Robin de Voh
writer, developer, nerd

Nanoprep 2020 Day 13: Last Moonrise

By Robin de Voh on 2020-10-21

The sun came up over the rim of the Boguslawsky crater and it illuminated the moon's surface to a brightness Levi still didn't fully understand. He squinted and it was almost as if the regolith covering the surface was glinting, all specks of tiny moon dust lighting up individually as the sunshine hit it. It had been almost a month since the sun had shone like this and he knew from previous months that it would take a few days getting used to it.

"Good moon morning, Levi," Avery said over the intercom. "Ready to do some scanning?"

Levi gripped his portable scanner tighter and nodded to himself. Daydreaming over, time to get to work.

"Ready as I'll ever be, Avery. What section are we doing today?"
"Let me check... Section 314-X2, it's about a 12 minute drive."
"I know where it is, I did 313-X1 a few days ago, so it should be around there, right?"
"The sections are 3km across so I'll just send you the coordinates, okay?"
"Alright," Levi said with a grin.

He walked over to the rover docking station and looked around until he found one with a full charge. Once he found one, he jumped in and strapped himself into the seat. He reversed and was on his way.

Driving on the moon never lost its charm, the slow, almost boat-like movement in a low-gravity environment like this was just a lot of fun. He looked at the coordinates Avery had sent him, and set those as his target. There was no GPS on the moon, but they had set up markers all along the inside of the crater. Since they never really went beyond the crater, it was more than enough for positioning. If they ever did go beyond, they'd use maps and portable light buoys to mark their way. They'd never done so, but the scientists had told them it was totally going to work.

They were scanning for, well, anything, really. They were using 3D ground-penetrating scanners to look for anything different than just moon ground. These scanners could scan up to 250 meters deep, and so far they had found pretty boulders stuck underneath the surface, but what they were hoping for was water deposits or possible super-dense meteorites. Mostly, as far as Levi thought, this was an excuse to test all kinds of new equipment in a non-Earth environment, but Levi didn't mind.

He was being paid a lot of money to spend some time up here, and so far he'd been enjoying it, regardless of the work. It was dumb, most of the time, but the people here were good and the food... Well, it kept them alive. Sometimes, when a new shipment came in, they had fresh fruit and it was easier to forget they were this far from Earth.

If only the smarter crew members could get the damn garden set up properly, they might have some fresh vegetables sometime soon as well, homegrown on the moon. But for now rehydrated veggies would have to do.

The positioning system pinged. He was there. One benefit of having such a localized positioning system inside the crater was that it was eerily accurate.

He parked the buggy just outside Section 314-X2 and got out.

The 312-314 sections were of specific interest, since they had a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding surface inside the crater. Not much, about 4 meters higher with a relatively gradual slope around the edges, but it was one of the few actually different areas in the crater, so some people in high places were paying extra attention.

But so far, nobody had found anything, including Levi himself. And they were already at the last section. After this, the slope went down again and things would get boring again as well.

He engaged the scanner and saw the recognizable nothing on the fold-out screen. There's nothing here. So, as he did every day he worked out here, he started slowly walking, making sure the calibration numbers stayed within normal range.

At a certain point he had been out there for 3 hours already, having sweeped the southern quarter of the section, when Avery called in.

"How's it going out there? Need someone to take over?"
"I can finish the day, Avery, I'm fine."
"You sure did drink a lot yesterday, I'm just making sure you're not out there with a hangover too big to handle."

He thought he could hear her smirk, if that was possible over the radio.

"Loang went back to Earth, that's worth a celebration, right?"
"Normally the celebration is before someone leaves, though."
"You celebrate what you care about, Avery. And he was a dick."
"He was sick, Levi, not cool."
"Still a dick."

Now Avery laughed.

"As long as you're okay out there, that's all I needed to know."
"Thanks for che--"

Levi stopped talking. There was something on the scanner's screen and it was not what he was looking out for. Boulders, sure, he could make those out pretty easily, specific density, shape, depth, all that stuff. Water, he hadn't found yet, but this thing had basic detection and he had been guaranteed that it would be able to recognize it and show it on screen.

