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TO THE MOON AND BACK
Copyright © 2020 by East Stream Group, LLC
Stefan Liner • 12/20/2020
“To The Moon and Back” is a story about Aiden Shepherd, a man who just wants to get back home in time for Christmas when he finds himself paralyzed at the bottom of a dark lunar ravine. With his oxygen supply running low and two merciless pirates tracking him down; does this average husband and father have what it takes to survive a terrible fall, outsmart pirates, bring down their filthy operation and make it home in time for Christmas? Find out in this fun, heartwarming adventure, “To The Moon and Back.”
“To The Moon and Back” was written as a part of a Liner House “Short Story Writing Challenge”, where fans vote on the prompts that a writer has to use in their story.
A pulsing pain radiated through Aiden’s lower back. He was surrounded by darkness. The only light present was the dim blue light from the hood display in his helmet. A fog hung over his mind as he probed his memory. Why is my back throbbing? He let his eyes adjust to the darkness, Where am I?
Just then, Aiden’s entire body woke up with a fiery, throbbing sensation. He let out a languishing cry as every inch of his body screamed at him; every inch except for his legs. That observation gave way to a terrible suspicion.
He attempted rolling over on his side so he could stand. Twisting to the left, the attempt was halted – his hips and legs didn’t follow suit. Fear wove itself around his thoughts causing Aiden to hyperventilate. He reprimanded himself, Stop it! You’ll use up all of your oxygen. He willed his breathing to normalize.
“Suit. T-turn on headlamp”.
A flicker – then a spray of light illuminated two rock walls that rose up about 300 yards above him. A conduit crossed the span between the two sides. The sight of it triggered something. Broken images flashed into his consciousness. He began to remember.
— 4 Hours Earlier —
Aiden looked out of the shuttle window toward Earth. It hung just over the grey horizon like a beautiful blue – green emerald laid out on the black curtain of space. Down below him on the lunar surface strung out like Christmas lights, wound glowing structures atop the ridges of craters. The string of lights eventually petered out and gave way to the barren, unsettled areas of the moon that lie between the Schroter’s Valley port at Cobra Crater and the North Pole where Aiden was headed.
Just 12 hours earlier he had been back home on earth, watching his youngest son Peter use moon rocks from his growing collection, to create a mouth on their newly built snowman. It was two days until Christmas. Everything was perfect. Until he got the call to make an emergency systems check at the Peary Refinery. He had promised Peter and the rest of his family that he would be home for Christmas.
Peary was an older refinery that constantly had issues of some sort. For one reason or another sensors at the refinery were showing differing volumes of output than those at the depot at Cobra. Nine times out of ten it was due to a simple malfunction easily fixed by re-calibrating the sensor or replacing it with a spare. Aiden had already run a diagnostic on the sensor at the depot. It checked out. So, his next stop was to test the sensor at Peary.
These types of errors weren’t all that uncommon, especially for the Peary plant. There was usually some inconsistency in volume. But this time, a much larger margin of error had plagued the plant’s most recent production cycle. So, Aiden found himself handling an on site evaluation on Christmas Eve.
If a bad sensor wasn’t the issue, the cause could be the result of a leak in the pipeline that crossed the 1,300 miles from Peary Crater to the depot at Cobra Crater. If that was the case, all Aiden had to do was locate the leak and report it to the plant owners so a crew could make the repair. Either way, it shouldn’t tie him up for more than a few hours and he would be headed back home in time for Christmas.
After about 40 minutes of flying over vast stretches of lonely pockmarked landscape, the tall southern ridgeline of Peary Crater came into view. A few minutes later the shuttle passed over the mouth of the mammoth chasm and closed in on the northern ridge where the refinery was perched. Aiden looked down into the mile deep crater as the shuttle approached the docking bay adjacent to the control tower.
As the docking process commenced, Aiden reminded himself to be sure and pick up another moon rock for Peter. It was tradition to bring him one back from each trip. And maybe it would make up for missing Christmas Eve.
Aiden’s older two children could care less about their father’s work on the moon. If he worked on Mars that would be a different story. His son Benson had a friend, Milo, whose dad ran a shuttle to Mars. Benson wouldn’t let him forget it. But for some reason, Peter had an infatuation with the moon and Aiden was more than willing to cater to that infatuation until Peter realized that the moon was old news.
The shuttle gave a slight jolt as it finished docking and the airlock secured. The door opened with a hiss as Aiden stepped into the terminal where a rotund security guard of short stature waited for him.
“T-that’s me,” Aiden replied as he pressed the button that illuminated his suit’s badge.
“You know where to go?”
