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Lunar Vegas?
On the Rocks!

By Wayne Austin


“You know, I really thought Clay Minsky would know better.” Nancy Lawford heaved a sigh and frowned at the tire tracks that disappeared into darkness beyond the headlights’ bright glare. For the last hour, she had fumed over her bad luck. It was stupid to fret so and she knew it, but still ... to take a bunch of stupid tourists exploring when there was even the faintest possibility of that Coronal Mass Ejection swiping the moon....

“Talk about being bloody lucky,” Al Boyle, her Australian co-worker muttered. A fine astronomer in his own right, he had spent the last three months at the Farside Array, not far from the Moon’s South Pole, installing and testing the new automation system that would do away with her job as on-site astronomer.

Her job. Her mouth tightened. How could they take it away after all it had cost her—?

The cabin tilted at a precarious angle. “Hold on,” Al yelled.

Nancy grabbed the open doorframe and wedged herself into her seat as he wrestled with the steering wheel of the “old jalopy”, his term for the six-wheeler antique that had been purchased from a failed mining consortium. How those tourists had managed to penetrate so far into this broken and cratered landscape beggared belief. Amateurs had no right exploring her moon. That was a job for professionals; scientists who followed well-prepared plans and stuck to the proper safety procedures. Professionals like herself — not that she had done any exploring. She squeezed her lips together into a tight frown. Damn stupid tourists....

As the old jalopy crawled around the rim of a crater, its rear twitched and slewed as Al fought to keep the right-hand wheels on the narrow flat between the crater and its neighbor. Then the rear tires dug in and with a jolt, they were out and back on level ground.

“They’re bloody lucky, all right,” she muttered, mimicking his words in her soft Texan drawl.

“But you like him. C’mon, admit it. I couldn’t help but notice how well you sucked up to him when he invited us over. Two beers! He only shouted me one.” Al grunted. “Lunar Getaways. Talk about taking a gamble. I wonder what it is about the Moon—?”

“I’ve lost two hours already! Plus the four hours of integration before that. That Clay has a lot to answer for.”

Nancy stared at the mountain peaks silhouetted on the horizon. Blue eyes and a disarming smile — it’d take more than two beers to appease her. Besides, she was just flirting, stretching her wings to see if she still had it as a single woman. And as much as he had made her laugh, he wasn’t her type. This act of stupidity only proved that. She wanted someone who was safe, reliable and consistent. Like she was. Frank had been like that and it hadn’t worked out, so how could she hope to maintain a relationship with such a risk taker, especially when he would be up here on the moon while she was stuck back down on Earth?

She turned to Al. “Am I cursed or what?”

He grunted as he concentrated on the jumbled ground ahead. “We should reach them in an hour—” The old jalopy lurched as the left front wheel bounced off a boulder. “I hope. Anyway, I’m sure Frank will let you do another run before we leave.”

Nancy squeezed her lips into a tight line. Why, of all people, did her ex-husband have to be the Hubble Research Institute’s Director of Operations? If it had been another woman, she could have understood. Her mouth curled up into a wry smile. Maybe he was right, maybe she was loony.

“No. You know what Frank’s like. He won’t stand up for anyone. That shuttle leaves tomorrow at 12:30 sharp. You can bet on it. Besides, my budget is accounted for to the last cent. There’s no way I’ll get any extra time.”

Al tackled another pair of craters and the cabin tilted at an even more precarious angle. Nancy gritted her teeth and hung on with grim determination. If he said one more nice thing about that Clay Minsky, she would pop his helmet to shut him up. Why did he have to tell Clay about her and all her problems in the first place? They had nothing in common. Nothing.

The wheels spun and they shuddered up onto even ground for a small respite. “You can redo it when we get back,” said Al. “Once the array’s automated, there’s no need to come back here.”

“It’s not the same.”

Her phone rang in her helmet and she checked the caller id on her wrist. “Hi, Frank,” she said, ready for the inevitable, and waited for the three-second delay to pass.

“Sorry, Nancy. They’ve rejected your request. We can’t hold the shuttle.”

“That was quick.”

Al shot her a glance, frowning at her sarcasm.

“Don’t be like that. I tried my best, but my hands are tied. There’s been another cut in Farside’s funding.”

“But I have extenuating circumstances. What about this rescue? Don’t we have insurance to cover that?”

“What about Lunar Getaways?” asked Al. “It’s their asses, we’re saving.”

“Look, guys, you are coming home and that’s it. The shuttle can’t wait. Be on it.” A click ended the call, ending her dream like it had her marriage.

Nancy clenched her fists tight in her lap. “Damn him,” she muttered and stared ahead, stony-faced.

“Accept it. There’s nothing you can do. It’s no one’s fault.”

“I know.” She leant back and let the anger seep away. Nothing ever perturbed Al.

She shifted in her seat to gaze at him and couldn’t help but smile. Even now, as he threaded his way through another smattering of small craters, he wore the same beatific smile as when they had first met, six years before. She liked to tease and call him her balding, graying, little Buddha. He glanced at her and his smile widened into a cheeky grin.

“Actually, I’ll be glad to get home,” he pulled up on top of a low hill, “see Marlene and the kids. She hates me being up here, all alone with a sexy redhead. Says you need a man, but not hers.”

“Marlene? Jealous?” Nancy pressed a button on the dashboard and a robot arm lowered another communications relay from the back of the old jalopy.

“No, it’s more because I’m so knackered when I get home. There’s just no satisfying you.” He chuckled as Nancy burst out laughing.

“Oh Al.” She blinked a tear from her eye and then reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “I’d be lost without you.” She left her hand where it rested. “You’re a good mate,” she said in a passable Strine accent.

