MOONSHOT

Short story

Professor Charma Toukley watched the Earth swim into view. The planet slipped across the huge round skylight, as if the circular window itself was an eclipsing orb.

How blue Earth looked.

Well, blue to a point – blue from the 30th parallel to the north and south poles.

But the Tropics, the Equator, was a catastrophic arc – a belt of storms. Charma didn’t enjoy that view, however magisterial.

Instead, the sight made her feel untethered. Charma was so distant now from home, her husband, from her old life. If it wasn’t for the gravity skin she wore under her fleece, she’d be finding it hard to stay put on the observatory floor.

The observatory was a large atrium buzzing with tech and techHeads. There was a hum of conversation. The reinforced glassplex bubble allowed for a grand view of the heavens – back to Charma Toukley’s own planet and beyond.

She grimaced at the sight of the white porridge – the lumpy balls of thick white cloud which swaddled the middle third of the sphere.  The porridge was pocked with holes. Barely discernable from the distance, but there they were, eyes staring back. Malevolent eyes. Eyes of storms swirling in their ferocity. A daisy-chain of destruction.

Two of the coagulated swirls over the Atlantic stood out, as the sun lit her home with ferocious daylight.

She looked at the instruments and tek images on surrounding screens – measuring the horror of what was unfolding.

Checking dials & parsing data wasn’t really her job. That was young Benjamin’s, standing beside her. She’d just been passing the atrium, walking towards her own work, and had popped in for the view.

As one of the Moonshot’s Senior Execs, she had professional heft, and demanded respect. Young Ben was a metHead, as meteorologists were fondly tagged, and was stationed in the observatory for his entire shift, watching the data. Charma glanced sideways at his focused eyes and blondish three day growth.

Charma wasn’t so young. In her mid 50’s now, the oldest of the Moon’s permanent population. The Moonshot were a close bunch, 200 or so scientists, archivists, tekHeads, metHeads, gaffers and loaders. Charma’s job was Head Archivist – Antiquities, tho’ in the Atrium she and most of the Moonshot were fixated on the near future.

She looked back up at the two giant storms.

“How are Charybdis and Scylla today, Benjamin?” she asked.

“Still expanding too quick, Prof. Too much hot moist keeps blowing up the ocean. Right now there are 17 significant cyclonic events on either side of the ‘quator. The two we’ve all been watching mid-Atlantic…” Ben pointed at “exhibit A”, floating above their heads, “… those big Atlantic storms are about to meld, as expected. As per yesterday’s report.”

Ben was once Australian, but he was now of the Moonshot too.

She watched the two vast swirls of porridge with their tellTale cyclonic eyes, lit by the daytime sun. She knew what it meant. From the Atrium, the view was serene. The Coriolis effect, the clockwise and counterclockwise of the clouds was beautiful from 385,000 kliks distant. Charybdis was to the South. Scylla hung over the North East Caribbean. All her colleagues had, for days, been hypnotized by the two merging storm systems, watching the unfolding catastrophe.

So, for that matter, had everyone on the Earth.

“The east coast of the USA, what’s left of it, will cop the worst …” he glanced at a holograph of green and yellow light rising from the panel, “ … in 28 hours.”

“Which bit?”

“The old Carolinas.”

“Never been there,” she said. The old Carolinas would sadly remain a mystery.

“Charybdis and Scylla have become the biggest storm system yet,” the metHead said. “The EarthSide meeja is calling the whole system “Charylla” now.”

“This is appalling, Benny, isn’t it?” she added in her low voice – low both in timbre and volume.

“Yep,” said Ben, glancing down at the slim Indonesian woman standing beside him. Only Prof Toukley called him “Benny”, and she knew he accepted the name as a term of endearment. Tho’ not part of her nature, she tried to be a little bit motherly to the younger Moonshot – as she sometimes boasted “I’m the oldest woman in the house,” and that meant she was the matriarch – which was important. She missed her own matriarchs terribly.

“No chance the system will veer towards England?”

Ben knew Prof Toukley’s husband, Roger, lived in London and he murmured a soothing “No. No chance.”

