A short story based on the image shown
from a prompt from Writers Unite! – September 2019
A short story by Lynn Miclea
Alicia stared at the special communications receiver. Why wasn’t he calling? Her husband had been at the lunar outpost for four months, and he had always called every day or two, even if it was just for a couple minutes at a time. But now it had been a full week without Drew calling at all, and it worried her.
Was he okay? Was he injured? Sick? Did he need help? Or was it a simple malfunction of the Earth-Moon-Earth device? The EME communication device had worked well until now. Moon bounce, the radio communications technique based on radio waves, had been reliable, and the slight echo delay didn’t bother her at all. What had gone wrong? There were two other men with him there at the space station on the moon, but none of them called. Her stomach churned with anxiety.
The scientists at NASA were frantic at the lack of communication from the space station. They continually tried to reach the men. After forty-eight hours with no contact, they finally received a brief message by Morse code using the landing lights at the landing pad, but then nothing. They tried everything they knew, but could not reach them and they heard nothing else. Now desperate, three days later, they contacted Alicia and brought her up to date.
They let her know what was happening and, as she had been trained, they asked her to be on standby for going to the moon if needed. Everyone was deeply concerned, and it intensified her own fears. If NASA had lost communication with them, there could be a real problem.
She had been working closely with Drew on all the schematics and configurations for fixing and improving the in-situ resource utilization unit, or ISRU. She knew his work inside out. And she had been trained and cleared as an astronaut as well. She desperately needed to go there. She was his partner in all aspects of his work, in addition to being his wife. If he was in trouble, she had to help him.
One day later, NASA called again and requested that she go to the moon, and she immediately agreed. She was the right person to go. If he needed help, whether with the work on the ISRU, the processor unit, rovers, robots, hydroponics, EME device, any of the other equipment, or even with something personal, she was the best person after Mitch and Steve, who were already there working with him.
After spending one full week in isolation to make sure she would not bring any diseases with her, the day was finally here. She felt nervous and fidgety. Anxiety flooded through her system. There was still no communication from Drew, and she desperately hoped he was okay. She hoped all three men were okay. She packed her research notes for what he was working on, food, change of clothes, and medical supplies. She sent an urgent prayer that her husband and his two colleagues were fine and not injured.
Gray clouds threatened rain on the morning of the launch, but they cleared by early afternoon, and the launch was on. Why was she so nervous? Something had to be wrong. She just felt it. She tried to ignore it, but the anxiety was insistent. She needed to be there as soon as possible.
“10 … 9 … 8 … 7 …” She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. “… 4 … 3 … 2 …” She gripped the armrest and squeezed. “… liftoff!” The rumble and shaking seemed to rattle every cell in her body, and the pressure was intense. Once it eased, all she could think about was her husband.
As soon as the shuttle was set down on the moon in the designated landing place, she double-checked and triple-checked all the components on her spacesuit and oxygen tank. Everything seemed to be okay.
Exiting the shuttle, her breathing reverberated in her ears, accompanied by the whoosh of her blood. It was incredibly exciting walking on the moon — a real thrill, and something she had always dreamed about. She wished she could enjoy and savor it instead of being in a hurry. Her steps were awkward and slow, and with the thin atmosphere and low gravity, each step bounced her up in the air. She almost fell several times. She tried to do hops like she had been taught, and that helped. She struggled to control her steps, doing the running hops, for the short distance to the modular station where Drew and the other two men worked. Please be okay, please be okay, she kept repeating to herself as she hopped forward.
After what seemed like a long time, but must have been just a few minutes, she entered the entry port to the building, closed the door to the airlock, and punched in the codes. She then shifted from foot to foot waiting for gravity, atmosphere, oxygen, temperature, and other necessary conditions to shift to Earth normal.
Finally! Alicia quickly peeled off her spacesuit and attachments, opened the door, and ran into the main lab of the module.
“Drew?” She looked around. Where was he? “Mitch? Steve? Drew?” Her voice grew louder and desperate.
There! Drew was slumped over one of the processors. Racing to get to him, she tripped on something but caught her balance. A pencil lay on the floor — that’s what she had tripped on. She ignored it and rushed to his side.