They drove on into a deepening silence.

As the old jalopy rolled to a stop at the lip of the crater, Nancy disconnected the seat’s environmental connector from her backpack and hopped off. Clay Minsky’s tire tracks skirted the edge and disappeared. Her boots kicked up a spray of dust that plumed out over where a chunk of the rim had given way. This wasn’t a good place to have an accident. The cratered terrain was in a communications shadow, but Lady Luck had smiled on Clay Minsky. A gap in the rugged peaks provided a line-of-sight lifeline to an outlying antenna in the Farside Array.

Fierce sunlight banished the shadows from the rim of the ancient crater, all the way down to and halfway across its floor and a jagged line of pitch black hid where the rest of the crater nestled against the mountains crowning the opposite wall. Its starkness matched her mood.

She looked into the crater as Al joined her. “There.” She pointed at an open, four-wheeled buggy, standing a quarter of the way across the crater floor. By the look of the sets of wheel tracks radiating away from the steep slope, Clay must have had a frustrating time trying to get out.

Nancy tapped her phonepad and called the number Lunar Getaways had provided. “Clay Minsky? I’m Nancy, Nancy Lawford. From the Farside Array. We’re responding to your SOS.”

A jumble of excited voices erupted over the party line, like over-aged children at a birthday party. Amidst the babble, one voice managed to cajole the others into silence.

“Nancy! Am I glad to hear you!” A cheer erupted, drowning him out.

She waited for the noise to subside. Tourists? They ought to be banned. The moon should be a place for serious scientific study only, not for the idle rich to go traipsing about and destroying possible scientific evidence in their ignorance. “What is your condition?”

“We are okay, just stuck—”

“I’m hungry!”

“Please, Jasmine, don’t interrupt. Nancy, I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Nancy twisted to face Al and sneered as she tapped a finger against her helmet. Inconvenience? He was nuts if he thought a simple apology would placate her. Even three beers wouldn’t come close. “How is your oxygen supply?” she asked Clay.

“Oxygen is A-okay. The buggy has a three-day supply. Ditto water. If we have to abandon it, our suits are rated for ten hours. Can you get us out?”

“Just a moment.” She put him on hold and swung a leg out over the rim. As she planted her foot on the slope, the rubble under the dusty coating gave way and she pulled back. Just as she thought. There was no way Clay and his bunch of tourists could climb out, even in one-sixth gee.

“What do you think?”

Al peered over the rim. “We should be able to winch them out. Let’s see ... it’s two hundred meters, I guess. Take us about an hour, all up.”

Nancy pulled out a laser range finder and pinged the crater floor. “Two hundred and seventeen. You must be getting old.” Al grunted. “Okay, I’ll take the cable down. I want to give Clay a piece of my mind.”

Al grabbed her arm as she went to tap her phone. “Perhaps I should go down. You might say something ... undiplomatic? And since I would probably have to climb down anyway to break up a fight, I might as well go. Besides,” he patted his stomach, “you’re always telling me, I need to exercise.”

Nancy scowled and stepped back to let him pass. “I hate it when you’re right.” And since Clay Minsky wasn’t going anywhere, she could wait. She tapped her phone. “Lunar ... Clay, my partner, Al Boyle, will be down with a cable. We should have you out in an hour or so.”

“Nancy, many thanks. I look forward to meeting you again.”

“So do I.” She put him on hold.

“Nancy!”

She grabbed the clip on the end of the cable and turned to Al. “One way or the other, I’m getting my two-cents worth. Then you’ll see how diplomatic I can be.”

With the cable attached to a ring at his waist, Al clambered over the edge and she played the cable out at a steady rate, stopping each time he slipped and stumbled. With each slip, his feet shot out from under him, kicking up dust, and he had to catch himself with outstretched arms. Talk about hopeless. She choked back a laugh as he slipped and bounced back up like a stiff plank, sending another rivulet of rubble down the crater’s slope.

He tried the kangaroo hop. He tried shuffling from side to side. But in the end, he settled on a controlled slide with the cable slowing his speed of descent. She shook her head. At this rate it would take him as long to get down as it would to haul the buggy up.

When Al was halfway down, Nancy’s phone rang. “This is an automatic warning message from Solar Protector,” said a calm, male voice. “The side plume on the approaching Coronal Mass Ejection is larger than expected and will intersect the Moon’s southern hemisphere above latitude thirty degrees. This is a one-hour warning. Estimated duration of the event is five hours and thirty minutes. This is an automatic—”

Nancy slapped her wrist and hung up. Damn! One hour? “Al?” She hit the kill switch on the winch.

“What? Uh.... Jeez, this slope is steep. Hang on.” He stopped struggling to keep his feet and ended up half sitting, half lying.

“I’ve just received a one-hour warning. That CME’s going to hit us. Shall I haul you up?”

“We’ll never make it back.”

“Then we’ll just have to find somewhere in the shade and hunker down.”

Nancy’s phone clicked and she tapped the switch. “Yes?” she snapped. There was no chance now of making up lost time and worse than that, she would have to spend a sizable chunk of he remaining precious few hours hunkered down in a small crater or under the jalopy, twiddling her thumbs.

“Nancy, is there a problem?”

“I'm afraid so, a CME will reach us in less than an hour. We won’t be able to pull you out. I suggest—”

“What’s a CME?” asked a baritone voice.

“Parvel, please don’t break in, it’s a Coronal Mass Ejection — there’s a whole lot of radiation coming our way from the sun.” A tide of worried voices drowned Clay out. “I thought it was supposed to miss us,” he managed to say over the din.