She smiled at him, trying to feel positive. He was a nice young man. Could do with that shave, she thought. Would make him much more handsome. She was attracted to clean cut and neat. No doubt, like her, he’d worked a few 18 hour shifts in a row. Anyway, she couldn’t criticize too much. Her black hair with its few streaks of silver was embarrassingly dirty.

Husband Roger was obsessively clean cut, up there in London, with those blue eyes which were growing a bit misty. She felt one of those familiar lurches in her heart and decided to book a personal scope when a slot was available, to just touch base with him, even if she couldn’t physically reach out and feel his skin. Then she turned to Ben again.

“I’m Watch Captain for all Archive matters today,” Charma murmured, “so keep me posted.”

“Why? Whassup?”

“All other Senior Archivists are indisposed, one way or another. So let me know if anything changes.”

She couldn’t bear thinking about the storm any longer. Took one last look at the young scientist’s handsome face. Pondering Ben’s strong jawline was an attempt at avoiding darker thoughts, she knew.

“I’d better set to work,” and smiling, she headed into to the hollowed out Moon.

“Seeya, Prof,” Ben said with a limp wave.

On the way back through the atrium, Charma nodded to a couple more techHeads and metHeads, and then reached a long downward sloping green-lit corridor, illumined by a million tiny roof light refractors. The whole facility was bathed in an eerie ambience, bounced from the Sun or Earth. She found it all off-putting. The passage joined a tunnel which led to the archives warehouses under the moonrock, built in a series of augmented caverns, safe from all but the worst meteor strike.

Holding a rail, she clanged down a steel companionway to her workPod in the cave complex.

The old Moonbase was one of those early 21st century international vanity projects built by a couple of trillionaires. The existence of the old structure gave Charma’s team a head start in the race against the Earth’s climate which had accelerated way out of control until the whole of human existence was deemed: “severely compromised” by the United Nations.

Those old Americans and Chinese plutocrats had tunneled the original facility well before the big stepchange. The gloomy green corridor which led to the caverns was 40 years old. Over the past three years, the caves had been widened, hardened and sealed to accommodate the Moonshot’s dataRacks, and workpods, alongside her own Hard Copy warehouses. Then came the workers.

Most of the Moonshot download was digital – but Charma Toukley ran the Hard Copy project. Analogue stuff that came via containers in the Ramjjet shuttles. Objects. Books. Treasures to bury.

Digital and analogue – the International Download into their MoonBank was binary. A long unwinding – as the Chair of her Committee – had called it. Unwinding of the Earth’s intellectual wealth (down there), then twined into the Moon’s dataBanks.

Charma had been vice chair of the UNESCO Committee for the Preservation of All Human Culture and Cultural Objects in Totality– POAHCACOIT – a ludicrous acronym which had been shortened to PHC and then simply, the Moonshot Project. Moonshot was the precautionary principle in high action. Wasn’t clear if the encroaching cloud would consume the planet, or stabilize somehow, but the Moonshot committee decision was to plan for the worst.

The Moonshot team prepared then streamed, in digital form, all human knowledge into the MoonBank which they’d built and fired up over the past 4 years. At the same time the most priceless artefacts from the planet were evacuated, just in case.

Indonesian by birth, Charma Toukley, had trained in Paris and Singapore and had worked in museums around the world. Her maiden name had been Utami and like her first name, she’d had a charmed life. The job she was doing now, with all the risks, was spectacular. In rescuing humanity’s record, she had become became the most famous museum curator in history.

A famous OLD curator she thought. Her knees hurt.

She grimaced again at both her cloud of pessimism and the physical discomfort of walking. The skinsuit with its mass enhancer unit kept her grounded, but felt heavy – like she was pushing through thick water. Her small frame worked hard to move and in fact the Moonshot task was overall a bit like that – pushing against invisible obstacles such as nationalism, ignorance and fear.

The physical effort was also a test. She may be famous, but how tough her living conditions now?

The lunar environment was extreme. Charma was deeply committed to the project and knew in her heart every day was worth it – despite the physical discomforts. She lived in a sorry mess of existential worry and joint pain. What a combo! Plus those weird side effects of low grav; horrible sleep cycles, because a day without sun up and sundown was no longer a day; dessicated skin from dry air pumped thru ducts; the usually monotonous, tasteless food and vitamin d supplements, and the cheek-by-jowl life with 200 others.