The portly man handed Aiden an access FOB,
“The name’s Taylom. I’ll be up in the tower if you need me.” With that he dropped his shoulders and shuffled off to the control tower.
Not one for small talk. I guess, I wouldn’t be either if I was stuck here over the holidays.
Aiden, turned his thoughts back to the job at hand. He just wanted to diagnose the situation, provide the solution and jump on the first transport back home. He clipped the FOB into his wrist-band and headed down the corridor that led to the server room.
Moments later Aiden looked over the results from the system diagnostics report. Everything seemed to be fine. He sat back in the chair and gave a long frustrated sigh. The problem clearly isn’t happening here, which means it’s happening somewhere along the 1,300 miles of pipeline I just flew over. A sense of dread slowly crept into the room as it became obvious to Aiden that this most likely wasn’t going to be the quick little “turn it off, turn it on” fix he hoped it would be.
Okay, Aiden, figure this out so you can get home.
Shaking off the miserable thought that he might not make it home for Christmas, he leaned back into the terminal and assessed the pipeline activity logs. He was scanning for any sustained drop-offs in pressure within the last 60 days that might suggest a leak.
In theory, activity of that sort should create an error code of its own – but lazy operators back home often lowered the thresholds so they wouldn’t constantly be overriding error messages. This was an issue because, in the case there was a leak, it might not get detected until it was too late and the refinery would end up losing trillions of revenue to legal fees and government fines.
In a way, the problem was only partially the operator’s fault. Leaks had become a real problem due to refinery owners not wanting to spend money on re-insulating pipelines that had been subject to hundreds of years of solar wind wearing them down. So, operators found it was preferable to program the sensors with higher thresholds and hope nothing bad happened. It was a dangerous cycle.
The 60 day pipeline activity report appeared on the terminal display. As Aiden had suspected the pressure threshold was set pretty high, but surprisingly there were no sustained pressure drop-offs that would suggest a leak. Perplexed, he zoomed into the one week view of the report and saw something interesting. On Tuesday, there was a significant dip in pressure, but it was still below the error code threshold.
He scrolled to the next week and the numbers were the same. He continued scrolling through the weeks that led up to the current week. Each week for the past six weeks, on Tuesday, there was a spike of low pressure that would normalize after a few hours. The frequency in events were as if they were scheduled.
I suppose if there is some exposed pipe that’s expanding or a pier in the rille that’s flexing due to solar wind, there could be pressure drops.
Regardless, he had to come up with a definitive answer before he could return home.
He ran another report to try and locate the area along the pipeline where the anomaly was taking place.
There you are.
220 miles down the pipeline was an abandoned platinum mine. It was to the west of Mouchez crater. Upon closer inspection of the topography, it looked as if the pipeline crossed directly over a deep rille that connected to a smaller crater where the mine was located.
“Assistant.” Aiden called out. “C-call, Control.” There was a brief silence, followed by a low beep, then Taylom’s apathetic voice came over the speakers in Aiden’s headset.
“Go for Control”
“Control. I n-need to inspect the pipe around the 220 mark. C-could you unlock a cruiser for me?”
There was an awkward pause, then Taylom responded.
“The 220 mark? Is there a problem?”
“N-not 100% sure, just need to ch-check it out.”
“Copy that. I’ll get a suit ready for you. Meet you in the garage.”
About 30 minutes later Aiden was approaching the 220 mark along the pipeline that spanned the rille. As he got closer to the crossing, he began paying special attention to the condition of the insulation around the pipe.
There’s nothing wrong with this pipe.
He brought the cruiser to a stop about 50 yards away from the rille, hopped out of the vehicle, and walked over to the edge. It must have been 50 yards across and at least 200 yards to the bottom. Rising up from the shadowy depths of the ravine rose two piers that supported the section of pipe that crossed over the rille. Aiden was visually inspecting the pipe when he saw it.
“Suit. zoom optics.” The center area of Aiden’s helmet zoomed in to reveal a valve tap on the bottom side of the pipe. Connected to the valve was another pipe that had been fastened to the inside of the pier and followed it down into the dark ravine.
Someone’s tapping the line.
Looking east, he could see where the rille ran into a small crater about a quarter mile away.
The abandoned mine. Pirates.
His heart rate increased and mouth went dry. A sinking feeling came over him. The 220 miles between him and the refinery might as well have been a million.
Whoever tapped the pipe is probably already on their way.
But Aiden wasn’t going to leave empty handed. He turned back to the pipe and focused on the valve.
“S-suit. Record video.”
“Unable to Record. No partition available.” The suit chimed back.
“What?!… Suit. Show drives.”