“It was.” Nancy hit the hold button. Now she had panicking tourists to contend with. “What do you want to do?” she asked Al.

“Lower me down.” He waved an arm toward the other side of the crater. “We can hide in the shadow over there.”

Nancy pulled down her visor and checked the sun. “You do realize it won’t last. In a couple of hours we’ll be in full sunlight.”

“Yeah! But I’m not totally stupid. See how this crater’s formed. It’s right up against the base of that mountain. There have to be some big slabs at the base of the cliff we can hide under. You can see — at the top there — where they’ve broken off.”

Her phone clicked again. “Okay. I’ll anchor the jalopy.” She started the winch and then hit the hold button. “Yes.”

“Sorry about that, Nancy. They won’t break in again. So, this storm, what’s the duration?”

“Five and a half hours. I’m coming down to join—”

“Five and a half hours!”

“Jasmine! You promised.”

“But five and a half hours? I’m hungry!”

Nancy snapped off the call. Why her? What did Lady Luck have against her? Now she had to waste her last few hours stuck with a bunch of whining tourists. As she attached drill bits to the two robot arms at the rear of the old jalopy, her phone rang. It rang again at intermittent intervals while the drills bored into the regolith and only when the winch stopped to announce that Al was at the bottom, did the ringing cease.

Why couldn’t her world be Newtonian — predictable and with everything in its place? Except, where had that got her? Barring death from radiation, her world would fall apart at 12:30 PM tomorrow as sure as the sun rose. And then to waste her last few precious hours on a wild goose chase, well, a certain Clay Minsky was going to be on the end of some choice words. With a soulful sigh, she clipped onto the winch cable, stepped over the lip and began to ease herself down.

A figure in a smooth white spacesuit, and a head taller than Al, put out an arm and caught Nancy as she slid onto the crater floor. “Glad you could make it,” Clay said on her channel. “Al tells me you’re a tad upset.”

“Clay says we can ride over on his buggy.” Al turned toward it, but stopped when she didn’t move. “Nancy?”

“A tad upset?”

“Nancy, please? This isn’t a good time.”

“I guess that’s an understatement,” said Clay. “Please, accept my apologies.”

“That’s it! You’re sorry?” Nancy pushed his arm away and stepped back. “You ruin my data. Then I have to come all the way out here to rescue you. And now I’m going to be stuck here for another five or six hours with you and a bunch of tourists who have nothing better to do than waste their money getting themselves into trouble — are you laughing? Do you think this is funny?”

“Al said you could be feisty. I like that in a woman.”

“I warned you she had quite a temper.”

Nancy turned on Al. “Of all the stupid cliches, I do not have—”

Al jabbed a finger at her. “Are you finished? We still have to get to safety.” He turned to hop away. “See? What did I tell you,” he muttered to Clay.

Nancy stared after Al, her mouth open, but too stunned to speak. What had gotten into him? He never ever got riled.

Clay took her arm and guided her toward the buggy. “Shall we?”

Nancy snapped her mouth shut and wrenched her arm free. Fuming, she marched after Al, kicking up an angry spray of dust with each skipping step. It was too much. Everything she had worked for — it was all going down the drain. And now, tourists were going to get her Moon and trample all over it, exploring all the places she would never get to explore and discovering all the wonders she would never get to discover. She sniffed and blinked away a tear.

Damn! How do you wipe your eyes when you’ve got a helmet on?

She caught up to Al and grabbed his arm. “What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing.” Then he hesitated, but didn’t turn round. “You don’t have to quit, I thought you were a fighter. Marlene’s going to be most upset.”

Nancy sighed and her anger drained away. So that was it. She patted his arm. “Do you think I want to? But with Frank? Having to work with him every day ... it would be awkward.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” At last he turned to face her. “But running away won’t solve anything.” He turned and continued on toward the buggy.

Clay caught up with her so that they hopped along in sync. “Please, I really am sorry. When I realized we were going over the edge, I only had an instant to broadcast a Mayday, so I sent it over all channels. I had to. In fact, until you arrived, I thought we were dead for sure.”

Nancy whirled around to tell Clay just what she thought, lost her balance and stumbled into him. He caught her in his arms. That was great! Now she was throwing herself at him and she wasn’t even drunk. Not that she had gotten close to getting drunk that time at Lunar Getaways; it was light beer. Maybe Al was right about her running away. But what choice did she have? She had tried all the proper channels and had even gone over Frank’s head, and still the answer was the same. Just what did Al expect her to do? She didn’t have the resources to take stupid risks like this entrepreneur holding her could. How come he got to stay on the moon when she had to go home?

“What on Earth are you doing in this area?” she snapped. “You must know it’s dangerous. And what about the safety of your guests? What kind of company do you run?”

Clay stiffened and let her go. “I’m very careful and conscientious when it comes to safety. It’s just,” he held out his hands, “these aren’t my usual guests. Jasmine wanted to go exploring for water in some of the craters and when she didn’t find any she wanted to check out along the cliffs bordering the crater field. I didn’t think a few extra hours would be a problem; the latest reports had that CME missing us by a wide margin. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive the warning about the existence of that side plume until we got back into communications range. I realized it would take too long to get back if I went the long way round and I didn’t want to be out here if the plume did hit — which it wasn’t supposed to anyway.

“So I only had one option and that was to cut through the crater field. The trouble is, the maps don’t tell you how stable the craters are. I thought I could squeeze through, but then the rim gave way and we slid part way in. We nearly tipped over and I had to turn down slope. That’s how we got stuck.”

He proffered an arm toward the buggy and she bounded past him. That still didn’t excuse him for ruining her day.

