AN EXCLUSIVE SHORT STORY FROM OUR NEW ISSUE
The lunar rover bumped across the surface of the Moon in its one-sixth gravity, tilting sometimes in a way that made him feel it would tip up and he would go floating off into space. A quarter of a million miles away, the Earth was rising like a blue marble out of the darkness, so different from the Moon where, if there was beauty, it was in the stark, sun-bleached hills.
He was on his way to collect samples when he saw the impossible — tyre tracks in the dust. He double-checked the map to make sure he hadn’t come off course but there was no way he could have strayed so far. The other Apollo missions had landed hours away.
The tracks disappeared into the shadow of one of the hills. He followed them and on the other side saw, bewilderingly, another NASA buggy, an astronaut aboard, as still as the shadows that pointed east.
He slowed, frightened, then stopped. He waited, trying to think, trying to settle his nerves, then climbed down and walked over in the unwieldy spacesuit. He saw the Apollo insignia on the astronaut’s arm — Apollo 17, his own. He felt sweat begin to run down his back.
He reached out to touch the astronaut, knowing already that he would be dead, knowing already that it would be him, but at that moment everything went dark.
He lifted the shutter. Bright light filled the module.
‘Sleep OK?’ he asked Gene Cernan who was sitting in the cramped space next to him.
‘Like a baby,’ Gene replied, but Jack heard something in his voice that made him suspect that, like him, he hadn’t.
After putting on their spacesuits, they opened the hatch and climbed down onto the disturbed surface of the landing site. Their mission had been scripted far in advance and they had rehearsed that script so many times that they hardly needed to think about what they were doing. Immediately, they began to collect samples, barely taking the time for a breath, to stand back and look at where they were. They set off small detonations to loosen the rock, always in regular contact with Control back on Earth.
It was like a stage production and Jack put down the apprehension he felt to first-night jitters. But after each explosion he felt paranoia worm into him, a feeling that they were disturbing something, even if only the perfect silence of space.
In contrast to Jack’s seriousness, something wide-eyed showed through every now and then in Gene.
‘Would you just look at that,’ he said, facing the earthrise.
‘Seen one, you’ve seen them all,’ Jack responded without missing a beat, the tight-lipped humour being his way of keeping reality in check, just as Gene’s show of being awestruck was his.
They set about digging and collecting; setting off the small detonations. Then after a while, Gene called over to him.
Jack turned, expecting to see Gene with one of the sparkly pieces of rock that kept catching his eye, but it was something else. He was pointing at footprints going south towards one of the white hills. Like in his dream. In the shell of the spacesuit his racing heart drummed in his ears.
‘Ours?’ Gene asked.
‘No, not ours, Gene.’
‘Bob,’ Gene said, addressing the Command Centre. ‘We’re just going to take a look at some interesting surface disturbance going off towards the hills.’
‘Affirmative, Geno,’ came the crackled reply.
In the buggy, as they followed the tracks, Jack kept blinking and screwing up his eyes; trying to focus them, trying to see properly through the reflections of the visor. Half the time he could see only his own face reflected back at him. The landscape was playing tricks on him. He would look out across the flat plain and the light didn’t make any sense. There were slight discrepancies, unusual effects due to the low angle of the sun, the lack of atmosphere. He looked at the long shadows and imagined you could get lost in them. It came to him that in some lunar craters light had never shone, it was just permanent shadow where there was believed to be ice dating back to the origins of the Earth.
The footprints went on for several miles and climbed an incline to the rim of a crater. They stopped the buggy and looked down at the footsteps trailing away into the darkness.
‘We have a deep crater here, Bob,’ Gene said to Control.
There was a pause, the sound of conferring voices, then a Texan voice replied over the comm, ’Can you take a core sample, Gene?’
They clipped the buggy’s safety cable to the harness on Gene’s suit and he climbed down into the darkness. The light from his flashlight coned out in front of him, illuminating the grey, fine-grained soil.
After a few minutes Jack could see only the glow of the flashlight. A few minutes later, not even that. Visual contact was gone but under his gloved hand he felt the movement of the cable and could hear Gene faintly breathing in the comm.
‘Gene, what are you seeing down there?’
‘The crater levels off a little, perhaps to fifteen, twenty degrees.’
‘Be careful of your footing in there.’
‘Do you have an estimate of the size of the crater, Jack?’ came the priestly voice of the Command Centre again.
‘Hard to say — the size of a football field I guess.’
‘I should be coming to the centre now,’ Gene said.
‘Is the floor disturbance still apparent?’ Jack asked, speaking in code.
‘Affirmative, Jack. I can still see it.’
In his ear, Jack listened carefully to Gene’s breathing for signs of stress. Under his gloved hand the cable jogged slightly now and then. His flashlight reached into the shadow ten, maybe twenty yards; beyond was complete darkness.
The low glare of the sun hit the Moon’s surface and turned the hills white. Beyond them was the black, impersonal expanse of space. The dark inside the crater was different, claustrophobic.
Suddenly, the cable dropped to the ground, falling in slow motion in the Moon’s low gravity. He moved back to the buggy where it was secured to the frame and began to reel it in. It came easily, weaving in the light cast by his flashlight. Finally he saw the clip. Gene was nowhere to be seen.
He stared into the darkness.
’Gene, do you read me?’
He could hear nothing on the comm, and then a moment later perhaps a faint breathing.
‘Bob, I’ve lost radio contact with Gene. Are you getting anything your end?’
‘Negative, Jack. What’s happening up there?’
‘Gene’s come loose from the cable.’
‘Can you confirm that you said the cable, Jack?’