The suit’s system and memory drives popped up. The only drive slot that was available was the system drive. All other slots were empty.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Suddenly the shriek from his proximity alarm gave him a jolt. Something of considerable mass was coming toward him at a dangerous speed. He quickly turned around to see a black cruiser with two figures in the cockpit bearing down on him. But before he could react, the cruiser slammed into him pushing him over the edge and into blackness.
— The Present —
Aiden’s return to consciousness was accompanied by a pulsing pain in his lower back. He was surrounded by darkness. The only light present was the dim blue light from the display in his helmet. A fog hung over his mind as he scanned the levels on the display.
Why is my back throbbing? He let his eyes adjust to the darkness, Where am I?
Just then, Aiden’s entire body woke up with a sensation that felt like he was on fire. He let out a languishing cry as every inch of his body screamed at him. Every inch of his body except for his legs. That observation gave way to a terrible suspicion.
He attempted rolling over on his side so he could stand. Twisting to the left, the attempt was halted – his hips and legs didn’t follow suit. He laid back down on the cold dark floor. Fear wove itself around his thoughts causing Aiden to hyperventilate.
Stop it! You’ll use up all of your oxygen.
He willed his breathing to normalize.
“Suit. T-turn on light”.
A flicker – then a spray of light illuminated two rock walls that rose up about 200 yards above him. A conduit crossed the span between the two sides.
He was alone at the bottom of the deep ravine. His body crushed. His legs unresponsive.
All he could think about was his family, his wife Lana and his three kids. Tears started to well up in his eyes as he thought about Lana receiving the news that she was now a widow. Their children growing up without him – never again seeing the joy in Peter’s eyes after bringing him back a silly moon rock. A flood of emotions consumed him all at once. Fear, sorrow, panic, regret, grief, bitterness and despair swirled around in his head. They blended with the physical pain coursing through his body, building in intensity until they all fused together and produced a fervent, deep… ANGER. The anger gave way to a rush of adrenaline that solidified into a resolve to survive.
— Pirates —
The cruiser came to a stop. Two figures hopped out and ran to the edge of the rille. Looking down, the man to the left, who was slightly taller, chided the one who had been piloting the cruiser.
Loranz defended himself, “What? We were told to ‘kill and dump’. I did both at the same time. What’s the big deal?”
Van Lo glared at him, “You’re a real Einstein aren’t you. What do you think is going to happen if the search detail finds him lying next to a tap line.”
Loranz felt his stomach cramp. The sick high he had gotten from plowing into Aiden was quickly choked out by the laundry list of ways their superiors would “reward” him for his foolish blunder.
Loranz let out a desperate sigh, “What do we do?”
Van Lo looked down into the light deprived ravine where their target lay dead but still out of reach. The job was only half done and their superiors didn’t like half ass’d jobs.
It wasn’t the first time his impulsive partner had complicated what should have been an otherwise simple task. If they weren’t on the same payroll he would have killed him on the spot for such a brainless move.
Loranz could tell his partner was trying not to lose his temper, and for good reason; if they couldn’t fix his mistake they would both be held responsible. So, in an effort to take some of the tension out of the air, Loranze made a moved toward the edge of the rille,
“Well, I better get climbing huh.”
Before Loranz finished his first step Van Lo had stopped him with his arm. Loranz froze in place, not wanting to test his partner’s patience.
“Work smart, not hard Loranz.”
“We can get down there faster if we use the mine.”
Loranze looked up at his clever partner with a grin, “That’s what I like about you Van, always one step ahead.”
Van wasn’t one for flattery, especially from a screw up. Nonetheless, he returned the compliment with an apathetic smile.
“Let our man know we need a little more time.”
The duo headed back to the cruisers to finish their job.
— It Isn’t Over —
Surely help was on the way. The suit was equipped with a distress signal that contacted the main server at the refinery when an active suit experienced any kind of trauma or seal breach. But he hadn’t noticed any message in his display showing that a distress signal had been sent.
“Suite. Show outgoing m-messages.”
A message log popped up in the hood display. No distress code had been sent.
“What?… Suit, SOS P-protocol Settings.”
The suite responded. “SOS Protocol is ‘Disabled’” would you like to enable it?”
“W-what is going on?!” He sighed, “Y-yes. Enable SOS p-protocol.”
An admin passcode screen appeared in the display.
“Please, say password to activate SOS Protocol.” The Suit added.
Aiden hadn’t been given any such password, but tried nonetheless, “Um, P-peary?”
Frustrated, Aiden gave up.
“Suit. C-call control.”
“Network Unavailable. Transmitter offline.”