Her phone rang and she tapped her wrist. “This is your five-minute warning from Solar Protector. A Coronal Mass Ejection is about to hit your location. Please take cover immediately. Estimated duration—” She killed the call.

Al waved at her to hurry from where he held onto a roll bar on the side of the buggy. “Come on!”

The three tourists turned in their seats to stare, as she bounded over, and the smallest held up a small box. “Guess what I’ve got in here? A piece of ice. I found it! Woohoo! Everyone’s going to be ripped when I get back.” Then her voice faltered. “We are going to get back, aren’t we?”

“Of course we are,” Clay said, sounding confident.

Nancy shook her head and climbed on the other side while he took the driver’s seat. So this Jasmine had found a dusting of ice in the bottom of a small crater that had never felt the sun’s warmth, and it hadn’t occurred to her or Clay to leave it in situ for others — scientists — to study. Nancy frowned at the unfairness. Scientists like her. As the buggy eased toward the far side of the crater, a warning chime sounded in her helmet. The old jalopy had picked up a sharp increase in the background radiation, but they crossed the black divide into safety. Nancy raised her sun visor and switched to Lunar Getaways’ channel. It was time to give them a piece of her mind, but in the faint sibilance of the channel’s background hiss she felt their tension and realized that, despite Clay’s assurance, they were all too aware of the danger they were in. It hit her then. So was she.

How many times had she told Al that the moon was no place to gamble? And yet here she was on a fool’s mission.

Clay twisted to look up at her with that disarming smile of his lit up in his helmet’s internal light. Even though his eyes betrayed his relief, he still radiated that sense of confidence. It didn’t matter what curve balls Lady Luck threw his way, he was still willing to get back up on his feet and up the ante. Maybe that was what she had found so attractive about him that time at Lunar Getaways; he didn’t take no for an answer. When they got back, she might let him buy — no! With a scowl, she forced the thought away. This was all his fault.

The buggy’s lights cut through the darkness and Clay picked his way around small craters and scattered blocks of rock until he reached the crater wall. Next to a jumbled heap of boulders, he swung the buggy around and reversed under an overhanging slab that stuck out.

“This looks like our best bet,” he said. Nancy ran the light from her helmet torch along its length and bit her lip.

“Yeah.” Al shone a torch back and forth in either direction and sighed as if to agree. “I was hoping for something a bit better.” He jumped down and hopped off to explore other rock heaps along the base of the cliff.

“We won’t all fit under here,” said a sultry French accent. The three tourists clambered out and wandered after Al, their babbling filling the channel.

“Hey! Stay here.” Clay tried to wave them back and then turned to cock his eyebrows at Nancy as if to say, “See! It’s not my fault.” Nancy pursed her lips as she stared after them. Stupid tourists. “Mind if we switch to your channel?” Clay asked.

She nodded and hit a button on her wristpad. “Why don’t you stop them?”

“There’s only one of me and three of them. And if they’re not happy, I’m out of business.” He clambered out of his seat. “I better go after them.”

Nancy watched his torch-beam dance across the shattered clumps of rock from eons-old landslides. Why were the good-looking ones such jerks? Talk about bad luck. She sighed as the last dregs of her anger faded away. He wasn’t really a jerk. Jerks didn’t buy redheads a couple of beers and not expect anything in return. No, her problems had started well before and if Clay Minsky hadn’t ruined her day, something else would have, so there was no point in crying over it. And Al was right. Her experiment could be run again at any time once they were back on Earth.

Back on Earth.... She blinked back a tear and then felt a new determination envelop her. She only had a few hours left. Why waste them?

“Wait!” She jumped down and hopped after him. “This will be my last chance to do any exploring.”

“Al said you were leaving tomorrow. Shame. I could have made Farside part of my itinerary.” He let out a dispirited sigh. “But it seems everyone is departing. The Chinese are scaling back. The Russians are pulling out — again. I hear Lunar II is automating like Farside. That’s bad for me. I’ve managed to offset some of my costs, shipping supplies on their shuttles. So ... that leaves what, a dozen research teams? Sixty, seventy people? That’s not many.”

Nancy faltered as she began to clamber up a rock pile to follow him. “There will be one less when I’m gone.”

At the edge of the pile, Clay stopped to let her catch up. “Al said you don’t want to leave. I can understand that. It’s been a dream of mine to live on the Moon for as long as I can remember. From when I was a kid. And look at me? Here I am.”

Nancy skipped from rock to rock as she picked her way over the pile of car-sized boulders. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any say in it.”

In the distance, four lights bobbled next to the base of the cliff, then two jiggled and rose up its side. What on Earth were they doing? She skipped past Clay.

He chuckled. “When I was a teenager, I used to lie out under the stars and watch the Moon come up. My girlfriends thought I was being romantic, but all I could think about was being up here. Now, here I am, on the Moon.” His voice turned gruff. “It would be nice to have someone to watch the Earth come up with.”

She stopped and snorted a laugh as she turned round. Was he trying to chat her up? “The only thing you’ll see rising here is the sun.” She glanced at the shadow’s edge, creeping closer. “And that might be the last thing you see.”

“Have faith! Life’s all about taking risks. You should ask my customers. Let’s see what trouble they’re up to now.” He took off and bounded past her.

“What do you mean?” Nancy turned around and skipped after him. Two of the lights had disappeared.

“They’re potential investors, here to see if I’m worth the risk. They hold my future in their hands. That’s why they can get away with murder. Shall we switch to Lunar Getaways?”

“Okay.” Nancy switched channels and voices burst forth in her helmet.”

“—try stopping her!” the baritone voice snapped.