Whatever the hell this was, the scanner couldn't figure it out either.

"Uhm, Avery?"
"Yeah, Levi?"
"Send Anatoly and Amelia out here, please. I found something and I'm not sure what it is."
"Boulder?"
"No."
"Weird boulder?"
"Avery, just send them, okay? I'm sending you an image of what I've found so you can show them."
"Alright, but if it's a super weird boulder they're not going to be happy."

Levi hit 'send' on the image. Avery went quiet. When she spoke again she sounded far more serious than before.

"They're on their way. I have to report this."
"No, not yet. Let's have a better idea of what this is before we do that."
"Alright, but I'll have to discuss with Leon at the very least."
"That's fine, but make sure it's the base commander and no further, okay?"
"I'll try."

Avery cut the connection. Levi kept walking, scanning further.

Tunnels. Perfectly cylindrical tunnels. As he kept walking, he noticed something else. And it started to click in his head. That there, that was a hatch. And that there, that seemed to be a large and solid block, only barely connected to the tunnels.

Anatoly and Amelia arrived pretty soon after. Anatoly was, like Levi, a scanner. But a far more experienced one, one of the few who'd been here more than 1 tour. Amelia was the current geologist, and was responsible for categorizing most of the finds the scanners would find.

"Hey drunky, I saw the image. What's up?" Anatoly said, immediately leaning over Levi's shoulder to look at the screen. "Shut up, Tolia," Levi said, using his new nickname for Anatoly.

They had gotten to know each other better and better over the past few months, and at a certain point Anatoly had explained that in Russia, nobody calls him Anatoly. It's all Tolik this, Tolia that. Levi had asked why Anatoly never corrected anyone else, and Anatoly had said that westerners didn't get it and he'd gotten sick of explaining. Russians at least naturally understood it, but here it wasn't worth the effort.

"Blyad..." Anatoly muttered under his breath. "Amelia, look."

Amelia walked forwards as well and looked. She furrowed her brows, thought for a while, and then said "That's not a natural formation."
"No shit, Sherlock," Anatoly said.
"I didn't think it was either, but I kinda needed to hear you say it, Amelia," Levi said, shaking his head.
"Yeah, no, whatever that is, that's not natural. I've got very little to add here, I'm afraid."

Levi turned to Anatoly.

"What's Blyad?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Ah, it, well, it's not polite, but let's say it shows I was surprised by this."
"In Russian?"
"In Russian."
"Hm," Levi said, looking back at the screen. "I wonder what that solid block over there is."
"Nuclear reactor, probably," Anatoly said, looking serious.

Both Amelia and Levi looked at him surprised.

"Look," he said, pointing at the screen. "There's three of them, right? Here, here and here. Those tunnels? They're not tunnels so much as separate modules, you can see the seams between them here, and here. And the hatch here sticks out compared to the other ones, so it probably led outside. It's probably an airlock."

Levi stared at Anatoly, not at the screen, and after a few seconds of thinking cleared his throat.

"How in the living hell do you know so much about this thing we just found and shouldn't be here?"

Anatoly smirked awkwardly.

"I, err, I recognize the design."
"From what?" Amelia asked.
"History lessons at Roscosmos?" he said with a grin. "Look, I'm not sure, okay? It never should have been built, the whole thing was a public fiasco and the rocket that was supposed to deliver it never even flew properly."
"Wait, so when was this supposed to have happened?" Levi said, getting annoyed.
"I dunno, late 60s, early 70s? The N1 rocket, you probably know about that one."
"I'm not NASA-trained, Tolia," Levi said. "I know almost nothing about that stuff. I'm here for the money, as you well know."
Amelia smirked. "Yes, we do all know."

Levi threw her a fake laugh and continued.