“Offline?” Aiden winced as he looked down at his chest where the com antenna housing was located. It was crushed.
“Crap.” No one had been signaled and contact with control or anyone for that matter was impossible. Aiden gritted his teeth as he looked up at the pipe 200 yards above him.
The tap line.
Aiden looked to his left. Laying next to him, was the 10 inch tap line. Just as he had thought, the line headed up the rille in the direction of the old mining operation. Obviously, the mine wasn’t as abandoned as it looked. Someone was still making money with it, just not by mining platinum.
This doesn’t make sense. Dumping me here will just draw attention to the area.
Then he realized…
This isn’t over.
Aiden suspected it wouldn’t be long before he had company coming down the rille to retrieve what they must have assumed would be his lifeless body. But that was something they were wrong about – he just had to find a way to use that to his advantage.
By this point Aiden had forsaken the thought of making it home for Christmas, or making home at all for that matter. With no ability to call for help and a ruthless enemy no doubt closing in on him, the only thing he could resolve to do was find a way to make the pirates pay.
15 years… 15 years of solving problems and not once has there been one I couldn’t fix. I’ll be damned if I let these greedy bastards ruin my perfect record.
With a frustrated sigh, Aiden looked down at the tap line lying next to him. He followed it with his eyes as it wound up through the rille in the direction of the mine. An idea began to take form, followed by a stern look of determination.
— The Search Begins —
The haunting stillness of the abandoned mine was disturbed by a small dust cloud that started near the top of the northern ridge and cut down the slope at a diagonal angle until it reached the crater floor. The mine was filled with decaying buildings and equipment that hadn’t been used for 200 years.
Moments later a black cruiser entered the excavation area followed by the cruiser Aiden had been driving. The two vehicles navigated around a large conveyor and pulled up to the mouth of the rille where the tap line snaked out and connected to a long warehouse.
The vehicles stopped. Van Lo exited Aiden’s cruiser and got into the other one. The jets pulsed briefly, the high-beams switched on and the cruiser eased into the rille.
It had been about 10 minutes since Aiden had seen the first flicker of light come from further up the rille. He figured it would only be a couple more minutes before the pirates would appear.
“Suit. T-turn off light.”
The headlamp shut off. Aiden had already dragged himself about 100 yards or so. 25 of those yards had been crawling up to a ledge about 20 feet above the ravine floor.
He peered down over the edge in the direction of the light. Up ahead, emerged the same black cruiser that bulldozed him up at the pipeline. It was slowly making its way down the ravine toward him.
Aiden scooted back down the ledge in order to get out of sight. As he did, something shifted. It felt like he was being pulled down and to the left.
He couldn’t turn the light back on or his position would be given away for sure. Reaching down to assess the situation, Aiden could feel that his left leg was dangling over the side of the ledge. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the light from the pirate’s cruiser slowly creeping across the canyon wall in his direction. Panic threatened to take hold but he shook it off.
Come on. Where are you?
He grapled for the small strap that was located on the outer thigh of his suit.
The light from the cruiser inched closer to where his leg hung in plain view.
Then, like a miracle, his hand found the strap.
Gripping the strap, Aiden heaved and twisted the dead weight upward. The combined motion caused him to flip over on his back as the pirate’s search light illuminated the canyon wall above him.
The vehicle stopped. Beads of sweat gathered on Aiden’s forehead as a sharp throbbing pain pulsed up and down his back. There was nothing else he could do but wait and pray he hadn’t been seen.
The seconds felt like hours, but the pirates didn’t linger long and after just a few moments had moved on to continue their search.
Aiden slowed his breathing and waited a good two minutes after the light had passed before he peaked over the ledge. The black cruiser was just disappearing around a bend further down the rille. Fully aware that time wasn’t on his side, Aiden quickly slid back down the ledge and continued making his way up the rille toward the mine.
It had been an agonizing fifteen minutes since the pirates had passed him in the canyon. Aiden usually loved the silence of space. What he wouldn’t give to be able to hear where the enemy was. Instead he laboriously looked back over his shoulder to check for movement every few seconds. He stopped to check his oxygen supply. 50%. He tried controlling his breathing in order to conserve oxygen, but even with the moon’s low gravitational pull, the task of dragging his half limp body across the ground was taxing.
The ambient light was gradually getting brighter.
I must be getting close.
Pulling himself past yet another bend, his eyes caught sight of the opening to the crater and just beyond it, was what looked to be his cruiser parked next to the abandoned mining station.
— Control —
Taylom sat in the control tower at Peary refinery anxiously watching the clock. The suspense chewed at his nerves.