She quickly glanced around the room. Mitch and Steve were lying on the floor. Dried foam was around their mouths, and their faces were blue. Dead. What had killed them? Whatever it was, Drew had it too. “Drew!” she shouted to his pale, sweaty face. At least he was still alive.
He moaned, licked his lips, and opened his eyes. His pupils widened as he saw his wife in front of him.
“Drew, what happened? What is wrong?”
He moaned again, tried to speak, and coughed. He pointed to the computer.
Alicia wiggled the mouse and the monitor lit up to show a document on the screen. Her eyes quickly scanned it, catching key words — sick, weak, fever, coughing, headaches, EME communication out.
“Drew, what happened to you?” She squeezed his hand and then felt his forehead. He was burning up. “I need to get you home. You need medical attention.”
Drew’s head nodded slowly. “Wa… water…” he whispered hoarsely.
“Yes, of course.” Alicia ran to the small kitchen area, filled a glass with water, and brought it back, holding it to Drew’s parched lips. “Here, drink a few sips.”
He struggled to sit more upright and then sipped the water. Then he collapsed back onto the chair, his breathing rapid.
Alicia searched through her medical supplies. She knew she had brought antibiotics. Where were they? There they were! She took a few pills and brought them to her husband. “Drew, take these. They will help you.”
She held the back of his head as he sat forward slightly. She pushed the pills into his mouth, and he sipped more water and swallowed. Then he sighed and leaned back.
“Drew, did you finish the work on the ISRU? Did you do what you came here to do? Is it all done? Did it work?”
A flicker of a smile touched Drew’s lips. “Almost,” he whispered. “Last phase. Almost done. Couldn’t finish. Not much left … lost focus … couldn’t concentrate …”
Alicia moved to the computer. Drew’s notes sat next to the keyboard. She skimmed the notes and saw exactly where he was. She searched the folders on the computer. There. He had entered all the calculations and made the modifications except for the last part. It was so familiar — they had worked on this exact part together. And she knew precisely what was missing.
Should she take the time to finish his work? She estimated a couple of hours to complete it, and she knew what he was working on was critical. But her husband was dying. Would she be putting his life at risk if she worked on it and delayed bringing him home? Then again, how could she come this far, know his work so well, and not finish it? She debated it for a few minutes and then got to work.
For the next hour, Alicia moved between the computer and the processors in the lab. She adjusted the parameters, checked the feedback, added the necessary computations and set the data input the way it should be. Almost done.
She ran back to Drew and gave him more water. He sipped it, coughed, and then rested.
Back to the processors. She entered the correct specifications for each module and each component. Made adjustments for the solar cells in the solar arrays. Another hour passed. Sweat dripped down her neck. Almost done. The last segment in the final sector … click. Done!
A loud humming filled the room. It worked. It was now complete.
She knew the EME communications needed adjustments to the linear polarization in the antenna to get the moon bounce communication back up and running, probably due to interference, but she couldn’t worry about that now. She had to get her husband home.
She returned to Drew. His skin was clammy. “Drew,” she murmured. “Hang in there. I’ll get you back home. Stay with me. Please.”
Drew moaned and his head rolled back, his breathing shallow and rapid.
“Drew!” Alicia rubbed the back of his hand and patted his cheek. A low groan came from his lips.
She hefted him up, got him to the bathroom, and helped him relieve himself. She washed his face as he leaned against her and shivered.
“We have to get you home. Have you eaten anything?”
He did not answer. She searched the kitchen area and grabbed a few containers of water, juice, and soup.
“Let’s go,” she said, urging him forward. “We need to go home now.”
She got him into the airlock at the entry port of the building, closed the door, and dressed him in his spacesuit. Then she put on her own. She checked all the settings multiple times and turned on his oxygen. She saw his breath fog up his mask. She made another adjustment and checked the settings again. Time to go. Did he still have time left? Would he make it back to Earth alive?
Alicia punched in the codes, waited, and then opened the door to the outside. Holding his arm, she pulled Drew after her. He stumbled forward, leaning on her. A small rover was just outside the door. She helped him get in, and then she scooted behind the wheel and drove it away from the module. It slowly tracked over the lunar surface toward the shuttle. Almost there. Finally reaching it, she turned off the rover, got out, and helped Drew out. He was so weak. Her hands trembled as she punched the buttons at the entry to the shuttle. She stamped on the ground with impatience. It finally opened. Yes!