“But you are her father,” said the French accent.

“Parvel?” Clay called out, “Miranda? What’s Jasmine done this time?”

“She has gone up into there.” The French accent pointed at a triangular darkness about three meters up at the top of a steep slope. “With that Al guy.”

“Al?” asked Nancy. It wasn’t like him to take risks.

“Nancy Lawford, meet Parvel Khan, self-confessed bon vivant, and his lovely bride—”

“Miranda,” said the French accent. She leant up against Parvel and draped an arm around his neck. “I am his—”

“Mistress!” Parvel chuckled.

“Wife!” Miranda corrected him. “I was his mistress,” she said to Nancy.

“This is our honeymoon.” Parvel leant toward Nancy and whispered in a loud aside. “She used to be Jasmine’s tutor.”

Miranda sighed. “Tutor, personal assistant, mistress, and now wife. It is a career path.”

“So what is next, my lovely?”

“Why? Wealthy divorcee, of course.”

Parvel burst out laughing. “Just like my other wives!”

“You shouldn’t have run off like that,” said Clay.

“We had to go after Jasmine,” said Parvel.

Miranda pushed off Parvel and folded her arms. “You should not have brought her along on our honeymoon.”

“But you wanted her to come!” Parvel snorted. “Very funny. The two of you are thicker than thieves.”

Clay sighed and glanced at Nancy. “I wish you would all listen to me, especially when I stress the importance of safety—”

You said it would take a meteor to puncture our suits!” said another voice. Nancy looked up and saw Jasmine’s head poking out of the opening and staring down at Clay with an accusing pout.

Al’s helmet appeared over the top of her. “It’s not hard to climb up,” he said.

“Al! Just what do you think you’re doing?”

He shrugged. “Someone has to keep an eye on her. Anyway, there’s enough room for all of us, perhaps a bit of a squeeze. We can’t quite stand, but we can sit. It looks safe.”

“What do you think?” Clay asked Nancy.

Al pointed at the encroaching sunlight. “We have to hurry.” Only a narrow ribbon of black offered protection and its width was fast shrinking. That settled it.

“We don’t have any choice.” Nancy reached up and grabbed a narrow ledge of rock, ready to climb up. “But I want to check this cave out first and make sure it’s safe.”

Clay grasped her waist and hoisted her up.

“I’m quite capable, thank you.” Still, the touch of his hands on her waist caused her voice to catch in her throat. Al might have joked, but there were times when the loneliness got to her. Frank hadn’t understood her needs, but then he wasn’t her man in the moon.

“You know,” Clay teased, “I like loony women.”

Nancy snorted as she scrambled up to the cave entrance and then tried to suppress a wry smile. Was nothing sacred? Just what had Al told them? She shone her torch into what was more of a triangular crevice with the top snapped shut and brought her beam to rest on Al’s grinning face at the far end where he held onto Jasmine’s arm. “I guess this will do,” she said as she turned on her side and eased in.

Please!” Jasmine pleaded. “I won’t go far, I promise!”

“No,” Al said with the voice of an exasperated father and Nancy looked up to see him pull Jasmine back.

Nancy crawled up beside him. “Anything wrong?”

Jasmine jerked on her arm as she sulked. “He won’t let me go through here!” she huffed. Nancy leant over Al and her beam lit up a small gap that dropped away beyond Jasmine.

“No way, young lady! You’re in Aunty Nancy’s bad books already and believe me,” Al glanced at Nancy and gave her a cheeky wink, “you don’t want to cross her.”

Nancy scowled at him. “Aunty Nancy—!”

“Oh!” said Miranda. “There isn’t much room.”

“Move up, dear. We have to get Clay in.”

“He can crawl over us,” Miranda whispered, “so he can sit next to Nancy. I think he likes her!”

“She can hear you.” Clay hefted himself into the entrance. “We both can.”

“Clear as a bell,” said Nancy.

Parvel chuckled as Miranda burst out giggling. Nancy sighed. Was this some sort of practical joke? It had Al’s fingerprints all over it. She pursed her lips and shuffled up against Al to make some room. Let him have his fun.

Clay clambered over Parvel and Miranda. As he squeezed in beside Nancy, he tried to put his arm around her shoulder. “You don’t mind, do you? It’s just, there isn’t much room.”

Nancy squirmed but it was no good. “My environment pack is too bulky.”

“I thought it might be.” Clay pulled his arm back, disappointment in his voice.

“Let me try.” She put her arm around his shoulder, and by twisting, maneuvered him into a position so that his helmet rested against her shoulder. “Is that better?”

“Much.”

She studied his face — what she could see of it through his faceplate — high cheekbone, firm nose, half of a lazy smile on a generous mouth. It was the face no one could stay angry at. Nancy bit her lip. If she wanted to be totally honest, Clay wasn’t the real cause of her anger. Not even the tourists. Not even Frank, as much as he deserved it. No, fate was to blame — plain bad luck. She had lost some data, so what? The universe wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And now Fate had thrown her together with Clay. Was that really bad luck?

“The two of you look very cozy!” Miranda called out.

Nancy froze. Without thinking, she had been massaging and squeezing Clay’s arm.

“Don’t tease her,” Al said with a smirk in his voice. “We’ve been up here for three months. Her, a single woman with time running out, and me, a married man who can’t be tempted, it’s no wonder she’s thrown herself at the first guy to come along.”

Al!” Nancy’s cheeks burned as laughter broke out around her, except from Clay.

“Hmmm.” Clay looked back at the entrance. “Houston,” he announced, “we still have a problem.”

“What?” asked Al.