Life was forever indoors – it was no place for claustrophobes in the dusty cool crannies of the deader than dead planetoid, with three viewing ports, comms whiskers and loading dock  the only structures which stuck above the surface. Hers was a life of the buried.

That morning, before dropping in on Benny she’d cracked hard on the stretch machines in the fitness centre and cycled thru an hour’s worth of exercise. She would now work a long day in the suit, before a shower and hotBunking for a few hours’ sleep in the womens’ dorm. The price of her Service was loss of privacy too. Imagine at her age, and after such a distinguished museums career, hot bunking with the girls.

That swirl of the melding storm hardened her resolve, but every day brought challenges. And to confirm this thought, one of the younger archivists stopped her in the corridor just outside her workpod. He was an o so young American boy, short brown hair, pale eyes, skin the white pallor of a man deprived of sunlight, like a cave fish.

Selamat pagi, Professor Toukley,” he said, “and er … we’ve been terrabitten again.”

“Oh, no,” she said.

Terrabitten, she thought. Stupid word, but said it all.

And she was responsible, as current Watch Captain, for the entire archive operation, including digital. She was expected to sort the sitch.

Javier Rubica, Head Archivist – Digital, was catching some sleep after 39 hours “on the trot” (as husband Roger would have said), and the Archivists of the Seed and DNA banks, the two BioBank Profs were offline – plunged into a three day review with Earthside regarding irregularities around their caches. Both were stuck in a comms pod, talking to EarthSide and unable to deal with the mundane.

The Seed Bank, with seeds of every botanical species, had always been a nightmare. At the start of the trouble, more than half a century ago the EarthSide repository kept getting flooded and damaged by melting permafrost.

Streaming the DNA sequences for every plant on earth, up to the hard racks in the archives was fraught. Most human/higher order animals sequences were already locked down, being better mapped over the last century, but plants … and all those pesky insects! The genetic maps were not all there.

Today’s trouble was merely a broken streaming link.

“Have you engaged a serial reset?” Charma asked the junior, who’s pale eyes bored into her with a factor of 10 times tiredness.

“Doing it now. The Orthodox Christian Churches were streaming their knowledge cohort and the link just died. Their end.”

“Oh no!” said Charma. “Not the Orthodox Religions’ cache! I thought they were already locked?”

Had been a struggle, getting the Orthodox Churches – in fact any fundamental religions at all – to grasp the necessity of the Moonshot project. The probability the world could turn into one big everlasting planetary storm, like Venus, or Jupiter, was flatly disbelieved by all the Orthodox leaders – Syrian, Greek, Russian, Ethiopian, Oklahoman, Copts.

All of them.

Meant the Earth based project workers for Moonshot had to train reluctant, unbelieving priests and nuns to scan and store everything, history, doctrines, the arguments and ancient schisms, the art.

To wrest for example, the priceless Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent from out the Eastern orthodox monastery in Sinai and load it on a Ramjjet shuttle to the Moon for safekeeping in Charma Toukley’s Hard Copy warehouse.

Quite a brainSnap for deeply conservative priests, so it’d been a three year haul of earnest cajole thru deteriorating weather. Floods and stormwinds across the Middle East and North Africa finally persuaded the full participation of the Orthodox Churches.

Even to reach the monastery where the Icon of the Ladder was located, Earthbased Moonshot project workers fought both the elements and religiosity. No-one knew whether the Monastery of the God-Trodden would survive. Wasn’t going to be inundated – but the storms banging out of the Arabian Sea were changing the whole terrain on the Sinai Peninsula and dangerous mudslides were everpresent.

Charma Toukley had fretted on all those travails.

According to the Orthodox Church, along with the rest of Christianity, the world wasn’t meant to end in storms and floods. The flood was at the beginning of the Bible, handled effectively by Noah. For the Christians, this was the central bone of contention – the way the world ended. The Christian God of the Bible had predicted a different end of the world – a fiery end. With the Beast.

Charma looked at the boy.

“That’s terrible that we terrabit the link. Those Priests were so difficult in the first place. They may see it as a sign from God. I should scope the Archbishop.”

