatrice reminded Paul. "Religious extremists, many of them. Anyone associated with this Anomaly would attract their attention. If it wasn't you, it would be someone else."

"But I still don't get it," said Paul anxiously. "If it wasn't for all the assassination attempts on Godwin I'd never have come all this way across so many billion kilometres just to be a passenger on a huge spaceship to nowhere. If no one had tried to kill me I'd still just be an obscure researcher in the Kuiper Belt..."

"...And you'd never have met me," said Beatrice. She playfully squeezed Paul's crotch.

"And I'd never have met you," Paul repeated. "And we'd never have got married. And we'd never have made love. But then all those people would still be alive. The Ambassador from Amalthea would now be in his embassy instead of being splattered over the crater walls of Mare Nectaris."

"We have so much to be grateful for," Beatrice reminded Paul as she stroked his penis through the cloth of his trousers.

"I wish I'd never heard of this Anomaly," moaned Paul, for whom self-pity was still a stronger emotion than desire. "There's been nothing but one catastrophe after another for—"

"I have to go to the loo," announced Beatrice, who abruptly stood up and strode out of the ward leaving Paul alone.

This was totally unlike Beatrice, but Paul was aware that it was a long time since his wife had last gone to the lavatory. In fact, he couldn't remember even a single occasion in the last few months when she'd needed to excuse herself. And most certainly never so hastily as she did now.

Resting as he was, horizontal and secure on a hospital bed, and exhausted after a rather more eventful day than he'd anticipated, it was quite natural for Paul to doze away in the few minutes of Beatrice's departure. His consciousness slipped into a distant dream-world.

Paul always slept deeply. Before his recent marriage to Beatrice, he would normally sleep at least ten hours a day at a stretch. As the hours he spent asleep bore no relationship to the diurnal cycle, his waking hours on Godwin were badly misaligned with those of other people. He was often awake when everyone else was asleep and, naturally, the same in reverse. This was no great problem on an anarchist colony like Godwin. No one was obliged to work and only the imperative of communality impelled anyone to do anything at all. Nevertheless, so great was this imperative that only the truly thoughtless, such as Paul, could really get away with his degree of indolence without suffering an acute sense of guilt.

Like most deep sleepers, Paul's dreams were vivid but mostly forgotten when he woke up, but the dream on this occasion was unusually vivid. It wasn't as if much was happening though. All he was doing was chatting with Virgil, the old man from Nudeworld, and it was nothing more than a continuation of the same conversation he'd just been having with Beatrice in which he lamented his ill-fortune at being the target of so many assassination attempts.

"Why me?" he moaned.

"Why not you?" countered the old man.

"What have I done to deserve this?"

"What has anyone done to deserve anything?"

"Are you just trying to tease me?"

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