“Ah,” Nancy glanced past him, “I think I see.”

Clay twisted round. “Can we get in any further? We’re going to get direct sunlight quite a way in.”

“So?” asked Miranda.

“That means the radiation can penetrate in here,” said Nancy.”

“We can get through here!”

“Jasmine!” Al grabbed for her, but she slipped his grasp and bolted. He snorted and eased his way into the opening. “She’s just like Darlene.”

“His youngest daughter,” said Nancy, “and his favorite. She’s a spoilt brat,” she called out after Al, but the rock cut off his laugh as he disappeared into the opening.

Parvel sighed. “If she isn’t eating, she is always getting into trouble. She has no sense at all.”

“Like her father?” Clay suggested.

“Is that what you are hoping?” Parvel asked in a light voice. “That I have no sense and will invest in your proposed casino?”

Nancy pushed Clay off her and sat up. “Casino? I thought you wanted to build a tourist resort?”

“I do. With a casino and more.”

“He wants to build Las Vegas on the Moon,” said Parvel.

“Luna Vegas!” Miranda clapped her hands. “I just thought of it. What a great name!”

Nancy frowned. “But gambling?” Dumb tourists trampling its pristine environment was one thing, but what would gamblers care about the Moon?

“It’s always worked in the past,” said Clay. “The clientele I cater for are not only wealthy, they also love to gamble and they love exotic locations. And there’s nowhere more exotic than the Moon.”

“Exotic is fun, for a while, but you need more.” Miranda sighed. “Parties, new people to meet, romance.”

Parvel sniffed. “What are you talking about? I am very romantic. You can ask my ex-wives.”

Miranda chuckled. “I did.”

“But how many people can afford to come here?” It didn’t make economic sense. Nancy tried to work it out in her head. The transportation costs alone were astronomical. And then they had to bring all their food, water and air.

“There are enough to kick it off,” said Clay. “Then, if I can get sponsorship for some tournaments and draw in a few high rollers, I should attract more investors.”

“With more flights,” Parvel added, “the transport costs drop and more customers come, which leads to more flights—”

“And the costs drop some more,” said Clay. “It’s a continual cycle until ordinary tourists can afford to come.”

“That is what Clay does,” said Parvel. “He finds the location and starts up. If it looks sound, investors like me come in. And when it’s grown to become self-sustaining, we sell it for a handsome profit and move on. Only....”

“I haven’t sold you on it yet.”

“You need to get your costs down,” said Parvel, “and I’m afraid, with organizations like Hubble cutting back on flights, I don’t see how you can make this work. As for putting a whole city underground, why, just doing a casino and hotel is more expensive than building a space station.”

“It’s that old chicken and egg problem.” Clay shrugged and squeezed his lips into a wan smile. “I need the high rollers to draw attention and attract investors so I can build my casino, but I need the casino to attract the high rollers.” Then he chuckled. “Maybe the Hubble Research Institute would like to invest. That way my casino could fund your array and you wouldn’t have to leave.”

Nancy closed her eyes and considered what Frank would say. “I doubt it. All the funding is going into the new space-based arrays.”

“Well, you can always come and work for me.”

Nancy leant back and shook her head. “And be a glorified card dealer? No thanks.” She reached out to caress the rock wall. “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. There’s so much to discover.... Just imagine what these rocks could tell us?”

“What if I create a new position for you? How about resident scientist? The pay’s not much and the way things are going job security isn’t high. What do you say?”

Scientist in residence? It had a nice ring to it, but what kind of science could she do in a tourist resort — a small tourist resort? Still, it meant she could delay leaving a little longer. Nancy caught herself smiling at Clay and looked away. No. She was a real scientist—

“Hey!”

Nancy rolled over and her torch-beam picked out Jasmine’s helmet, poking up. “Guess what we’ve discovered? It’s amazing! You have to come and see it.” She went to duck back the way she had come, but Nancy caught her arm. “Oh no you don’t.” Jasmine frowned, then clambered out backwards.

Al followed behind her. “There’s a low tunnel through here. It looks like a fracture zone.”

“And it leads onto this big round tunnel!” Jasmine’s voice bubbled over the comm link. “I can’t wait to explore it. Al, you’re blocking the way.”

Nancy held on as Jasmine tried to pull free. “If anyone’s going to do any exploring from now on, it’s me.” She felt a sudden exhilaration, a release as if from the straightjacket of conformity. All her training said this was wrong. The risk was too great. But if that were the case, no one would have climbed Everest. This was her one chance to climb her Everest and she wasn’t going to miss it.

“That’s right,” said Al. “We’ll—”

“I wasn’t including you.” Nancy eased herself under Jasmine and turned to Al. “Now show me this tunnel.”

“It’s not fair!” Jasmine whined. “I found it.”

Nancy’s pulse quickened. This was what she had always dreamed of from when she had first stared up at the Moon in wonder. She pulled herself after Al, dipping down and twisting sideways to get through into a horizontal crevice with a wide, ovoid cross-section. Shards of rock threatened from both sides, but the ragged ceiling and rubble on the floor left a safe path down the center. The small fountains of dust that the tips of Al’s boots kicked up, arced up and over in graceful parabolas and scattered her torch-beam. She could just make out her hands, stretched out before her. At least the low gravity made the going easy. She clawed her way along with fingers and boots to where the crevice broke through into the side of a tubular tunnel, big enough to stand in. She sucked in a breath and tried to calm her thumping heart.

Clay crawled out from behind her. “Wow!” he managed in a breathless voice. “This is incredible.”

“It must be a lava tube,” said Nancy. She stroked the smooth lumps and nodules on the wall and tried to imagine what their texture would feel like against her fingertips.