“I don’t even know why we ever included the Orthoes in the upload,” said the junior.

“Don’t you ever say that,” Charma chided. “Nothing is excluded. The Sum of All. That’s the order.”

“The sum of all. And the all of some,” said the cheeky junior.

Looked underage to be Moonshot, but she knew he was in his twenties, and like her, had fought for the privilege of his job. She smiled for the first time that morning.

“I’ll be in my work pod, D’Artagnan. Tell me as soon as link is reestablished.”

She immediately scoped the Geneva office to seek the status of the Orthodox Archbishops and queried whether she should directly contact them.

“No, Professor,” her Earthside counterpart said, “We’re already handling, thru the young Greek Orthodox Priest, Father Mikos – he’s on staff.”

“That’s disappointing, Paul. I enjoy a crisis negotiation,” she said. Paul smiled and waved his hand in mock surrender. 

“All being taken care of,” he added.

They then discussed Charylla for a few minutes, and scoped off.

Charma returned to her upFiles on the screen, still worrying the worst – that the “on side Priest” would fail and the Orthodox Churches would go cold.

“We’ve come so far,” she muttered.

Two weeks ago she’d helped unload the Treasures of the Orthodox Church after the Ramjjet shuttle had landed. She’d held the actual Icon of Ladder of Divine Ascent in her gloved hands. Against the gold leaf background, she’s admired the struggling monks motoring up the 30 rungs towards heaven, each symbolizing a step in their ascetic journey. At the top of the achingly steep ladder, the truly pious and learned monks would be rewarded – a blessing from the Lord on a cloud. A big hug of redemption. Wayward monks were falling to disgrace, into Hell, pronged off the ladder by charcoal black devils which hovered in the void. All the monks were blokes, all in 12th Century habits.

Charma smiled again – to herself. She’d got to the top of the ladder, the 30 rungs of professional achievement, and was looking down at the world in peril, that sinful world, left behind.

“The Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden,” she muttered again. “What a name.”

In the vast dry, airless caverns under the Moon’s surface, they’d stored the God-Trodden’s library of codices, vellum scrolls, and icons. Bleakly optimistic that sometime in the future when the climate might stabilize, the all clear would come thru. Then the treasures would be returned to Earth and the intellectual descendants of the current Orthodox monks could place them back, hopefully in the same monastery. 

Hopefully. Noone really knew what was going to happen.

Another junior stuck her head in. This time it was Britta, a remarkable young curator who Charma adored.

Salamat pagi,  Professor Can I get you a mug of kopi or something?” Britta adored Charma as well.

“Yes please, one sugar today, thanks Britta,” Charma answered. “Any news on that link?”

“Yes Professor. We’re hooked in again and streaming.” Britta sounded anxious, she had an oval Skandi face, and short blonde hair.

“Even the Orthoes are now persuaded to act quick, with that … Charylla storm. The vids are beaming live from the US coast with 300 klik gusts and the worst hasn’t even reached them. The Greek Archbishop couldn’t authorize the resend quick enough.”

“That’s fine work,” said Charma as calmly as possible.

“Thankyou.”

Britta disappeared to the galley to fire up the kopi machine and Charma returned to the email, leaning forward, reading everything carefully.

CharmaBots would be dealing with the thousands of items of fan mail but a few had got through the botWall. Her work eMissives were plentiful, and she was fixed on the ones that detailed the next Hard Copy shipment from the Helsinki Ramjjet ‘Drome.

The treasures of the Hermitage Museum.

Top treasures were being hastily loaded into containers at St Petersburg railed to the Helsinki ‘Drome and consigned to space.

Only 2 tonnes allowed per container, and limited containers. The Ramjjet would shuttle material to the Orbital Transfer Station above Earth and then her treasures would be loaded onto the MoonTrain which with a maximum of 6 cargoHauls hooked behind and towed 300,000 ks across the void to safety.

To lose weight, magnificent Renaissance and Baroque frames were stripped and stored back on Earth, while the canvasses, Reubens, Titians, Chagalls,  were screened and rolled and slotted in, along with the Faberge eggs and jewelry.

There would also be construction gear, hard drive units, bioMatter and more staff as the Moon project expanded.

