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The First Ghost on the Moon: A short short science fiction story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #25
Was Virgil Crane the first? Ask longhaul loonies and they'll say yes. No doubt about it. Why shouldn't it be Virgil?
Virgil's assignment on the day of his death didn't involve trying to save Chinese astronauts. No one in administration would have given him that assignment if they had any choice. He'd been sent out to H3-AM, a regolith scraper, to do standard maintenance. From his chariot ten meters above the surface, he saw H3-AM huddled into the ground like a great glossy black beetle—hull dulled by dust—at the end of the wiggly track it'd scored on the Moon's virgin surface. Three meters deep, the track wasn't straight. It pushed through small craters and rocks, but avoided larger obstacles. The constant ore analysis also weighed helium 3 concentrations obtained from material crushed in each of the three intakes. A higher concentration to either side and H3-AM adjusted its course. This led to a meandering, sometimes spiraling pattern like that created by bugs in fruit on Earth, or the supposed crop circles on Earth.
Riding a chariot—essentially a platform with a raised side that could be flown to different sites on the Moon—Virgil chuckled to himself each time he saw the tracks and wondered what aliens would make of them. Sharp shadows and a black sky etched the world into boundaries and shapes. Newcomers struggled to find their way on the Moon without LLS, the Lunar Location Service. The regolith, rocks, and craters all looked the same to them. They found it difficult to identify landmarks. Without LLS, they became lost easily.
Not him. He knew his way. Blindfold him, drop him off on the pristine surface and he'd unerringly find the most direct path back to base. He'd done that before, for a bet. It was instinct. Pure instinct. His Dad could do the same, back on Earth. He remember that about Dad. And Dad's utter disregard for whatever anyone thought of him. Both traits that Virgil liked to think he'd inherited along with his Mom's long thick hair. Traits that worked together for Virgil. He wore his hair in a turban—a mere practicality to keep it out of the way in the space suit.
Music played as he flew. What a wonderful world... the ukulele strumming gently. The song both was and wasn't written for the Moon. Wasn't in a real sense, but gliding above the surface on the chariot, it always struck Virgil as the perfect song to describe the Moon. Clouds and chimneys far away, the ancient beauty of this world endlessly fascinated him. Always had even before people started to return. Dad always wanted to visit the Moon, but of course he never got the chance. He lived to see a few astronauts return for brief visits to the surface but no more than that before the pandemics of the Twenties took him. And then Mom a few years later—a year shy of the treatments that finally quelled the pandemics.
That had been a long time ago. Virgil didn't need to pilot the chariot. The A.I. was integrated with the LLS and already communicating with H3-AM. The big regolith scraper's words came through the comm link.
"Maintenance, again? About time," it said. "Always those itches I can't reach."
Virgil grinned. "I get that, H3-AM. I'll get you sorted out."
"Virgil? Virgil Crane? Is that you?"
"You know it is," Virgil said. "Who else would they send out here to scratch your back?"
"My back is sufficiently scratched already."
Virgil laughed. He checked the chariot's flight path, no reason to except habit. Everything looked optimal. "Landing in one minute."
"I'm not going anywhere," H3-AM said.
The call interrupted Virgil and sent the chariot into a hover above H3-AM.
"We've picked up a distress signal. We're not ordering you to respond. It would take you off our tracking grid. We don't have details on the situation on the ground and you might not have fuel enough to get back."
Virgil didn't hesitate. He nodded inside his helmet. "Bearing?"
He entered the heading into the chariot's navigation controls and switched to manual. "I'll check it out." On the other channel, he said, "Sorry H3-AM, if I can make it back this way I will, but they might need to send someone else out."
"No worries, Virgil Crane."
"Crane out," Virgil said. The last transmission recorded. At least on our systems. The Chinese undoubtedly have more, but they aren't sharing.
Three days passed before the Chinese admitted that Virgil Crane came to their assistance. Their outpost suffered an uncontrolled fire. Crane used the chariot to ferry the three Chinese astronauts to the next outpost—they didn't have enough oxygen to survive otherwise and no transportation could reach them in time.
According to the Chinese, Virgil Crane refueled the chariot and left for the journey back. He never made it. Dangerous terrain, fatigue, equipment failure or sabotage? No one knows.
H3-AM's logs reported one brief signal, poor reception, Virgil's voice coming through static to say he was on his way.
People still report seeing Virgil from time to time, either riding his chariot through the black sky or they come across boot prints where there shouldn't be any—only to have them disappear later.
The longhaul loonies say that no one had a sense of direction like Virgil Crane. Wherever he is, they claim, he'll find his way back.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
I’m continuing this challenge. I’m writing short short stories, under 2,000 words, many under 1,000 words. READINARY subscribers can read stories here first. When I have 100 stories, I’ll publish a collection of them all. For my premium subscribers, I appreciate you all, you’re my heroes. You’re the magic that keeps the words flowing.
Best wishes, always — Ryan
THE FIRST GHOST ON THE MOON
Copyright © 2022 Ryan M. Williams
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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