Jasmine slid in, followed by Miranda and Parvel, and tried to push past Al where the tunnel sloped away, but he caught hold. “Wait!”

She twisted her arm, trying to break free. “I’m not a child, you know!”

“Then stop acting like one.”

She pulled back and hunched down beside Miranda. “He’s worse than dad,” she huffed.

“Thank you!” Parvel patted Al’s shoulder, then dropped into a sitting position next to Jasmine. “Now, young woman! It’s time you started acting sensible, like Nancy.”

Nancy stared down the tube and didn’t feel like acting sensible at all. Sensible meant going by the book. They should stay here and then report this when they got back so that others could come and explore while following all the correct procedures and with a proper plan in place. And back on Earth, their reports could rub it in, what she had missed out on. All because she was sensible.

She pushed off toward where the tube curved away. “I’m just going to have a look. You should all stay here. I won’t go far.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Clay. “For safety.”

The tube curved left, then right, and dipped at a gentle grade before blackness marked its end. At the edge, Nancy knelt down on one knee and played her torch-beam out into an immense cavern as Clay rested his hand on her shoulder to steady her. Her breath caught in her throat. It was a cathedral and she was the first to see it. She wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time. Did Columbus feel like this when he discovered the Americas? Her torch-beam danced over where the adjacent wall curved away and she picked out great fissures that split the rock all the way down from the arched ceiling far above to the jumbled rock not far below.

From behind, more torch-beams joined in and tiny dots played over the wall on the far side.

“This is incredible,” Parvel murmured.

“Can I get through?” Jasmine demanded.

“No,” said Miranda.

“It must be an ancient lava reservoir,” said Al, “probably drained billions of years ago when the maria were formed. At a guess, I’d say it must be ... oh, a kilometer across.”

Nancy shook her head. So much for them staying put. She pulled out her laser range finder and pinged her spotlight. “Eight thirty-seven,” she read off. “That’s the last time I listen to you, Al.”

Clay chuckled. “I would hate to buy real estate off you.”

Al shrugged. “It’s hard to judge, but I guess that makes the roof about two, three-hundred meters up.”

“It looks like the walls must have collapsed.” Nancy played her torchlight over the floor. “Maybe when the crater was formed. Look at all the rubble. Some of those slabs are huge.” As her beam played over the drab rock, something gleamed for an instant. “What’s that?”

She jerked her beam back and eased it back and forth along the base of a pile of boulders and shattered rock. And stopped. “There.” Something glistened in her torchlight and her mouth went dry.

“Let’s find out.” Clay played his torch-beam over a pile of broken rock heaped against the wall just below them. Halfway down, a large slab bridged the gap to the boulders.

Nancy picked her way down, then knelt and brushed away some pieces of rock. Her hand trembled. All the explorers and scientists she admired, they’d all had a moment like this and looked upon something that no one else had — a discovery that had changed the world. Her dreams, ever since childhood, had been filled with moments like this. A wish she thought would never come true. “It looks like glass,” she managed to mutter.

Clay squatted next to her and ran a finger across the clear surface. “No,” he whispered, his voice filled with awe. “It’s ice.” He looked up to stare into her eyes and his hands trembled as he grabbed her arms. “It’s ice! Can you believe it? This is worth more than gold or diamonds.”

He let go and brushed away more rock and dust. “It’s everywhere,” he muttered, twisting and brushing away more debris. “It’s like this cavern was flooded and then froze. All this rock, it’s sitting on top.”

“Perhaps,” Nancy caressed her discovery with her trembling, gloved hand, “when the crater was formed the heat must have melted an aquifer and the water flowed through the fractures into here.”

“I thought the moon was supposed to be bone dry.”

“That’s the general consensus, although there is a growing opinion that some may have been trapped deep inside when the Moon formed.” She rapped the hard surface with her knuckles. It felt solid, a hundreds-of-meters deep kind of solid. “The latest theory is that if the Earth’s water was delivered by comets, some must have hit the early Moon and their cores may have been buried deep enough to trap some water. Seismic studies have hinted there might be ice, but if there is, its kilometers deep. This must come from—”

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Clay said, his voice a hushed whisper filled with excitement.

“This is proof!”

No. This means I can reduce my costs. I won’t have to ship water, or oxygen.”

“And rocket fuel! We can fuel shuttles from the Moon.”

The way to Clay’s dream lay open and so too was her way back — if the price to come back meant being a tourist. Then so be it. She broke into a grin as Clay picked up a rock shard and smashed it into the ice, sending tiny chips flying. Stupid tourists? Why not?

“Just think.” He grunted and took another swipe. “We’ll be rich. Lunar tycoons.”

“We?” Nancy asked. But Clay didn’t answer as he chipped away at the ice.

Al squeezed through the airlock’s small doorway and stood to the side like a doorman to welcome their guests. “Welcome to Farside Tourist Resort,” he announced in a deep formal voice as the tourists filed into the control room. Nancy studied them as they squeezed in. The rush from her discovery had faded now that she was back in the real world, but there was still a background buzz she was sure would never leave her.

Jasmine pulled off her helmet and thrust it at Al. “Look after this well, my good man, and there will be a generous tip waiting for you. In fact I’ll double it if you can get me something to eat straight away.”

Al bowed and proffered an arm. “Follow me, m’lady.” Jasmine giggled at Al’s solemn face as he squeezed past Miranda.

“I must say, it is quite small,” said Miranda.

Nancy leant past her and poked Parvel to stop him pressing against the main panel and inadvertently pressing some switches. “Please be careful.” Once again she had responsibilities and people to answer to. With a grunt, he moved. “Normally there are only two of us here. I’m afraid you can’t stay long. The station isn’t designed to cater for so many people.”

