2372. The Low Age comes to an end. Humankind takes flight again.
"Nairobi still can't get a signal from Sally Ride-3," crackled the radio. "I am afraid they've lost the lunar lander."
Telemetry gleamed on Zhang's screens. The green figures showed two crafts on parallel lunar orbits, fifty kilometers away from each other. The first craft was identified as the USRE-launched Ténéré-6 orbiter, while the second craft was a direct ascent bus composed of the Laniakean Itokaya-3 orbiter and Hina-3 lander. It was Zhang's cramped den, saturated with the droning sound of ventilation fans that seemed to seek escape from the spherical prison that had travelled three thousand kilometers away from its sunlit pad, riding the momentous wave of a sixteen-engined direct ascent moon launcher. Its white surfaces and streamlined controls were reminiscent of an industrial age supercar, a herald of out-of-place luxury in the silent vacuum. For the Hina-Itokaya assembly was a racer, a straightforward device with a singular goal : to be the first to land on the Moon again. And it had lost.
Zhang took a deep breath. She sat nestled in the curved seat, the Laniakean bird on her shoulder facing towards deep space, eyes leaning against stars she couldn't see. The astronaut queried Muir, the orbiter's pilot.
"Do we have a direct channel with the USRE bus?"
"Yes, I've got a clear frequency."
"Patch me through."
Zhang flicked a switch. Her headphone buzzed with static.
"Ténéré-6, this is flight specialist Zhang on the Hina lander. Do you copy?"
The voice on the other end of the line was strained.
"Zhang, this flight specialist Saiph on Ténéré-3. I read you loud and clear."
"We're here. If we can do anything to help, we will."
"Much appreciated, Itokaya. But I don't think...it's probably just a radio failure. Just a radio failure."
Channel switch. Zhang queried ground control.
"Manila, we're about to do a pass above the landing site. I am requesting permission to fire the RCS thrusters and orient the main porthole towards the lunar surface."
"Manila control to lunar bus, you're clear to do so, go ahead."
The orbiter rolled under Muir's careful hand. Zhang took a pair of binoculars, pushed the recording button and leaned against the thick glass of the porthole. The ragged surface of the lunar south pole, less than a hundred kilometers below, filled the entire space of the observation window. Endless ranges of sharp mountains were razored by the incident grazing light, shadowing the great craters like ink stains on the gleaming regolith: Shackleton, De Gerlache, Sverdrup, Shoemaker, Faustini, Haworth, Nobile and Cabeus. Eight eyes that Zhang could feel gazing at her soul. Signals bounced towards the surface, to no avail.
"Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy? This is Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy? This is Ténéré to Sally Ride, do you copy?"
And again, and again, and again. Zhang scanned the lunar surface with her binoculars. She had left an alarm light blinking in silence -- a minor, meaningless computer error. Its steady pace reminded Zhang of the lighthouses over the sea, far, far away in a childhood not yet struck by the maddening call of the void.
Then -- a glimpse in the corner of her binoculars. Peripheral vision. She zoomed in. Her hand drifted towards her headphones.
"Ténéré from Itokaya. I have visual contact, I have visual contact. Sally Ride is on the northern edge of the Shackleton crater. Lander appears to be tilted thirty to forty degrees to the side, facing south. Landing gear didn't deploy. Plume trenches hint at rough contact with regolith. There's...does Sally Ride have some sort of signal light?"
"Yes. Rendezvous light on the top."
"It's blinking. It's Morse! I've got Morse coms from Sally Ride! It's saying...engine dead. Soban incapacitated. Please assist. And repeat."
Words flew between Manila control and the Itokaya-Hina bus. Muir and the engineers spoke of technicalities and numbers, of abort trajectories, of landing gear failures and of the restart probabilities of a snuffed-out hydrazine engine buried in regolith with a crushed nozzle. Zhang sat still in her lander.
"Control," she snapped, "there's no way Mansour is restarting Sally Ride and you know it. The damn lander careened alongside three hundred meters of regolith. It's dead."
"Nairobi is trying to work something out. If they can get radio coms online again, there might be a chance to perform on-site repairs with Ténéré's help."