Once in the shuttle’s airlock, she set the controls and waited for everything to reach Earth specifications. Then she took off both their spacesuits, got back into the navigation section of the bridge, and buckled them into their seats. Drew moaned, and she gave him another dose of antibiotics and some water. “Hang in there, Drew. We’ll be home soon. Please hang in there.”
Drew lay in the ICU bed at the hospital near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory just outside Pasadena, California. Fluid dripped into him from the IV next to his bed. He lay listless and pale, an oxygen mask over his face.
A doctor entered the ICU and approached the bed, his white coat hanging open and a stethoscope around his neck. He nodded to Alicia. “You’re his wife?”
“Yes. How is he?” She stood up, her body shaking.
“He has bilateral pneumonia, also known as double pneumonia. Both lungs are affected and are inflamed and filled with liquid. He also is in the first stage of sepsis, moving toward severe sepsis, which is dangerous and can be fatal. We are treating him aggressively with antibiotics, corticosteroids, fluids, and oxygen, and we are checking vital signs every hour. He is not yet in septic shock, but I will not lie to you — he is in critical condition. He can recover, but he can also go downhill. We will monitor him and do our best.”
Alicia nodded and bit her lip. “But how could they have gotten sick there? They were in isolation before they went.”
“I don’t know.” The doctor’s voice was soft. “Possibly there was something they packed and took with them that had been contaminated and they didn’t know. But whatever it was, we will do our best to help him.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“And it was a good thing you brought him in when you did. He might not have lasted much longer without medical treatment.”
Two weeks later, Drew was discharged and went home. Still weak, he reached for Alicia’s hand as they sat across from each other at the kitchen table. “Thank you, Alicia. I can’t believe I’m still here.”
“Drew, I barely got to you in time. We were lucky. You didn’t have much time left.”
“And my two buddies — Mitch and Steve. I hated seeing them so sick. There was nothing I could do.” He shook his head, tears in his eyes. “I watched them die,” he added softly.
She searched his eyes, compassion welling up in her. “I’m so sorry. That must have been awful.”
“What about their families? Do they know?”
Alicia blinked against the burning in her eyes. “Yes. NASA is notifying their families.”
Drew took a bite of his chicken sandwich. “I couldn’t even call out for help. The EME communication system went down, and I didn’t have time to get it fixed.” He chewed and then swallowed. “Besides, the three of us were not feeling well by then, and we could barely focus. And the job we were working on was much more of a priority.” He waved his arm at her. “How did you even know I needed help?”
“You stopped calling and I just knew. I knew something was wrong. I felt it.” She sipped her iced tea. “And I couldn’t get there fast enough.”
“And my work on the ISRU — you finished it?”
“Yes. I could see exactly where you left off. I knew what needed to be done. It’s all finished.”
His eyes lit up. “And? Did it work?” He took another bite of his sandwich.
“Yes, it did!” She bit into her sandwich. “It worked perfectly, just the way we expected. You did almost all of the work, you got really close, and I simply finished it. But it worked exactly the way we thought it would. You are a genius.” She smiled and took a big gulp of iced tea.
Drew chuckled. “I was almost a dead genius.”
She laughed. “Almost, but not quite.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “Welcome back to life, Drew. You have a second chance. And I’m so proud of you.”
He smiled. “I’m proud of you too, Alicia. You completed the work. That was so important. That lunar outpost needs to be a viable base of operations for a long time, and what we were doing was critical.” He pursed his lips. “Not to mention you saved my life.”
“I’m glad I got to you in time. It was close. Too close.” She thought for a few moments. “We’re a good team. And it sure is good to both be back here on Earth.”
“You can say that again. This is the most beautiful planet in the universe, and it is so good to be back home.”
“And still be alive.”
Drew laughed. “Yes, being alive is a good thing.”
Alicia leaned over and kissed him softly. “Welcome home, sweetheart.”
Copyright © 2019 Lynn Miclea. All Rights Reserved.
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