“Can you believe this?” Tachibana asked. “T-minus four hours and counting and suddenly the captain has an unscheduled errand for us to run.”
Svitenko shrugged. “She’s the captain,” she said. “At least we’re here in the cockpit and don’t have to suit up.”
“That’s the other thing. She is the captain. She should have a million things to do this close to leaving Earth. Instead, she’s doing this herself and is going EVA.”
“Must be something pretty important to bobble up the schedule like this at the last minute,” Svitenko suggested.
“Given our landing coordinates it looks more like a pilgrimage. Chief Tak was pretty upset with losing us and the shuttle; he’ll be hopping mad if this isn’t a crucial trip.”
“What’s he going to do about it? Stay home?”
Tachibana laughed once at the pilot’s gallows humor. Staying home was not a serious option — although plenty of people were exercising that option anyway. Tachibana didn’t understand them, but it made the long voyage ahead easier for everyone else.
“Rear cabin hatch sealing,” he reported.
The intercom beeped.
“Danaher. I’m aboard and set. Let’s go.”
“Aye, Captain.” She flicked the intercom off and touched the transmitter. “Hangar Ops, Collins: ready to launch.”
“Collins, Hangar Ops: you are cleared for launch.”
Svitenko brushed the thruster control and the shuttle eased out of the gargantuan space ark’s hangar; once safely away she throttled up the engine and headed toward the moon.
She was glad Captain Danaher had wanted to visit Earth’s moon one last time, for whatever reason and whatever it did to the schedule. It beat going planetside to pick up a few stragglers or cultural treasures. She had lived most of her life in Ringland, a space station at Saturn, and had no love for looking at the dirty wreck of humanity’s cradle.
Humanity was now leaving the cradle, as Tsiolkovsky had said it would. But the Russian rocket scientist hadn’t necessarily meant that humanity would so foul its own nest that staying was slow suicide. Many people chose to remain for varying reasons, but the expectations for future generations on Earth — for anything that resembled homo sapiens, at least — were vanishingly small. It appeared the cockroaches would win, after all.
The Survivor-class arks were designed to carry much of Earth’s population, culture and history to the stars in the hope of colonizing some pristine world and starting over. Canaveral was the final ark to leave, and soon the fusion engines would begin shoving the massive ship away from everything humans had even known.
Canaveral was sitting in the L5 point and the shuttle’s trip to the moon took only twenty minutes.
“Thirty seconds to landing, Captain,” Svitenko said over the intercom.
“Acknowledged. I’m suited for EVA. As soon as we’re secure, depressurize this compartment and open the hatch.”
Svitenko and Tachibana steered their little craft near a clear dome set over an earlier landing site. Tachibana adjusted the landing angle slightly to miss a big rock and Collins touched down softly in the lunar dust.
“Tranquility Base, Captain,” Svitenko announced. “Depressurizing your compartment.” She waited. “Opening the hatch.”
“Acknowledged. I’ll be back shortly. Do not, I repeat, do not repressurize the compartment until I specifically call for it. Danaher out.”
Captain Patricia Danaher stepped down from the shuttle and walked in the moon’s light gravity toward the dome protecting the site where humans first set foot after a journey through space.
She stopped at the single locked door. All her queries and influence and thirty years of service hadn’t been enough to get the code from the Earth-Moon Parks Bureau. Danaher took the laser torch off her tool belt and held it near the keypad. A couple of quick bursts and Tranquility Base was hers.
She walked toward the descent stage of the ancient ship, unavoidably adding her footprints to those of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. She stopped at the ladder.
“What do you think she’s doing?” Tachibana asked as they watched through the shuttle cockpit window.
“No idea,” Svitenko said. “And without an obvious emergency, I’m not turning on the cameras to get a better look.”
“Agreed. We don’t need the captain thinking we were spying on her. I don’t want to make the long trip in the brig.”
Danaher finished her work and took a last look around before returning to the shuttle. She closed the dome’s door to keep the solar breeze from stirring the dust inside it, but never again would anyone be locked out. If ever anyone passed this way.
“She’s bringing something back with her,” Tachibana whispered unnecessarily.
“Not a very big souvenir, whatever it is,” Svitenko said.
“Danaher here. I’m inside and you should have a hatch close indicator.”
“Affirmative, Captain,” Svitenko said. “We can return to Canaveral at your command. Holding on compartment repressurize until your order.”
“Return to Canaveral,” she ordered. “I’ll be a few minutes before repressurize.”
“Aye, Captain.” Svitenko nodded at Tachibana and they worked their panels to lift the shuttle off the moon and head for the ark. Just over halfway back to the ship, Danaher called for her compartment to be repressurized.
Svitenko landed Collins in the hangar and put the ship on standby. The hatch between the rear compartment and the cockpit opened. Captain Danaher came forward. She had doffed her EVA suit and was now simply in uniform.
“Want to see what we were doing down there?”
The pilot and co-pilot turned in their seats. Their captain held a nitrogen-filled archival display case, made of the same tough material as the dome over Tranquility Base. Inside was a plaque, and both Svitenko and Tachibana recognized it immediately. There were two images of Earth’s landmasses, some words, and some names.
“I left a replica on the ladder,” Danaher said. “But as long as we’re taking the actual Mona Lisa rather than just pictures of it, I thought we should take this with us.” She looked down at the plaque and lowered her voice without thinking. “A reminder of our first voyages, and a hope that ours will be made the same way and with the same good fortune.”
She smiled at her pilots and left the shuttle, taking her prize to the bridge with her.
The hatch remained open and Svitenko nodded to herself as she watched Danaher go.
“‘In peace for all mankind,’” she quoted softly.
A loud tone filled the hangar, demanding attention.
“This is the bridge. Departure in T-minus three hours … mark. All hangar operations complete. All shuttles to standby emergency evacuation mode.”
Svitenko and Tachibana leaned back in their seats.
“Chief Tak finished without us. Now let’s just hope there’s no emergency evac,” Tachibana said, then he sighed. “Three hours of waiting. C’mon … let’s light this candle.”
Svitenko nodded. “‘Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a new world.’”
– – –
N.B.: The 40th anniversary of humanity’s first moon landing was this past Monday. Catsignal honors those who made it happen … and eagerly awaits those who will someday take us even farther.