Once the Russians were done and dusted, the huge Engineering package would follow. Every sketch, plan, blueprint, and digital model that the Earthside team could find, centuries of product, design, genius. The engineering package was going to take weeks to stream and she knew she’d be bored, but it had to be lodged. There’d be some books and historic paperBased plans, but most of the engineering content was digitised.

Then would come material culture of Amazon tribes, and then the huge Chinese consignment which would take her team months.

Britta came in again and plonked the mug on Charma’s desk. She looked grim and Charma knew the look.

“Please sit down Britta. You worried about family again, aren’t you?”

The girl nodded. Must have been in her late 20’s, whipstrong and lean from their programmed meals and living in her grav suit, which was like permanently pumping iron.

“Even before anyone’s dead yet, I have survivor guilt,” said Britta. She looked miserable.

There were plenty of dead. She was just referring to her nearest and dearest who were lucky, so far.

“And I don’t even know if I’ll survive up here. It’s torturous!”

Britta was tense. Didn’t cry, but her grey eyes were searching her boss’s face, then distractedly flicking to the wall behind Charma.

Part of Charma’s job was to keep the team rolling, even with the psychological horror of watching the  effect of storm acceleration on the planet. Nothing was hidden from the Moonshot. The crew all saw the meejja vids when off duty, read death toll reports on their personal devices. Vids of mass panic, people streaming north and south out of the belt of storms. Towards Canada, Russia, Southern Australia, Chile. Wholescale evacuations of sinking islands, coastal cities.

“Your family are Swedish, aren’t they?”

“They’ve moved upland of course.”

“So they’re safe?”

“As can be expected.”

“My husband is still in London,” Charma said. “He won’t leave. I don’t understand what is wrong with him. ”

“The other Professor Toukley?”

“Yes, Roger. I scope him every other night. Seems to think he’ll be okay – I keep telling him to move to higher ground in Wales, but he won’t listen.”

“London’s very low lying,” said Britta, “what with the expected storm surges. I know they’ve enhanced the Thames barrages.”

“Roger says the other side of the Atlantic is for the chop. Says the climate confluence is aimed there. That’s what he says. Sweden and England are much, much safer. He loves London too much, but I wonder for his survival, really. He’s old. Ten years older than me. The rest of my family, brothers and sisters, are in Indonesia of course, and have moved to my old house in Bogor. Uplanders, just like yours. Luckily they are from Java and not further east.”

The weird vagaries of the Cloud meant that “Further East”, along the equator, was turning into a cataclysm while western Indonesia, Java and Sumatra were less affected.

Britta again looked up behind Charma, at the ancient portion of fresco – a picture of ‘Sappho’ – perched on her shelf.

Charma had allowed each of the antiquity staff to choose a precious artwork for their work pod, out of a container, both as a morale booster – and reminder of their mission. After all, the Moon was a big archive and the atmos and temp were stabilized across the buildings to suit the project.

Britta had chosen a Goya (a nice one). Charma had chosen the ancient Roman portrait.

“I actually came in to look at her again,” confessed Britta. “She makes me feel so calm.”

“Me too. You know it’s not really Sappho? It’s a Roman from Pompeii. It’s a most beautiful fresco of an intelligent young woman. A lesson to us all that whatever happens, others will arrive from the future and dig through the past and they’ll understand that even tho’ a civilisation is gone, the dead were exactly like them, whether it’s 60 ad or 2078 or 3009.”

“We won’t be gone, will we?” asked Britta.

Charma ignored the question. No point in feeding these worries (tho’ she’d dug in a bit far already, what with her own fears for Roger). Charma knew she ought to reinforce the Moonshot’s mission statement to allay the young curator’s nascent panic.

“Look at the Roman girl. Shiny intelligent eyes. She’s about to write something on the wax tablet. Her hair net is beautifully set and catches her curls. Chunky bling loop earrings. She’s une fille élégante, yet there’s a gravitas about her – I suppose that’s why people presumed she was a poet, but she could have been about to write anything, or maybe draw the artist in front of her.”

Charma looked at Britta’s shining eyes, as the young woman contemplated the work. She clearly felt kindred to the young Pompeiian, as did Charma who saw the Roman girl as her o so young self. She gave Britta a meditative moment.