"You really think that's a possibility? Mansour's suit only has six hours of supplies. We've already done two orbits since touchdown, so she's down to two hours and that is nearly not enough to dig through the regolith and fix the engines, if they even are repairable. We don't have room for another orbit. She'll suffocate before. She needs rescue. Look, control, we already lost the game. Hina is not going anywhere useful."
"Zhang, we cannot order you to go down. The only way Mansour and Soban fit in your lander is with two empty seats. Hina wasn't designed for single-crew landing. The nav computer doesn't even have the detailed profile of the Shackleton site, so a full autopilot descent is not possible. You know how flimsy that thing is, it might bug out or even crash. This is...we can't risk you being the third person to die on the Moon."
"Control, do I have the delta-v to land at Shackleton and bring them back, yes or no."
"You'll be active flying with no copilot. Look, this -- this is within specs of the craft. Fuel margin will be very restrictive, but this is doable."
We launched because they did. They rushed the secondary crew to the pad -- us -- and fired the damn rocket, just because the USRE had done so. They had a headstart. We were faster. Two missions in the same place, at the same time and on the same orbit -- it's not fate. Just numbers. And I trust numbers.
"Manila control, Zhang. Hina is going down."
Nary an hesitation. The ground crews adapted in a split-second, as they always did.
"Control, copy. Prepare craft for single-crew emergency descent. Separation from Itokaya is t minus fifteen minutes. We're trying to work something out with Nairobi, keeping you updated. Inshallah, Hina."
Zhang rolled her shoulders and put her helmet on. Her hands got to work on the rows of switches and buttons. The start-up sequence of the Hina lander was as simple as the craft itself, a streamlined ritual for a streamlined goal: first on the Moon, at all costs.
Luna moved around the porthole. Faint vibrations ran through the hull as the thrusters fired. Zhang took a deep breath, draining her mind of any and all thoughts. Through the airless distance she could make out the jaws of the south pole, gnawing at invisible stars. Zhang braced as a warrior getting ready to receive a charge. Her hands rested on the stick and throttle, pommels of her lance and sword. Her heart rested idle, filled with a great coldness. Numbers. I trust numbers.
Then began the radio dance, two seconds delay to the Earth.
"This is Manila flight control to Hina. We are relaying Ténéré to you."
"Zhang, Saiph here. Your delta-v is close to Sally Ride's but your handling is different. You'll have to adjust descent profile in real time. Muir is relaying your external video feed to me. It's stable. I'll be your copilot."
"Hina copies. Thanks. Beginning descent. Roll-around for antenna alignment, pitch minus nine, yaw plus eighteen. Primary Guidance and Abort Guidance are well-correlated. How's the feed, Ténéré?"
"Clear. I see you."
The eight eyes of the pole stared. Expecting. Haunting.
"Manila control, rate of descent look great. Altitude's right about on."
Zhang bit her lip.
"Control, be advised, Abort Guidance is showing rate of descent in excess of zero point six meters per second."
"Ignore. It's acting up. Follow Primary."
"Roger. Rolling over."
The module rotated, pointing its folded legs towards the lunar surface. Metallic surfaces caught sunlight, gleamed, swords in flames.
"Alright, Hina. Telemetry is pristine. You are go to continue powered descent."
Little pass of static. Solar radiations acting up.
"Hina, this is Saiph, I've got data drop-outs but you're still looking good."
"Roger. Roll-over complete, radar is facing down, locking on to terrain. I've got a problem. Delta-H is minus eight hundred and seventy meters. Radar and computer are in disagreement, please advise."
Static again. Zhang could practically see the little spectacled heads and the colorful sarees at mission control shuffling through their files.
"Manila, are you looking at that delta-H?"
"Affirmative. There's a discrepancy . We're trying to solve it."
"Saiph to Zhang, Sally Ride had the same problem during descent. Terrain and temperature contrasts interfere with radar returns. Disregard delta-H, follow computer."
A red panel blinked on Zhang's instruments, drowning her helmet in blood.
"Programme alarm, two-zero-twelve. Control, I need a reading on that error."
"Control here, we got you. Computer's running clear. Ignore."
She pushed a button, silencing the alarm. Her terrain overlay flickered, then disappeared. Her voice was strained.
"Control, Hina. I lost HUD. Computer crashed."