‘That’s right, Bob. I’m going to follow him in to try to see where he’s at.’
‘OK, Jack. Stay in contact.’
He clipped the cable to his own suit, took one last look at the sun-bleached hills, then began his descent into the crater.
There were two sets of footprints now. He took it slow but had soon descended to the point where the light his flashlight threw out was the only light there was. He was descending into a black hole.
The thought came to him out of nowhere that whatever he found in here, be it Gene’s corpse or something else, was the truth of this place.
He turned for a moment and pointed the flashlight behind him to look at the three sets of tracks leading back, his crumb trail out. Then he pressed on.
‘Gene, do you read me?’ he said. His voice sounded eerie in the dark, alone.
‘Bob, I’m following the tracks in,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how far I’ve gone, some way, but I still can’t see Gene.’
There was no answer.
‘Bob,’ he said again before realising he’d lost radio contact with the Command Centre.
He could have turned back then, but he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he had.
In the darkness, with the light coned out in front of him, he began to feel movement all around as if he was moving through water. Now and then it stirred uneasily around him.
‘Gene?’ he said again. He heard his own voice in the mask, then the silence of the crater — no, not quite silence; he could hear something in it, a faint soughing.
Suddenly he came to an area of darkness that the flashlight couldn’t penetrate. He walked cautiously forwards, not sure of what he had found — black rock perhaps. Then in the torchlight, he saw it was a crevasse. He pointed the flashlight down and saw its vertical walls, a ledge on one side leading into it. The footprints, in a muddle now, continued along this ledge.
‘Do you read me, Gene?’ he said. ‘Bob, you there?’
He hesitated, then began his descent. It was steep and the temperature dropped quickly inside his suit. When he finally reached the bottom both footprints suddenly disappeared. Perhaps it was because the soil was coarser-grained here, he thought, too coarse to leave a print — but before he had time to investigate further, the battery of his flashlight died. He stared into the darkness. He looked up and couldn’t see even the faintest light.
‘Gene?’ he said. ‘Bob?’
He was unsettled by the darkness but after a moment, calmed himself enough to be able to think things through. If he continued his search for Gene he would have to stray from the opening. And who knew how big this crevasse was. There could be tunnels to get lost in. His best bet was to follow the cable back up, retrieve another flashlight from the spares on the buggy and come back down. If he worked fast, he would still have enough air.
That was the decision he had made when he felt around behind him for the cable and realised that he too, like Gene, had become detached. He felt real panic for the first time. He stood still.
‘Gene?’ he said. ‘Bob?’
He would have to feel his way back, but when he felt around for the rock face to guide him back up the crevasse, he couldn’t find that either. Somehow he had moved away from the ledge without realising it. Carefully, he began to explore the space around him, taking pains to keep his bearings. He took three steps forwards then three steps back, adjusted his angle and stepped forwards again, so as not to stray from his original position. He held out his arms in front of him, but felt only empty space. Finally, he increased the range of his search, going four, then five paces in each direction before retracing his steps to his starting point. It was hard in the spacesuit and he began to accept, after a while, that his efforts to find the ledge must have taken him even further away from it. God knew where he was now.
Out of desperation, he walked for fifty paces in the same direction, then another fifty, thinking that he must at least come to something in the end. When he didn’t, panic finally took control of his reason and, not thinking clearly, he just kept walking, not even counting his steps.
When at last he got a grip of himself and stopped, he was completely disorientated and realised he had no choice except to follow his instinct, going first one way then another in an effort to find the crevasse wall and somehow feel his way back to the ledge.
He wandered like this in what he thought were straight lines for an hour or more, gradually becoming more and more lost in the crevasse, more and more panicked by his situation. He thought of his wife who would be watching a TV perhaps, waiting for a mission update from the Command Centre.
‘Gene?’ he said every now and then. ‘Bob?’
The only reply was his own ragged breathing.
He became colder and began to shiver. He battled the fear that the spacesuit might be failing him, or that he had torn it on the way down.
Eventually overcome by cold and exhaustion, he lowered himself down and put his head slowly back, resting his helmet against the ground. He closed his eyes and found that there was no difference when his eyes were open or closed. He wanted to sleep but knew that if he did, he would die. The darkness around him moved, he thought, shifting his body, pulling against him, as if he was lying at the edge of the sea.
When he saw a glimmer of light, he wasn’t sure if he was asleep or awake.
It got brighter and brighter. Then behind it, a faint shadow, an astronaut.
And then he heard a voice. ‘Jack, buddy.’ It was Gene. ‘My God, I thought I’d lost you. What happened?’
‘I came down to look for you,’ Jack said.
Gene laughed. ‘It’s the other way around, buddy. I came down here looking for you.’
Together, they climbed out of the crevasse following the footprints lit up by Gene’s flashlight. Jack counted them, then recounted. If what Gene said was true, there should have been three sets of prints — his and Gene’s, plus the prints they had followed into the crater. But there were four. He stared at them, trying to understand what the hell had happened.
‘Look at the prints, Gene,’ he said. ‘How many do you see?’
‘I know, Jack, I can’t explain it.’
‘I watched you walk off alone into the crater,’ Jack said.
‘Jack, you went first. I watched you go. Then I went in to find you. Thank God for the prints.’
As they reached the rim, Jack felt a mournful feeling, a cry of loneliness from deep within the crater, and felt distinctly that they had left someone alone in there.
'Shadows' will be published in Popshot's 15th issue, The Adventure Issue, which launches on March 31st. Pre-order your copy here or subscribe from £10 to receive Issue 15, Issue 16 and Issue 17 over the coming year, plus free access to the digital edition of Popshot. Illustration by Plantmonster.