1. It Must Have Been the Moonlight

Earth’s Moon, June 2120

Anjal Reyes looked wearily at the inner door of the lunar shuttle. It had been a shitty trip up to the moon, making this mission one of the worst space details she had ever been on. And she had definitely ridden out some turbulence in her time as an astronaut-technician (or astrotech, as she and her co-workers were called.) She was, by trade, an engineer which was a perfect profession for her as she had always enjoyed taking things apart, building, designing, and tinkering. She was not, like of many of her associates, drawn to the stars or the moon or Mars. But it turned out that working in space paid a hell of a lot more than your average terrestrial gig. And, in addition to the salary, the POESA benefits were amazing; including (but not limited to) a seriously pimping big 401K match, paid time off, and stock options. So, before each mission, she slapped on her anti-nausea patch (she was prone to nausea in zero-G, and on boats, and on most of the rides at Disneyland), gritted her teeth and just held on until the ride was over.

But this fucking job seemed like it would never end. It started with mechanical issues on the ground that delayed countdown, then another issue caused a delay in firing the rockets, still another delay in leaving the atmosphere, and then a scary run-in with a big patch of space junk that caused serious enough damage to require immediate EVA repairs to the outer skin of the shuttle (fortunately this time it was some other poor slob in a pressure suit, hanging his ass out in vacuum while clutching a wrench).

Anjal had already decided that this mission was definitively El Trabajo del Infierno, The Job from Hell. Then, as the shuttle landed with a thud on the moon because the space junk had damaged one of the landing stabilizers, it jarred Anjal enough to bump the back of her head on the bulkhead she was sitting in front of. Anjal glowered, One more fucking thing…

As soon as they were stable, Jens, that supercilious Aryan prick, was already in the sally port between the main shuttle and the airlock. Anjal hated being assigned to work with Jens. He was reckless and arrogant and smug and he always had to be the first one out of the airlock even though he was supposed to wait for the project leader to assign tasks. He was boastful, completely in love with himself and also completely full of shit. And there he went out the airlock, purportedly to do “recon”, unencumbered by the heavy equipment that everyone else was loading up. “Pendejo.” She hissed.

“What’s that you said, Anjelica?” The project leader asked.

“Um, nothing Rob. Just sneezing in my helmet.” Anjal walked to the back of the shuttle and hoisted up a crate of equipment to take out to the surface. They were staging for the installation of a comm-unications array that would be able to send and receive signals to/from deep space where a number of probes had already been launched with more to follow. Not to mention the Mars missions that were ongoing. Anjal had done one of those FUCKING MARS MISSIONS, and that would never happen again, gracias pero no!—3 months each way on a tiny ship with 5 of your closest friends. At least Jens wasn’t on that mission or Anjal would have thought very seriously about shooting herself out into interplanetary space. Never again. Although, even now, she had to admit that the hideous Mars job had paid for her beautiful loft in the Pearl District. But no, never again, fuck Mars.

Eventually, there would be an entire facility on the far side of the moon (not really the “dark” side, even though it was dark at this moment) that would house a large radio telescope plus high definition imaging telescopes and a SETI listening array. And probably a spa and a casino, for all Anjal knew. She didn’t actually give it much thought because merely commuting to the moon for work was bad enough. There was no way she was ever going to permanently live up here.

Rob the project leader was looking over his checklist on the tablet he was holding and was just getting ready to gather the team to discuss the off-loading plan when they all heard Jens on the helmet comm utter what may or may not have been a German profanity; however, what it lacked in intelligibility it certainly conveyed in a tone of surprise and shock.

Rob turned on his helmet camera and light and, after first hitting the key to close the outer airlock port that Jens had left open in his haste, exited the shuttle swiftly but carefully in the 1/6th gravity (running on the moon could be hazardous for all but the most graceful). As he approached Jens he could see the object that had caused Jens’ reaction: it looked like a memorial placard set into the lunar surface. It was covered in engraved symbols that consisted of a series of intersecting circles and lines. It was absolutely…alien. Rob closed his eyes and rubbed his helmet (in the spot where he would have rubbed his forehead had it been exposed).

“What is this?” Rob said rather uselessly to Jens. Jens shrugged in his pressure suit.

“It doesn’t look like any writing I’ve ever seen on earth. But that doesn’t mean some other space agency didn’t plant this thing here.” Jens speculated, with a twinkle of conspiracy theory in his icy blue eyes. Jens continued, “Could be a generator or communications relay or even a weapon.”

Rob nodded thoughtfully while inwardly thinking that pop-up moon gun was probably far-fetched. And also, dammit! Why did the anomalies happen on his missions? Now they had an obligation to investigate this bizarre object and it was going to egregiously cut into the mission timeline, which was going to skew the all of the projects on the schedule. Rob’s bonuses were tied to timeliness, accuracy, and safety and this new situation was going screw up his perfect record. He sighed.

“We’ll need to set up the lighting rig here-“ Rob motioned with his helmet light creating an illuminated circle of soft, gray lunar soil. “So why don’t you get started on that since you did the locate.” And since you also piled out the shuttle without consulting the crew, and left the air lock open behind you, and probably planned to get out of unloading equipment anyway, by all means, Jens, let’s see if you can carry a lamp. Rob returned to the shuttle to see if he could get anyone else to maybe do some work today, for crying out loud.