"So, what is this, and why is it here?"
"This, I guess would have been called Zvezda. But, like I said, the N1 never flew, the Zvezda moon base plan was scrapped sometime in the 80s after everything turned slightly crappy in the Soviet Union, and that was that."
"But here it is," Amelia said, looking perplexed.
"Here it is," Anatoly confirmed.

The conversation stopped for a while as they all went through whatever thoughts they were having.

"Why is it here?" Levi eventually asked.

Anatoly thought for a bit and then sighed and answered.

"What I'm going to say now is off the record, and it is pure guess work. But what I think happened, given what we're seeing here, is that perhaps the N1 rocket did fly. Perhaps the Zvezda was built, flown over here, assembled and then used. My country has a history of keeping things a secret until it was politically beneficial to share it."
"But they did share that the N1 rocket was a failure," Amelia said, "right?"
"They did," Anatoly said, "and that means that that story was less of an embarrassment than Zvezda was. Which means..."
"Something went really wrong here," Levi said.

He suddenly realized something.

"Amelia, did you bring a radiation detector?"
"Standard piece of kit, yes," she said. "You want me to scan?"
"Yes, please," he said, already putting his own scanner away.

Amelia opened her bag of tools and fished out the radiation scanner. She turned it on and it immediately started shrieking.

"Get out of here!" Levi shouted and ran towards the moon rover. Amelia and Anatoly, understanding just as well what was happening, ran to their own rover and they all took off as quickly as possible.

"What was the reading, Amelia?" Levi said as he pushed his foot down on the accelerator as hard as he could.
"26 sieverts," she said after a short pause, with an almost eerie calm.

They went quiet. They all knew what this meant. They were dead. It was just a matter of time, but they were almost guaranteed to be dead.

Suddenly Anatoly's and Amelia's rover veered off course. Levi continued straight on, towards their base.

"What's going on, Anatoly?"
"Anatoly's blacked out!" Amelia shouted. "He's vomited in his helmet!"
"Take over control of the rover, Amelia!" Levi shouted.
"I'm moving him now, I'll be at the base soon," she said, sounding less freaked out already.

Levi felt sick. He knew his insides were cooking, but he needed to make sure everybody else knew about what was out there and that they couldn't go there without proper protection ever again. And that Russia had left a giant radioactive garbage dump on the moon.

"Avery, come in," he said, dialing Avery's line.
"Hi Levi, I've talked to Leon, and..."

Levi cut her off.

"No time, get Leon on the line right now."

Avery did so.

"What's going on out there?" Leon said, annoyed that he was suddenly called in like this.
"There's an old Russian failed moon base out there, in 314-X2, and it's spewing radiation like nothing I've ever even heard of."

Leon went quiet.

"How do you know?"
"You saw the image, right? Anatoly thought it might have been Zvezda, an old project of the Soviet state, and we were all just exposed to 26 sieverts of radiation. Anatoly is already out, we're trying to get back to the base as quickly as possible."
"26 sieverts?!" Leon exclaimed loudly. "That's..."
"I know. Nothing we can do. But we can make sure nobody else runs into that trap out there."

Levi made it to the base, didn't bother to hook up the rover to the docking station and ran as fast as he could towards the air lock. Everything hurt. He looked back while it was opening, and didn't see the other rover. He tried calling both Amelia and Anatoly but got no response.

"Somebody should go out there looking for them," Levi said to Avery, who was still on the line.
"I've made a note. We can't really send anyone out right now, in case they're still too close to the radiation."
"I don't think they are, but it's possible we've all been exposed to it over the past months already, just in lower doses."

Levi had a sudden realization. Loang hadn't been the first one to go home to Earth sick, but it had never been really clear what the cause of it was.

"Avery, make another note, have Loang tested for radiation exposure. And also all the others that were sent back sick."

Avery was quiet for a short while.

"Noted," she said. "Are you going to make it?"

She waited for a response.

"Levi, the outer airlock is still open, did you make it in?"

She waited for a response again. She checked the airlock camera.

Levi was mostly inside, but the blood in his helmet was hiding his face from view.

He hadn't made it.