What’s taking so long? If they’ve botched this, I’m not taking the fall!… I can’t afford to take the fall.
Just then a beep came over the com.
“Van for Control.”
“It’s about time! What’s going on out there!? Did you find him?”
“Not yet. We’re standing right here where he fell but no sign of him.”
“Well, look harder!” Taylom yelled nervously. “ Listen, if I don’t report a missing person soon, this whole thing could come down on me!”
“Whoah, Taylom, cool your jets. We’ll find’em. Just relax.”
Taylom tried getting a hold of himself, “Don’t tell me what to do – I’m not getting a big enough cut to take the fall for this!”
“You want out? Because we both know how that goes.”
Taylom felt like a mouse being backed into a corner with no way of escape.
“No. I’m in… just, hurry.”
“It’ll be fine. Just hold off a few more minutes and… Hey, wait one second.”
The com went silent for a few seconds – seconds that felt like an eternity. Then Van’s cocky voice came over the line.
“Loranz just found some tracks. Looks like he crawled back up toward the mine. I can’t believe he survived the fall.”
“He’s still alive? Well, go get him!”
“Hey Taylom. You might be sittin up there in that tower but you ain’t the one in control. We’ll let you know when it’s taken care of.” The com cut out.
A whitefaced Taylom sat back in his chair as he realized how profoundly insignificant he was in the grand scream of things. He had no power, no influence – just a lonely nobody, waiting in silence to hear that some stranger he met a couple hours ago had been “dealt with”.
What have I done?
— Hide and Seek —
Aiden had just finished pulling himself up into the cruiser when he realized that the key FOB for the vehicle was missing.
He pressed the start button but no luck. Whoever was driving it was smart enough to take the FOB with them.
Of course. That would be too easy.
Looking around the cruiser for ideas, he saw an emergency med-kit stowed under the passenger side dash. As he started for it, he noticed a faint light darting back and forth in the rille.
“Crap! They’re b-back!”
Aiden grabbed the kit and scrambled to get out of the cruiser. He maneuvered over the passenger side seat and rolled over the side. The impact sent a sharp pain up through his spine threatening to make him black out – but he refused to give in. Searching for which direction to go, he noticed a crawl space under the building to his left. Immediately, he began army crawling as fast as he could toward the building. He had never moved so fast in his life – even when he had the use of his legs. He looked toward the rille, the light from the cruiser was getting brighter but the cruiser itself was still out of sight. He could only hope that meant he was out of sight as well.
With a few more movements he had arrived and plunged himself as deep into the crawlspace as he could get. His heart was pounding furiously as he once again tried to slow his breathing. The oxygen supply in his suit was now under 30% which meant he had a little over 2 hours left. The cruiser had a couple extra tanks in the cargo hold if he could get to them, but that wasn’t likely to be an option. Right now his main problem was not letting his ambushers find him.
Aiden peered back down toward the rille. The bright beam emerged first, causing him to squint his eyes. He remained motionless until the cruiser got close enough to where he was confident they couldn’t see him. As the cruiser continued moving toward the building, Aiden scanned to see what his options were.
Straight ahead of him, about 15 yards away, was a Crawler Machine. The large, four legged piece of equipment stood before him like a beacon of hope. He looked back over his shoulder to see if the coast was clear. He didn’t see feet on the ground so he assumed they must still be in the cruiser.
As he neared the other end of the building his eyes were met with a scratched and dinged up old Crawler. The massive machines were used to break up rocks and clear debris. The two arms mounted on the side of the cockpit still had their tools attached. The right arm had a jack hammer and the left had a pincer. The solar panels looked to be in fair condition and from what Aiden had heard these things lasted forever. Needing both arms to hoist himself up into the Crawler, he clipped the med kit to his suit and began climbing arm over arm toward the cockpit.
On the other side of the building, Loranz hopped out of the cruiser and looked down. He saw Aiden’s stracks leading to the other cruiser and went over to inspect it.
“He’s definitely been here.”
Van Lo remained in the cruiser. “Can you tell where he went?”
Loranz looked around the yard but couldn’t see any tracks leading away from the cruiser.
“Nah, his tracks just end here.”
Loranz continued walking around the vehicle. “Wait, here’s something. Looks like he crawled under the storehouse.”
Van Lo jumped out of the cruiser and joined Loranz by the building with a smirk on his face.
“You gotta give it to him, the guy’s got fight.”
Loranz hunched over and aimed his light into the crawl space.
“He’s not there!”
“What?!” Van crouched down to see for himself. Nothing. He let out a long frustrated sigh. “I’m getting tired of this.”
Standing up, Van walked back over to the black cruiser. He reached inside the cockpit and brought out a rifle.