“We’ll see what this water is like and then we’ll go.” Clay turned to Miranda. “I hope this makes you appreciate Lunar Getaways’ accommodation.”

“Have I ever complained?”

“Not in words.” He held up a bag of ice chips to Nancy. “The kitchen?”

She led him through into a narrow room where, with a feral intensity, Jasmine tore at a package. Nancy pointed at a tattered box with a window in its side. “Microwave.” She rummaged through a cupboard and pulled out a green bowl. “This should do.”

“You eat this!” Jasmine pulled a face and forced herself to swallow. “And I thought we had it tough.”

Nancy studied Clay as he filled the bowl half full with ice, put it in the microwave and pressed “Defrost”. There was an earnestness and an intriguing delight in his face as he stared through the window, watching the ice melt. “That cavern is incredible. What a great place to build a city. Can’t you see it?”

“Luna Vegas?”

Clay chuckled. “Great name, isn’t it?”

It sounded like blasphemy and yet.... Nancy stared at the bowl, turning round and pondered the future. All the scientists were pulling out with the downturn in the world economy. Science on its own wasn’t enough. She sucked in her lips. Maybe Clay’s dream was the future. But what would the moon be like with tourists tramping everywhere? Alive. And her cathedral was too magnificent not to be shared. So long as it wasn’t desecrated. She glanced at Clay. “But if you’re mining the ice...?”

“I’ll leave the surface intact. We can drill down and mine there.” He turned to Nancy, his eyes shining with a religious fervor. “Just imagine it. A ring of hotels and casinos ... plazas overlooking a frozen lake lit from below. Every building a dazzling neon display ... laser light shows dancing on the ceiling. Can you see it? Thousands of delighted tourists skating on the lake. We can do it!”

“We?”

“Don’t you want to?”

Nancy hesitated. “But I’m an astronomer. What about Farside? With all those shuttles, there could be electronic interference. And the vibrations from the mining—”

“Nancy.” Clay touched her hand, caressed her fingers through his gloves. Her skin tingled. “I thought you wanted to stay. I thought we shared....” His hand slipped away. The microwave pinged before she could reply.

“Uh,” she swallowed to clear her throat, “I ... we don’t have many cups, but I’ve got some more bowls. They’ll have to do.”

“Oh! I can’t eat this, I need a drink.”

Clay doled out the precious liquid and passed the cups and bowls out. He went to take a sip, but Nancy stopped his arm. “Are you sure it’s safe? You don’t know what might be dissolved in it. I think you should send it to a lab and get it analyzed first.”

“Nancy,” Clay stared deep into her eyes, “sometimes you have to take a risk.” He put the cup to his lips.

Water? Is that all you’ve got?”

“Jasmine!” Parvel cried out.

Nancy jerked round to see Jasmine lower her empty cup.

“What?” she asked with a touch of tremolo in her bravado.

Clay chuckled, took a sip and swirled the water around in his mouth. “Mmmm.” With a triumphant smile, he swallowed and turned to the others. “It has a unique taste.” He raised his cup. “Try it.”

The others hesitated and then, looking at each other, took a sip. Even Al. Nancy raised her bowl to her lips — it was crazy. What if it poisoned them? Someone should refrain just in case. It was a pointless risk—

She sucked in a sharp breath. Look where not taking risks had got her. Life, she realized, was all about taking risks. She wouldn’t be standing on the Moon if others hadn’t taken risks. And the risk she had taken in that cave, she had never felt so alive. She took a sip and swirled it around in her mouth. There was no bitter taste, no metallic sensation. Nothing odd.

With a so-be-it shrug to Clay, she swallowed. “It tastes like ordinary water. What’s so special about it?”

“No, Clay is right!” Parvel tipped his cup to Clay.

“It tastes of the Moon,” said Clay.

“Imagine what people will pay for that unique taste,” said Parvel.

“Spring water from the Moon,” added Miranda, “I love it.”

“I know!” Clay’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “We can call it Luna Aqua! Think of the marketing potential.”

“But who would want to drink water from the Moon?” Nancy looked from Clay to Parvel. Ship water to the Earth? It was like shipping ice to Alaska to sell to the Eskimos. Crazy. “It tastes like water, and it would be incredibly expensive.”

“Precisely,” said Parvel. “The demand will be huge for such a rare product, and we will control the supply.”

Nancy frowned at Clay. Were people really that stupid? She was a scientist, used to dealing with rational people. Skeptical and not easily taken in.

Clay winked at her. “Hell, with the profit we’ll make, I think we could afford to build you an array much better than this place. Whatever you want.” He raised his cup to her. “How does the Nancy Lawford Astronomical Array sound?”

Nancy blinked and held her breath. Her own array? She could stay here? With Clay? Her phone rang.

“Nancy? It’s Frank. We’re receiving some unusual environmental telemetry. Elevated CO2, H2O, temperature. Is there a problem?”

“No, Frank, just some visitors.”

“Well, keep a tab on those levels. Are you packed? Your shuttle will be arriving soon.” His voice took on an optimistic note. “I can’t promise anything yet, but I might be able to squeeze some extra funds to make up for your lost time. Are you ready to come home?”

She glanced over Clay’s shoulder at Al, looking for an answer. Al shrugged and offered a wry smile. Only she could make the decision.

Sometimes you have to take a risk.

What risk?

“I am home,” she said to Frank and hung up. With that she took another sip. “Mmmm, it does taste special.” She smiled and raised her bowl to Clay.


The End