“I should paint a portrait of you as well,” Charma added, chuckling. “Pop it up beside Sappho here.”

Britta smiled.

The boy who Charma had called D’artagnan stuck his head thru the door and said: “The Orthoe upload is complete, Prof. We’re about to prep the Russian archives now: The whole Tsarist era, then Revolutionary thru to Contemporary. The St Petersburg people say the weather is quite calm there at the moment. Blue skies. Will take a coupla days of stream once the links connect. They’ve prepared a lotta material. The abstracts are coming thru thick and fast.”

“Thankyou,” said Charma.

“Let the team know from me – good work with the Orthodox Churches. And Britta, dear, you’d better get back to work.  Plenty to do, preserving our human legacy.” (Reinforcing the mission, again.)

“Yes boss,” Britta said as she took one last look at Sappho, stood, and headed out to the warehouses.

Why, oh why, Charma pondered, had she overegged the family thing in her convo with Britta, and thrown her own fears on the fire?

Because of Roger.

Of course, of course. She was deeply worried about her husband. Supposedly retired, he still battled his way through the weather and took classes at the London School of Economics. She missed his chuckle and his hearty English cooking, tho’ he was pretty good on beef rendang too (but never as good as her).

She missed his touch, his warmth and his jokes. When the decision was made by the committee, and Charma had told Roger she was not retiring, but going to the Moon for the foreseeable future, he’d held that stiff British upper lip, and nodded.

“I knew you’d go. You have to do this, I know.”

She’d looked at his sad mouth. Like an emerging net, Roger’s face had started to catch old age. Among those kindly wrinkles there was not a single angry one. The lines were hard to see tho’, unless she nuzzled him close. Roger’s skin was soft and far too white, like so many academics who’d forever existed indoors. In the past, she’d made the silly joke about albino cave fish, but she didn’t on that day. They were both too sad for jokes.

He’d clasped her in a bear hug for what seemed a very long time.

“I knew you’d go,” he repeated sadly, after releasing her.

Even tho’ he’d known, Roger still seemed stunned.
Implied in his reaction, she supposed, was a hope that as an Indonesian wife, she wouldn’t leave. She would walk the traditional path beside him. But in the end, she was the best person for the job and that was that.

What irony. She was now much safer than Roger, because that was what the Moonshot was about. The archive was designed to last lifetimes, air generated, food grown. They even had a massive missile defence shield for meteors.

The youthful cadre of technicians and archivists were potential seeds of a new population, in case Earth  was wiped clean and then somehow later stabilized. The makings of a new human race hunkered down in this dusty airless bolt-hole above their wasted planet.

The Moonshot were still constructing the facility, to hold many more things and people.

If she couldn’t return? Well, if she couldn’t, and when Charma’s time came, she’d be composted along with all the other organic matter.

The young would go on.

*

Much later in this endless Moon day, after her long shift, she stopped again in the busy observatory, among a crowd now, and looked at the Earth hanging above with the monster storm, Charylla.

Well named, she thought.

In the massive clouds sworls, the two black cyclonic eyes were almost as one, as Charybdis ate Scylla and powered up. The storms, just east of the Caribbean, were moving imperceptibly north west towards the Carolinas, while across the Atlantic, Western Europe and Nigeria were obscured in the cloudCover.

Charma had been reassured yet again by young Benny that Europe and Africa were well to the fringe of the blow. Quite a number of offDuty MoonShot personnel stood with her in the Atrium, looking up, looking worried.

Beside her, one man’s cheeks were smeared with tears, tinted red and green by the technical lighting.

She felt tired. Felt her age. She felt all wisdom was under threat. Late in her shift, the gravity suit crushed her shoulders, pressed against her legs and aching knees. Charma Toukley knew she was exhausted and had to sleep, but she couldn’t help but look at Charylla for a few minutes more, and murmur empty optimisms to her colleagues, before moving off and collapsing in her dormitory bed.

Roger would be there, under the north east quadrant of the swirl, asleep in their old bed in the Islington terrace. A meek ripple of the main event, there’d be rain and gusts rattling their third floor windows, crumbing the ancient putty. But he was safe for now. She knew chaos would visit Roger some other time.

And she would never see him again..