“It’s Christmas eve, might as well have fun.”
A sinister smile appeared on Loranz’s face as he pulled out his firearm. However, his smile was quickly replaced by a confused expression.
“What?” Van Lo asked.
“You didn’t feel that?”
The ground rumbled beneath their feet as a bright light blinded them. It was coming from the backside of the storehouse.
— The Showdown —
Aiden had successfully powered on the Crawler but inadvertently turned on the lights – losing any element of surprise he might of had. Thankfully, he had grown up on a farm and was accustomed to operating heavy machinery like the Crawler. Granted, it had been about 15 years since he’d been in something of that size, but he didn’t need to be a pro – he just needed to get the machine to do one thing for him.
As he raised the arms out of their parked positions, one of the assailants rounded the corner at the far, east end of the building. Aiden quickly grabbed the steering control and turned away as a flash came from the muzzle. The bullet hit the crawler’s left arm and bounced off. The cockpit of the crawler was made of a steel roll cage and chemically strengthened glass. He figured it would hold up for a little while against the bullets, but Aiden didn’t want to test that theory until it was absolutely necessary.
Pushing the controller forward, he made a b-line for the western end of the building only to see the second man round the corner and raise his rifle – another muzzle flash. A stress mark immediately appeared on the windshield.
Aiden locked the steering control in the forward position and grabbed the arm controls, crossing the large steel arms in front of the cockpit for added protection. It reduced his field of view but he knew exactly where he was going. He just needed the glass to hold out long enough for him to get there.
He was nearly at the end of the building when he noticed a shadow coming from directly above. He looked up to see the first man standing on top of the cockpit aiming his hand-gun at the glass in the skylight. Flash. Aiden leaned to the side to avoid the shot. Nothing. He looked back up at the glass, there was a stress mark but no break. Then the sky lit up like a fireworks show as the man unloaded the magazine.
Knowing that the glass wouldn’t stand up against the entire payload, Aiden took hold of the cockpit swivel control and tried shaking the man off the roof. It almost worked, the assailant fell forward but grasped the roll cage. He hung between the front windshield and the folded steel arms of the Crawler. Glaring menacingly through glass, the man secured himself and pointed the gun at the front windshield. Aiden braced himself as a flash came from the muzzle followed by another stress mark. The man grinned. He was enjoying watching Aiden flinch.
Aiden had to think fast. He noticed he was still moving parallel to the building on his left. Aiden reached for the arm controls and unfolded them, leaving the front of the cockpit unprotected. The man fired again, resulting in a crack that almost spanned the entire windshield.
One, maybe two more shots and the glass would be compromised. But that wasn’t going to happen, because now Aiden was the one with the grin.
An uneasy feeling came over Loranz as Aiden simultaneously reached for the steering control and the cockpit swivel and pushed them both left. The man’s eyes widened as the cockpit spun toward the corner of the building and the Crawler’s legs stepped left. The sudden movement pinned the man against the structure. He tried squirming out from his prison but Aiden pushed the steering control even harder left. The man’s face filled with malice, followed by a hopeless agony as his body was effortlessly crushed between the building and the 4 ton machine.
Aiden couldn’t hear the man screaming but he could see it. Blood pounded in his head as he watched the man’s life leave his body.
A fresh dose of adrenaline shot through Aiden’s veins,
He reeled with blood lust.
Where’s the other one?
Pulling the Crawler away from the building he glimpsed the other man standing below him aiming his rifle at the cockpit. Aiden moved the cockpit back to the right as a bullet ricocheted off the roll cage.
Before the man could get off another round Aiden had already unfolded the right arm, extended it straight out and swiveled the cockpit back to the left. Jumping backward, the man evaded the 1 ton punch. He landed about twenty yards away near the front of the storehouse and took aim again. This time, almost without thinking about it, Aiden brought the arms back down into a protective position in front of the cockpit, just in time to block another bullet.
Aiden knew there was no way he could win in a drawn out fight against the rifleman. His only hope was to stay focused on his original intent. He lined up on the tap line laid out between him and the shooter, and throttled forward.
Bullets ricocheted off the arms. Aiden winced as one managed to hit the front windshield, but it remained intact. He looked straight down. The tap line was directly below him. He turned to face the storehouse and unfolded the Crawler’s arms.
It was perfect. The pipe seal that connected the tap line to the valve box was just in reach. The shooter saw the plan. Aiden wasn’t coming after him, he was going after the liquid-hydrogen.
