Right, I’ve been back from my holiday for two weeks now and it is high time that I got back on track with my Fiction Fursday posts. Today’s story was suggested by the lovely Kate McClelland, who is never short of a good prompt! Kate challenged me thusly: an astronaut goes missing for twenty seconds whilst exploring the dark side of the moon…what happened? A great question, Kate, and another sci-fi for me to write!
Here is what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.
P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a story prompt for another week, please do so by leaving a comment below.
Dark Side Debriefing
By Adam Dixon
“Is she ready to talk yet, doc?” Captain Anders said with impatience. He turned his steely blue eyes towards the slight medical officer, who wilted under his gaze.
“Yes, I believe so, sir,” was his meek reply as he gripped a handrail to stop himself floating onto the ceiling. It was not an easy thing to accomplish with a clipboard tucked under one arm, but he managed it nonetheless.
“Her vital signs are stable,” the medic continued. “She has also begun eating and drinking properly, which is encouraging. However, she is still rather shaken, so I would recommend that you keep her debriefing as simple as possible. No stressful questions or anything like that.”
“I’ll ask her whatever questions I damn well please!” the captain barked, releasing a handrail to slam his fist into the wall of the space shuttle. The force of the action sent Anders’ body careening away from the wall and titled him at a forty-five degree angle. Anders cursed and flailed, grabbing another rail and dragging his body back to a vertical position.
“Careful, sir,” the medic said, failing to hide his amusement. “Remember the Academy’s lessons about violent actions in zero-gravity environments.”
“You’d best shut your mouth, doc,” Anders hissed, narrowing his eyes. “Or I’ll bloody show you a violent action!” Again the medic wilted, mumbling apologies as he opened the door to the small infirmary. Anders muttered to himself about smart-arsed medics and their bloody degrees before floating past the threshold. A short drift along a windowless corridor brought him to a sealed door. As Anders held his gaze in front of the retinal scanner, he heard muffled voice from within the room.
“…Forty thousand… yes, yes…back on Earth…agreed…” was all Anders could make out before the door slid open.
“Excellent! Excellent!” A jubilant medic said, hopping about in excitement. Anders pulled himself through the door. The sterile stink of disinfectant assaulted his nostrils and the beeping whirring of equipment echoed strangely after the silence of the corridor. The infirmary was designed to look like a standard hospital ward back on Earth, supposedly to reassure the patients. Anders thought it was a depressing reminder of what they had left behind.
“What’s excellent?” Anders grunted. Christ, he hated medics!
“Oh, Captain Anders! Sir!” The portly medic started and dropped his clipboard. It floated in front of his splayed fingers for an instant before the bespectacled man seized it once again. He looked up sheepishly, his eyes wide and his face flushed. His feet were actually touching the metal floor, being held in place by a smooth magnet which was harnessed to his body. As Anders fought to maintain his stability he seethed at the younger man’s ease of movement.
“I, erm…was just looking at Armstong’s chart, and err…” the medic stammered.
“I need to speak with Armstrong,” Anders said with impatience. “Dismissed!” The medic nodded over and over again as he walked out of the infirmary. Anders considered pulling rank and demanding that he relinquish his harness, but he thought better of it. Instead he looked carefully at the woman in front of him. Strapped down to a pallet bed, was Delilah Armstrong, a young woman with fierce green eyes and blond hair which floated around her head like a golden mane. Armstrong’s torso was not strapped so she was able to sit up and she held herself with dignity despite her haggard appearance. Her skin was pale and drawn and her lightly-dressed body was clearly malnourished. Anders wondered how that could have gotten past the medics before she was cleared for her mission.
“Armstrong,” Anders nodded curtly. “How’re you holding up?”
“Captain Anders,” Armstrong returned the nod cautiously. “I’ve been better. It’s not every day I nearly die of thirst yards from safety, you know?” Anders had always appreciated her wariness, especially when in the presence of a superior officer. He supposed there was a certain degree of entitlement considering her family history, but he approved of that also. It demonstrated a backbone which many of his crew lacked.
“I’m here to debrief you, Armstrong,” Anders continued. “I’d like to hear your account of what happened three days ago, but cut the embellishments, if you please. I’ve heard your reports before and I haven’t got all day.” Armstrong stiffened at his bluntness but didn’t say anything about it.
“Well, sir,” Armstrong said slowly, her eyes drifting as she thought back to a few days previously. “I was out exploring the moon’s Dark Side as ordered. I was alone, with my suit, my jetpack and my comlink as I performed the required scanning of the surface. As I fired up to return to the Echo, my transmissions went cold. I saw…nothing. There was darkness all around me, and even the stars had stopped shining. I was in the dark and the cold for what felt like months, but it must have been two days judging by my dehydration. That’s what the doc tells me, anyway.”