"Working on it. We're running the sim parallel to you. Engine: six plus twenty-five for throttle down."
"Copy, throttle down in six minutes, twenty five seconds."
"Your computer should have rebooted by now."
"Roger. Alarm, two-zero-twelve again. Telemetry is acting up. Controls are hard. Autopilot seems to be countering. Confirm status on your end."
"Autopilot off. What does it read?"
"On. I can't seem to be able to turn it off. Two-zero-twelve keeps shooting. Computer crashed again."
"Roger. Switch to full manual. Patching Saiph to you. Keep an eye on the engine. Ignition in thirty seconds."
Zhang released the pressure on her controls.
"Hina firing engines."
As the bells ignited, she felt a punch in her lower gut. The jaws of the pole trembled.
"Saiph, how do I look?"
"You're clear. My values are correlated to yours. You've just passed the first alignment point. At your current rate of descent, you've got thirty seconds to final approach."
"Control to Hina, we've isolated the issue. We'll have to do a full core restart on your nav comp."
"Hina to Control, without the radar guidance this is a no-go for me, I repeat this is a no-go for me."
Zhang uncovered the abort push button.
"Saiph to Hina. I can call shots for direct visual approach, we've done this in sim a million times. You're still looking good, you're still looking good. Trust me."
Here -- and into the fray.
"Roger. Control, I need priority coms with Ténéré, no talk-over. Going for landing, one thousand meters."
Zhang pushed a switch and covered up the abort button. The rim of Shackleton was coming through the window she couldn't lay an eye on; she could feel the warmth of its reflected light on her skin.
"Saiph. I'm at eight hundred meters, coming down at seven meters per second."
"Passing second alignment point on cam. Thirty-five degrees on descent. Your trajectory is good."
Zhang kept a firm hand on her controls.
"Five hundred meters. Three hundred. One hundred meters, three meters per second vertical, seventeen horizontal."
"You're good on rate of descent, keep heading. Passing third alignment point. Thirty degrees on descent. I see Sally Ride. You're coming right on top of it."
"Sixty meters. Half a meter vertical."
"Reduce horizontal to five meters per second. Passing fourth alignment point. Still clear."
"Rocks the size of trains down there. I can't land. Picking up dust. Thirty seconds to bingo fuel."
"One forward, one downwards, you are good. Proximity light. Watch out for Sally Ride. Do not deviate."
"It just passed below me. On engine for go-around."
"You're ten seconds to bingo. You won't make it. Push down, push down, ground it, you've got flat terrain below you."
Dusted with regolith, Zhang couldn't see anything through the portholes. She rolled the throttle back and fired the engines clear.
"Five seconds to bingo. One third of a meter on all velocities. Landing gear down. Contact light, I've got a contact light."
The Hani lander shook and shivered as it finally made contact with the surface of the Moon. Zhang found her breath again.
"Contact confirmed with lunar surface. Touchdown on all landing legs. OK on engine stop. Descent engine override command: off. Fuel at two percent above bingo. No atmosphere loss, no alarm, all systems nominal. I think...I think we're fine, Earth."
"I'm giving Manila the coms again. Impressive landing, Hani."
"Right back at you, Ténéré."
She sighed and closed her eyes.
Zhang's first step on the Moon encountered the half-buried leg of her own lander. She fell face-first in the compact regolith. As she rolled down the slope of Shackleton, her tumble was stopped by a benevolent hand. Looking at her helper, Zhang saw the exhausted, radiant face of Mansour. Behind was Sally Ride-3, angled at the location of her final rest. Zhang stood up and they fell into each other's arms under the starless sky. They moved towards the stranded USRE lander, helping Soban out through the side hatch. His face was bloodied, the external cap of his helmet half-pierced, but he still had enough strength to wave at Zhang. The three astronauts started walking alongside the ridge of Shackleton crater, heading back to Hina's four-legged sphere. Standing at the edge of daylight, they raised their hands towards the Earth, old Earth, gentle Earth, exhausted oceans and depleted lands, tired people and ancient cities, new nations and old shames. Three human beings on the Moon and their machines, minuscule sums of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrazine, delta-v and hope. Wandering functions turned spinwards.
And they laughed, and cried, and their steps marked deserts unchanged in a million years.
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