Aiden clapped down on the pipe with the pincer arm then placed the jack-hammer tool on the seal and started chipping away. In a panic, the shooter frantically sent rounds at the now exposed cockpit. Aiden didn’t care, he kept chipping away at the seal. It was about to break – just a few more seconds..
Suddenly, Aiden’s hood display lit up with a warning message.
“Alert. Suit compromised.”
A schematic of the suit appeared, showing a slow leak on the inner thigh of the left leg. A bullet had finally made it through the glass. The oxygen level in his suit began dropping. His 2 hours was quickly turning into 20 minutes. Aiden looked down at the med kit sitting next to him. There were patches in the kit that could repair the leak but there was no time for that now. He looked back at the seal.
“Come on! B-break!”
Just as he was yelling, the pipe seal shattered and everything began to move in slow motion.
Aiden swiveled the cockpit right, bringing the pipe with it. As he did, his eyes met with the shooter’s. He could see the terror grip his enemies face.
Liquid-hydrogen spewed out of the severed tap line toward the shooter.
A muzzle flash, followed by an intense pressure and heat that lifted the Crawler up off the ground, sending it skidding backward about 30 yards.
Aiden’s vision was filled with the bright blue light of burning hydrogen as the flames engulfed his assailant and caused an explosion that took out the entire storehouse.
Aiden sat there in shocked silence.
“If that d-doesn’t generate an error code I d-don’t know what will.”
His suit chimed in,
“Suit compromised. Please repair breach in lower left extremity. 10 minutes until oxygen is depleted.”
Aiden looked down at the med kit tucked by his side and opened it up. He grabbed a patch and placed it over the scuff mark on his left thigh. About 10 seconds later the suit breach warning disappeared, but the damage had already been done. He was exhausted. Alone. And dying. He just wished he could see his family one last time.
Maybe I can.
The massive dinged-up Crawler’s cockpit rose up over the ridge of the crater followed by it’s four heavy legs. Aiden looked out over the lunar landscape, riddled with pockmarks, boulders, dunes and dust. Once at the crest of the crater’s ridge, he powered the machine down and opened the med kit again.
“Awe, t-there you are.”
He picked up a small capsule of morphine and inserted it into the med-port on his right shoulder.
“Suit. Inject Capsule.”
A tiny syringe inside the suit injected Aiden with the medication. Almost instantaneously the pain in his rattled frame dissipated and he felt as if he could run clear across the moon.
He pulled himself out of the cockpit and ungracefully slid head first down the side of the machine and onto the cold ground. After finding a suitable rock, he propped himself up against one of the crawler’s giant legs and wrote with his hand in the grey dust.
“I love you all very much. P.S. The rock is for Peter.”
He placed the rock in the middle of the note and looked up just over the horizon where Earth was looking back at him, bright and clear and beautiful.
Tears ran down Aiden’s tired face as he visualized his wife and each one of his children opening their Christmas presents – he felt as if he were actually there with them, his beautiful, wonderful family. Shortly after, the air in his suit began to thin. He closed his eyes and with a smile, fell asleep.
— Home —
A bright white light filled Aiden’s vision. Then standing above him, he saw his wife’s beautiful face looking down at him.
Her eyes filled with tears as she threw her arms around him and squeezed him tighter than she had ever squeezed him before.
“Lana, W-where am I?”
“The security guard reported you missing.”
“I f-figured he was in on it?”
“He was. But he had a change of mind.”
“Oh, w-well in that case we should send him a Christmas card.”
Just then his three children came bounding in the room. Peter proudly held the newest moon rock in his collection.
“Papa!” they all exclaimed.
“Tilly, Benson, Peter!”
Benson lead out,
“Did you really fight bad guys in a mech suit?”
“They said you blew up their base.” Tilly added
Peter jumped in,
“I always told Benson your job was cooler than Milo’s dad’s but he didn’t believe me.”
Aiden felt the need to clear some things up, “N-now, now now. Let’s get a few things straight; it w-wasn’t a mech suit, it was an old m-mining machine. And it wasn’t a b-base, it was a storehouse. But…” Aiden gave a short pause for dramatic effect, “…m-my job is cooler than Milo’s D-dad’s”.
They laughed and began bombarding their father more questions about what really happened. But before they could get too entrenched in all the gory details, Lana cut in,
“Hey guys, why don’t we open the presents?”
“Yeah!” The children shouted.
“Presents? Is it still Christmas?”
“It is now.” Lana replied with a big smile on her face.
Aidan looked around at each face of his beautiful family, “Well of course, b-bring’em in.”
With that all three children ran out the room to go get the presents. Lana sat down on the bed next to Aiden, leaned in and gave him a kiss. He still had a look of disbelief on his face.