“Never mind what the doc tells you,” Anders snapped. “Worry about what you’re saying to me, and I said no embellishments! I need to get this straight, Armstrong…you’re saying that our temporary loss of contact with you was due to some alternation in time? In science?” Armstrong raised her arms in exasperation.
“Yeah, I think so, Captain!” she said, her face the very picture of indignation. “I’m not sure how else to describe it! All I know is that everything was fine one minute and then I was drifting in darkness for three days!”
“We lost contact with you for twenty seconds, Armstrong, that’s all.”
“Sir, I think I must’ve passed through some kind of warp in time.”
“Oh, what a load of crap!” It was Anders’ turn to swing his arms, which he regretted as soon as he began to spin around in the chamber. “If there were such things out there we would’ve discovered it decades ago!”
“Clearly there are still mysteries in space, Captain,” Armstrong’s tone was ever so slightly mocking and it made Anders very annoyed. He took a deep breath and decided to change tactics.
“Look, Armstrong, you’re an exceptional astronaut,” Anders began awkwardly. He wasn’t used to giving compliments. “I guess it runs in the family. But you can’t expect me to believe this story, it’s too…”
“Ridiculous? Impossible? ” Armstrong suggested in a harsh tone. “Or is it simply because I’m a woman that you don’t think I’m capable of a breakthrough discovery?”
“Don’t test me, Armstrong,” Anders warned, his eyes alight with fury.
“Just because you don’t believe me, sir, that doesn’t mean that others won’t!” Armstrong said triumphantly. Her eyes were glazed. “I’ll be remembered for this, just you wait! When the scientists start researching into this new discovery about space and time MY name will be attached to it! I’ll be like my great-grandfather then, a figure of history! There were plenty of people who thought that his Landing was a hoax, they conspired for years, but time proved them wr-“
“Hoax?” Anders interrupted. “Who said anything about a hoax?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Captain. Your refusal to listen to me indicates how you’re thinking.” Armstrong sneered, but Anders was sure that he had detected a note of panic in her voice. It was there for a second and then it was gone, like breath through an airlock. Armstrong continued ranting about the famous Neil and his heroic team but Anders wasn’t really listening. The picture of events became clearer in his mind; the number he had overheard, the medic’s excitement, Armstrong’s physical condition and story on the whole… he had heard enough.
“I think that’ll do it, Armstrong,” Anders said firmly, cutting her off again. “I have all I need to make my report.”
“Very good, sir,” Armstrong said with a frown, no doubt suspicious of the speed of Anders’ decision. “I’m feeling bit faint as it happens. Must be the drugs kicking in.”
“Well then, you’d better rest up,” Anders said as he pulled himself back towards the door. “We’ll need you back on form as soon as possible.”
Anders knew that Armstrong’s story was bullshit, and he had enough to work with. He pressed a button on his comlink and spoke into it.
“Navigator, inform Ground Control that I wish to send them a preliminary report of Armstrong’s debriefing.” He paused for a moment as the Navigator patched him through to a secure channel to Earth.
“Ground Control, this is Captain Anders of the Moon Station, Echo IV,” Anders spoke calmly and precisely. “I wish to summarise my findings concerning our most recent recon mission. Our crew member, Ðelilah Armstrong, was physically unfit to undertake this mission as she was badly dehydrated and malnourished. It is my belief that her medical reports prior to the mission were deliberately falsified. As a result of her physical condition, Armstrong lost consciousness for approximately twenty seconds whilst scanning the Dark Side and she began to hallucinate. I would urge sympathy when she returns to Earth but I would also suggest that anything she describes to you to be considered with this in mind. I will prepare a fuller report once I have launched a thorough investigation of my medical team.”
“Acknowledged, Captain,” a static voice replied. “Your report has been logged. Over and out.” Captain Anders nodded and placed his hands behind his back. He didn’t really know why he had decided to salvage Armstrong’s career despite her atrocious behaviour; perhaps be was becoming sentimental in his old age. More likely it was because he needed every good astronaut he could find, and Armstrong was lucky enough to be one of the best. So she would survive this blip in her career relatively unscathed. Anders didn’t mind putting a scare into the medical team, though. Let them squirm for a while, he thought with satisfaction. Anders stretched briefly before assume his place at the command desk and gazed out at the wide expanse of space. There was still a moon to observe, after all.