Jens also returned to the shuttle with a little skip- made even skippier by the low gravity- and popped open the storage bulkhead wherein the lighting rig was stored. He grabbed it and skipped right back onto the surface while the rest of the team was untethering the cargo boxes containing the communications array parts. He skittered over to the plaque and quickly assembled the lighting rig, a bright LED on a 2.5-meter tripod, and began to examine the bizarre artifact. He flicked the switch on his helmet cam to start recording.

“Shuttle time, 22:27, date 28 February 2120, Mission 1501, Shuttle California Poppy,” Jens articulated the last two words with a grimace since he found the agency’s space craft nomenclature to be rather precious. His previous mission was aboard the Mighty Salmon. He felt a space craft should have a bold, powerful sounding name like “Lunar Intruder” or “Mars Penetrator” or other phallic-esque convention that announced to the planets and satellites, “Achtung! We are coming for you!!” But, alas, the shuttles were named after regional plants and animals. Very tedious.

Jens unsnapped a laser tool from his belt and quickly measured the length and width of the object. He continued his commentary. “The artifact is approximately 61 x 90 centimeters. The depth is-“ he tapped the interface pad on the laser tool until he had activated the evaporate setting, the one that was used on archaeological digs to clear soft debris, and proceeded to disintegrate the moon dust from where it had settled around the object. “Depth is 15 centimeters. Material appears to be metallic, however it feels like smooth concrete. I am attempting to remove a small sample from the material.” He tapped the interface two times and pointed the laser tool again, this time making a small circle of red laser light on the side of the object. Nothing. He frowned. There should have been a circle carved into the material he had assaulted but the unit remained intact. He tapped the interface again to increase the intensity and aimed the tool again but still it taunted him with its blithe impenetrability. “We’ll see about that…” he muttered. Tap tap tap tap tap tap!! He increased the intensity of the laser to maximum (a huge breach of protocol) and aimed it for the last time. The heat was building up on the surface and the lunar rocks nearby were glowing. Jens was starting the sweat inside his pressure suit in spite of the lunar nighttime temperature of -130 Celsius. But the object showed no signs of wearying. Jens swore a mighty and creative string of expletives in his native tongue and then hurled his laser tool at the object in frustration at which the artifact popped neatly open, its top panel splitting in the middle (where no seam had been detected before) and the top, now in two panels, flapped open like a book.

Jens stumbled back in his shock and fell softly to the ground, thanks to 1/6th g. He shouted into his helmet on the all-channel.

“It’s open! It’s open!” Anjal was approaching his location carrying a cargo box when she heard Jens and thought,

“What’s open, your mouth as usual??” and she saw the glowing rocks and Jens on the ground. “Jens, what hell are you doing?” She demanded. She dropped her crate and advanced quickly (sort of) to see what this clown was up to.

Jens stared up at her as she approached the artifact that was now an open container. Anjal looked at Jens and then the strange box and then what was inside the box. It was an oblong unit, about half a meter, with a thick rounded base tapering to a skinny end. It was quicksilver and iridescent and it looked like a wand.

“What is that thing?” Anjal asked, unable to take her eyes away from it. Jens shook his head as he lifted himself to his knees and peered into the box. The artifact was resting in a depression that was shaped to fit it and the material that formed it looked like it would be soft like fabric, yet seemed unyielding to the touch. Jens reached for the object. “Jens, no!” cried Anjal, “We need to leave that thing in there. We don’t know what it is.” Jens ignored her words, neither of them knowing at the that moment how accurate the warning would be. He removed the object from its cradle and held it in his hand and felt a vibration, like a buzzing, in his palm. As he moved the object slowly from side to side it seemed to respond to the movements with stronger and different vibrations. “Jens!” Anjal warned sternly, like a teacher speaking to an unruly student. Jens ignored her and continued brandishing the object. He felt it was speaking to him, somehow, trying to tell him what he needed to do to…make something happen. He did not know what that something would be but, very strangely, he felt that the object did.

Anjal had just about enough of this particular flavor of nonsense and she proceeded to lay into Jens with a scathing and highly obscene verbal reproach which quite possibly might have made the saltiest sailor blush. Jens stood his ground and returned the rebuke with an equally offensive defense. The two were now screaming at each other, nearly helmet to helmet, when Rob approached them and realized they were arguing.

“Hey, you two!“, he began over the all-comm. Jens was waving what looked like a rod with a tapered end. “What the hell is-“ Rob was unable to continue speaking because then the universe sprung a leak. A large, circular disc of distorted space opened up behind and to the left of where Jens was standing, opposite Anjal. Rob’s mouth hung slack as he watched the circle grow. Stars were twinkling and swirling in it. It was like a hole had been bored in the fabric of reality.

Anjal lunged at Jens and swiped at the object in an attempt to knock it out of Jens’ grasp and Jens grabbed her flailing arm. Her momentum in the low gravity caused her to plow into him and even as she succeeded in freeing the artifact from his hand they both tumbled into the swirling disk which then shrunk down to the size of a coin and popped out of existence. The object Jens had been holding pfuffed into the moon dust.

Rob was left alone on the surface staring at the place where two of his crew members were just a few seconds ago, and at a wand-like thing that had caused them not to be there anymore. He could hear his own breathing and his heart pounding inside his helmet. He stood motionless with his eyes closed for a full minute. He’d lost his bonus, his crew members, and most likely his job. His head throbbed. Worst. Mission. Ever. He drew in a ragged breath and bellowed, “Code Omega Seven!” to which the rest of the astrotech crew dropped whatever they were carrying and gingerly rushed over to see who was injured. When they arrived they only saw Rob standing completely unmoving next to a metal box and a large wand.

Part 1, read all chapters here