Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Outpost

by Dave Weaver


"There, did you see that one?" Aldrin's voice, excited, wired.

"Mike?" Armstrong sounded as steady as always, but I could hear the tone of agitation beneath the surface. It said 'stop screwing around and concentrate. We get one shot, so don't flip out on me.' Armstrong was a friendly enough guy, but a blank personality-wise. That was the way he liked it, and I respected that. But Buzz? Well Buzz needed something more from him, some kind of emotional connection maybe that he couldn't give. They were poles apart and I was slap bang in the middle, the conduit for their two diametrically opposed personalities.

And yet funny enough I was the one staying behind; the level headed one, the innocuous, even unimaginative plodder. It should have been Buzz.

"Mike, see anything? Neil's voice came again in my headphones.

"Negative that." I replied. "What do they look like, Buzz?" Trying to build a bridge, keep the team as one not three. It was getting kinda tiresome.

"Didn't you see the flashes? Portside, they seemed pretty near but that could have been an illusion. Sun flares, maybe... I caught them out of the corner of my eye like before. They were so bright..."

"Let's get on the ball, Buzz..." Armstrong told him.

And then it was time to go. When it finally came to it everything seemed to happen so quick; one moment we were checking the orbital data with Houston, the next they were in the Lunar Module, flying alongside Columbia while I did one final visual check that everything was OK.

"You're looking fine, Eagle, apart from the fact you're upside down."

"Somebody's upside down!" Armstrong's voice sounded relaxed now, the little joke an indication that the tension of our last minutes together had been put aside as both men prepared for business.

With a burst of thrusters I moved away from them as they began their descent. "Keep talking to me, guys." I told them.

Then I listened, second-hand, to the drama that followed: the over-shoot, the last minute change of landing site to Tranquillity Base, the ten seconds left of fuel in the LM's tanks after Neil had coaxed the collection of matchstick metal and foil that was Eagle lander down onto the dead surface below.

Everybody knows about that.

But not this. You won't find this on the Discovery channel or in any best-selling memoir, not even mine. The only place for this is inside my head.

And now I'm telling you.

I'm falling into the moon's dark shadow for the first time. It's like a giant wall of negativity about to consume the tiny silver cylinder of the command module. And then, more suddenly than I'd realised, I'm inside its depths. The ball of dust and rock below me is no more than a silhouette, a black hole blocking out the stars behind.

And the Earth.

It has disappeared into the darkness below me, and I am truly alone. This will last for forty-five minutes of my two hour orbit. I will repeat it another twenty-nine times before Columbia rendezvous' with Eagle again and we all head for home. The first will seem like an eternity, the second slightly less, but every time I swing around into that gaping shadow to be swallowed whole like some minnow inside the belly of a whale I'll feel the same frisson of fear, followed almost instantaneously by a sensation of unique loneliness only five other men will know.

And wonderment. That's what takes over and stops you going insane. I am here, my back turned to Earth, before me the stars; undimmed by atmosphere, like bright jewels I can reach out and pocket. Just me and them. No-one else can see me, or hear me cry out, or understand what I'm thinking or feeling, because for these forty-five minutes I am one with the cosmos and it with me.

I am the farthest man out but I am no longer lonely. I am exulted.

I was exulted. Before I knew...

When I got the nod that I'd be the first command module pilot involved in a lunar landing some wag at Houston said I'd be the loneliest man since Adam. I guess the image stuck in the public consciousness. It's kinda what I became famous for afterwards, the guy who stayed behind, the one that didn't drop the sixty-nine miles down to the surface, who didn't walk on the moon.

People said it as if it was something to regret, but that was my job and I'd accepted that right from the off. I was the one who would have to come back alone if we screwed up, the one who'd have to see Joan and Janet, to tell them how I'd left their husbands behind to die on a cold dead rock hundreds of thousands of miles from home.

I'd survive it all somehow, but the finger would be pointed at me for the rest of my life -- the one that came back alone. If I could face the prospect of that, I could face missing the moon.

Was I scared? I'd have been a fool if I wasn't, but it was a rational fear; a fire banked down by calculation and projection, procedure and protocol, by little moments of concentration and decision. If I didn't do this, and this, followed by this, we'd most probably die. If I could handle those extreme moments the fear would recede, at least for a while.

But now I was cast adrift with little to do but wait. And gradually, like an assassin creeping towards me through the shadows, I felt that fear return.

It was on the twenty-seventh lunar orbit, three from the final one, when it happened. I was asleep, but then something awoke me. My eyes were still shut but there was a pressure on them of intense light.

I'd been dreaming, I think of Pat and me on the 'Strip' in Las Vegas of all places. That's why the lights confused me for a few seconds; that they might still be a residual part of the dream. But when I opened my eyes they were still there, dancing in the CM's tiny windows like fireflies around a campfire, but there was nothing but the darkness of space around them. And they were so bright, like iridescent flashes of magnesium burning into nothing then sparking again, but that couldn't be because there was no oxygen for them to burn in. The next moment they were somehow inside craft, hanging in the air before me, all around me, joining together until everything was brilliant white and I had to shut my eyes, but I could still see the CM's cabin in x-ray.

I couldn't turn away, couldn't hide because it was everywhere, and I felt like my brain would short-out with the sheer energy of it.

I began to feel nauseous. I felt a wave of intense, nameless emotion overtake me, then something else, a kind of connection. And I heard voices, voices older than time itself. I don't know how to describe it in physical terms, it went beyond that. But it was real, and forty years later when I'm talking to you it's still the realest thing I've ever known.

-- They said that they came from before the darkness, that we could still see their light but they were gone now. They said that the darkness never stops growing; that it would find us too. That we their children were all that was left, their last outpost. And that they loved us...

Six hours later I'm re-docking with Eagle. Everything goes according to plan. Three days after that we're careering through the Earth's atmosphere at 24,000 miles an hour before our three giant red and white 'chutes open and we drift down into the ocean and a hero's welcome.

But a part of my mind will never come home now. It's still wandering somewhere up there in the cosmos with the voices of ghosts echoing through it like a one-way conversation on a telephone.

I smile at my kids, and their kids, and I laugh and do the stuff I need to fill up the rest of my life, but inside I'm still wondering what it was all about.

And when the darkness will come.

THE END

This is a work of fiction. Although various astronauts have reported visual phenomena similar to the ones described here, there is no evidence that Michael Collins was contacted by aliens while alone in lunar orbit, or that they warned him of some future catastrophe.


© 2009 Dave Weaver

Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. The writing bug bit him six years ago returning for regular nibbles since. He likes football, XTC and Stephen King, and is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. A partial list of Dave's publishing credits includes 'Finding Uncle' (short story, published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology) and The Laughter Room (in the June 2009 edition of Aphelion).

E-mail: Dave Weaver

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.