This story is by Gary G Little and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Autopilots were the only thing that made long-distance cargo-hauling possible on the moon. Cargo was delivered and shipped out of major spaceports like Tycho, Clarke, Asimov, or Armstrong. But to get to the little places that had no spaceports, long-haul cargo haulers like Carl Johanson were needed. “Lunie-ticks and Lunie-truckers,” someone had snickered once, and it stuck.
Carl was a Lunie-trucker. He was a Lunie-tick because it took a lunatic to face all that emptiness that was the surface of Luna.
He topped the eastern wall of Tycho Crater and all of that emptiness stretched before him. He felt like a mite off the back of a flea trying to run around a ping pong ball. Carl liked that aloneness; the feeling of being in control and of total and complete independence.
Right now, he could not sleep. Why? Because he was wearing his Extra-Vehicular Activity suit. EVA for short. The suits were mandated for surface use and no one complained about that rule, even though it made for fitful slumber. The suits were not designed for sleeping.
“The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” was a work of fiction but any Lunie born on Luna would agree with it. The Mistress did not care why you were not in your EVA suit. She could, and would, kill you before you could get it on. If you were out on the surface, you wore your EVA suit. All the time, even in a cargo tractor equipped with a sleeper.
He shifted to the right, and back to the left, and tried to find a spot softer than that log he had been laying on. “One-sixth gravity makes it easy to sleep,” read the brochure, but not when you had been laying on the same pile of boulders for hours. At last, Carl drifted off into a contentious slumber.
A visible orange tractor kicked up moon dust as it pulled the blue flatbed trailer through the badlands to the East of Tycho. The autopilot handled the terrain and piloted the tractor and flatbed for three and a half hours with no incident. As the tractor drew even with a large rock everyone called Black Rock, because it was black, an LED began to blink on the control panel. That caused a warning to be sent to the com-unit of Carl’s suit, and that sent a command to close the helmet faceplate.
When his helmet snapped shut, Carl was awake. No groggy headed feeling, he was awake. Helmets do not snap shut without a reason. Instinct and years of practice had him checking his suit for leaks or any other problems. There were none. He looked to the instrument panel in front of him. O2, CO2, and CO were in the green.
“What the hell …” Carl stopped and stared at a blinking red LED. H2. Hydrogen was elevated.
“Oh crap, it’s WAY elevated.”
Instinct kicked in and he flipped the cover off the Emergency Blow circuit, held the push-button detent down, and threw the lever. He was engulfed in brilliant light.
It was an old switch. It had never been replaced and had never been used, since the tractor-hauler had been manufactured and bought by five different owners, Carl being the fifth. It had been tested, once a month via the monthly Maintenance Checklist for over 15 years. It was designed to remove internal cabin contamination as quickly as possible, by blowing open both of the cabin airlock doors. It worked very well, but over the years a tiny bit of corrosion had built up on the edges of the switch.
When your atmosphere is full of H2 and O2 any kind of a spark is disastrous. The corrosion sparked during the make/break of the switch. The explosive charges on the airlock doors also sparked. The H2 and O2 did what those two elements have always done, which was unfortunate for Carl.
The cabin/cockpit turned into a very silent bubble of expanding incandescence before the airlock doors began to move. Carl was smashed into the solid steel frame that surrounded the cabin and flung 30 meters into a starry sky. He fell to the regolith like a ragdoll about 250 meters forward and to the right of the road. The tank of H2 continued to vent for some seconds, but once the O2 was gone, there was no more flame. Vacuums do that to fire.
The tractor was totaled.
There was a constant buzzing near his right ear. He slapped at it but something stopped his hand, and the arm hurt like hell. The buzzing would not stop.
Carl opened his eyes and tasted the salty copper of blood in his mouth. He was on his back looking at the Magellanic clouds and the Milkyway.
“Dang, that’s lovely,” he said, the silly side of his brain still not comprehending what had happened.
He remembered. Elevated H2. He had thrown the emergency blow switch, then nothing till that buzzing in his right ear. What was buzzing? His suit comlink in the earbud in his right ear, that’s what was buzzing. Clarity began to return. He looked at the tell-tale lights along the chin of his EVA suit’s helmet.
He had survived being in the middle of a hydrogen and oxygen explosion and fire. “Or is it fire and explosion,” the silly side of his brain wondered and continued to wonder about the buzz. He found the tell-tale light that told him what all the buzz was about. Suit breach. Something had penetrated his EVA suit, and the buzzing was a warning about the loss of pressure. He attempted to sit up, but nothing moved. He could not feel anything below his neck except his right arm and that was hurting.
He tongued the com switch to VOX and croaked out a blob of sound. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Luna Control, Mayday, over.” Carl waited a few seconds, started to speak again, and noticed a very blank section of the tell-tales in his helmet.
He had no communication. The carrier LED was dark. He was not transmitting. The tractors transponder was also not transmitting. That transponder was another one of those mandatory things that had to be carried by every vehicle on the Lunar surface and had to be checked monthly. He had replaced the damn thing three months ago. He was glad he had. The loss of that signal would bring help, even though he could not make the call for help.
He remembered throwing the switch, then a brilliant flash all around, something smashing into his back and … silence, except for that damnable buzzing.
“Loss of air pressure, that was the buzzing. But why?”
He could only move his right hand. That hurt like hell. When he lifted his right arm so he could see it, he saw why. Why it hurt, and why he was losing air pressure. A white something with a pink residue was protruding from the right forearm of his suit.
“Oh, crap,” he said as he realized what that white something was. The bone had broken, and even the tough material of his EVA suit had been shredded by that compound fracture.
As the pressure of his suit bled away, Carl gazed back at the blaze of stars he could see on the dark side of the moon.
“Incredible,” he whispered and was silent.