“What is it?”
“I th-thought I was… well… I mean… I thought I was n-never going to see you g-guys again”
“But here you are.”
Aiden nodded with a tear filled smile,
“H-here I am.”
The children came running back into the room carrying their presents. They threw them on the bed and hopped on themselves. Tilly proceeded by giving everyone instructions on the order of things, Peter protested and Benson tried playing the diplomat.
Aidan was home and it was Christmas.
Now, what’s the best way to describe Annabelle Schmell? Well, people might say she was a bright-eyed young lady. That she was friendly and had a way of making others feel comfortable. That she usually wore cute dresses and Mary Jane shoes and loved photography. And all of that would be true. But what most people didn’t know was Annabelle Schmell saw Eddie differently from everyone else.
Eddie had known Annabelle his entire life. When she was five, Annabelle made a habit of intentionally breaking her doll as an excuse to visit Eddie at Mr. Billings’ repair shop. She would do this to get eight-year-old Eddie to fix it for her. Why, you might ask, did she do this? Clearly, she was smitten. But Eddie always saw Annabelle as the naggy little girl his parents made him be nice to. During Eddie’s high-school years Annabelle became a bit more tolerable and even fun to be around at times. But once he graduated, he didn’t see much of her. He still thought of her as an annoying little sister.
Eddie closed his notepad and slid it and the pencil back in his shirt pocket. Annabelle finished crossing the street and plopped down beside him on the bench. She wore a canvas backpack over her navy-blue sweater and toted a drink from the Mighty Mug. Eddie eyed the beverage enviously. The smell was unmistakable.
A Mocha Latte.
Annabelle smiled. “You didn’t answer me. How are you doing?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m doing good. What are you up to?”
“Nothing much. Just got a Mocha Latte and thought I’d work a cryptogram before heading up to The Wicked Wood.” She glanced at Eddie with mischievous eyes. Eddie faked an uninterested laugh as he tried not to take the bait.
“Ha, ha, right, the ‘Wicked Wood.’ That’s just some old wives’ tale made up to scare schoolchildren.”
Eddie sensed Annabelle knew he couldn’t help but wonder why she was going to The Wicked Wood. So he wasn’t surprised when she baited him further.
“Oh, it’s much more than a story,” she said. “Lenny Baskin was snooping around up there a few days ago trying to find the old Moonshiner’s Ghost. And guess what happened?”
Eddie tried to look disinterested. Annabelle lowered her voice to almost a whisper and leaned toward him.
“I’ll tell you what happened. Lenny saw the ghost…right before it put a spell on him.”
“Put a spell on him?” Eddie repeated disdainfully, as he lost interest for real.
“Yeah. He said his head got all foggy and he felt like sleeping.” Annabelle started getting animated. “Next thing he knew, branches and leaves were grabbing him. He said if he hadn’t fought the spell the forest would have eaten him up.” She paused for effect. “Never to be found.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Annabelle, high schoolers have been telling that story for years to scare the lower grades. The spell-casting part is new, but I imagine each year the legend keeps getting more ridiculous. But it isn’t real.”
“You’re one to talk. Why is this story any different than the ones you believe?”
“Because my stories – I mean conspiracies – have tons of data. And I seriously doubt Lenny Baskin actually went to The Wicked Wood.”
“Well it doesn’t matter, I’m going up there anyway. My senior project is called ‘The Legend of The Wicked Wood,’ and whether the legend is true or not, I’m going to have a killer paper.”
“It’s a waste of time. If you want to do a paper on something really interesting you should look into how the government controls people’s minds through milk and tap water. It’s why I only drink distilled water, and never drink milk.”
Annabelle appeared somewhat deflated by Eddie’s remark. She stood up.
“Fine. I’ll leave the conspiracies with ‘tons of data’ to you.” She turned to cross the street.
Eddie had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Annabelle had just shared something with him she was excited about, and he shot it down. Dog moaned a disapproving moan. The kind of moan that says, “You don’t have many friends as it is, so don’t lose this one.”
Eddie watched Annabelle approach her car. The further away she got, the greater the sinking feeling became. He’d never felt that before. Then something else rose up inside him and he called after her.
She quickly turned to look at him, her eyes filled with anticipation.
“Um…Your paper…It’s gonna be killer.”
“Thanks, Eddie!” Annabelle called back across the street as a smile crept onto her face.
“Oh, and uh…” He paused.
Her smile got even bigger. “I will.” She climbed into her car and drove off. As Eddie watched Annabelle drive away, presumably to investigate The Wicked Wood, Dog let out a bark. The kind of bark that says, “Now that’s more like it.”
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