Sci-Fi Shorts: Bunker Mentality
Read the tale that won runner-up in the over 16 category in our Sci-Fi Shorts competition.
We have our winners for our inaugural Sci-Fi Shorts Competition! Every Friday between 6 October and 10 November we’ll be publishing each winning story here on this blog. Check our competition webpage for the schedule.
Once again, congratulations to all our winners and a huge thank you to everyone who took part!
Award ceremony will take place at 12:30 on Saturday 18 November at the National Space Centre, as part of the Literary Leicester sci-fi events.
This week, we bring you our runner-up for the 16+ category, Bunker Mentality, by Paul Starkey.
The judges felt that this dramatic story retained a strong human element amongst the sparkle and allure of an alien world.
by Paul Starkey
Katya Sparkes loped awkwardly across the lunar surface. Each time she landed after another graceless bunny hop her boots cast up a storm of regolith that danced in the air long after she’d taken off once more.
Beside her Sanjeev skipped along at a restrained pace. If he’d wanted to her son could have left her for dead. He moved like traversing the airless moon was the most natural thing in the world to him. Every time Katya glanced his way the irony of his poise was like a cold knife through her heart.
Her chest ached from the exertion, but they were almost there. They’d left the buggy several kilometres back. She’d circumvented most of the security systems, but the buggy would’ve stood out like a sore thumb.
Despite all the precautions this was a heck of a risk. She could have lied to herself and said it was a calculated one, but this risk was born out of desperation, not mathematics.
The timing should help. Today was a national holiday celebrating the founding of Peary Town, marking the moment when a basic habitation module had gone online with the first two astronauts. Now over a thousand lived and worked in the sprawl of habitats etched into the cliffs of Peary Crater like so many Pueblo cliff dwellings.
She’d volunteered for a repair shift at Tycho Base. Everyone else wanted the holiday off so they were more than happy to let her take it.
She’d taken a lot of shifts at Tycho lately, giving her regular access to the computer systems. It was child’s play for a talented engineer—too damn talented, that was the problem—to reconfigure the security settings. She didn’t blind the sensors covering the Fra Mauro National Park so much as blur them. It would look like a run of the mill transmission error. Things like that happened all the time.
The bright blue ball of Earth hung over her like a sword of Damocles, but she rarely looked up. She couldn’t shake the feeling that billions of people were watching her. Judging her.
Well screw them.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
Despite her cold desperation she smiled as Sanjeev’s jokey whine echoed through her helmet. Her son. Her little sparrow.
The nickname was another cold knife.
They had to hurry. The tricks she’d used were finite. Eventually the celebrations would end and someone would notice that multiple cameras had been offline longer than was usual.
Hopefully they’d be in the buggy and halfway back to Tycho by then.
“We’re here. I can see the edge of Cone Crater.”
She saw more than that, she saw a squat metal spider, Apollo 14’s Antares descent stage. She saw the Stars and Stripes hung motionless, like a photograph caught mid flap. The flag looked wrong somehow. Too many stars on that field of blue.
She wasn’t here for the flag, or the lander. The former would be missed before she could smuggle it back to Earth, trying to take the latter would be physically impossible.
She grinned. Sanjeev no longer had to hold himself back. He danced on ahead, sticking to the neatly marked tourist paths. He’d been here before, visited all the big tourist sites— even the Luna 2 crash site— yet he was still excited every single time.
He loved the moon and, in its own way, the moon loved him back.
Which was another problem.
She slipped into stern mommy mode. “No time for sightseeing, Sandy. We don’t have much time.”
“I know.” He sounded hesitant. He was eight. He loved and trusted her. Hung on her every word. But he was old enough to know right from wrong, and however many times she’d explained this was the only way, that childlike fear of being bad never went away.
Her stomach clenched. Don’t make this even harder for me, Sparrow. “Nobody will miss it, not really. And we’re only taking one. You know there’s no choice.”
She’d chosen the one that hadn’t travelled very far. The second hadn’t sailed much further, a few hundred metres, but why waste time?
“People will really pay for that?” said Sanjeev.
“Yup. So much money, more than enough for what we need.”
The golf ball hadn’t moved since Alan Shepard scuffed his first shot back in 1971. The last century hadn’t been kind. With no ozone to filter the harshest excesses of the sun, the ball’s surface was cracked and blackened, and it was more ellipsoid than spherical now.
She crouched. Clumsily she unclipped a small box from her belt. Wearing gauntlets made it tricky to open, but eventually the cushioned inside was ready to receive its prize.
Katya’s hand passed right through the golf ball and slapped regolith.
No, no, no!
She lifted her hand. The holographic golf ball flickered.
Gravity on the moon is less than a sixth of Earth’s, but at that moment she felt so much pressure weighing her down that she might as well have been stood at the bottom of the Atlantic.
“We moved the real ones three years ago.” The Texan drawl echoed through her helmet.
She knew the voice, everyone on the Moon did. A cavernous void opened in her stomach.
He was a dozen metres away. There was no sign of a buggy. She wondered if he’d been here all along, hunkered down behind the descent stage.
“If it’s any consolation, you got closer than most.” There was something approaching admiration in Marvin Tanner’s voice. Officially he was Security Chief. Most everyone just called him Sheriff.
Sanjeev was still by her side. He held her hand. “Is everything okay, mum?”
“Everything’s going to be fine.” She glanced at Tanner. “How long have you been on to me?”
She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a wry smile behind that tinted visor. “Not long enough. Back in the day I’d have sniffed you out sooner. Must be getting old.”
“So what now?” She already knew the answer. A cramped holding cell until she and Sanjeev could be deported back home to Earth. Except Earth had never been home, not to Sanjeev anyway. There’d be no prison time, but a life sentence would begin once back on Terra firma
Tanner pointed at Sanjeev. “I figure that little fellow is the reason for this?”
“Yes. I’m guessing you know why.”
The helmeted figure nodded. “He was born here?”
She thumbed her com, so only Tanner would hear. “It wasn’t supposed to be long term, only his father ran out on us and SolTek kept renewing my contract. The money was so good, better than anything I’d get Earthside, so I kept thinking, just one more payday, only one more became two and… I was selfish.”
“Nah. You didn’t do it so you could live in the lap of luxury. You did it for him.”
“Maybe, not that it did him much good. And now we have to go back to Earth.”
“I’m surprised SolTek want to lose you.”
She shrugged, though she doubted it would show through the suit. “The latest solar panels are super-efficient, break down less often, so they need fewer people. I’m good, very good, but that makes me expensive. Union rules won’t let me take a pay cut.”
“So they’re laying you off, and no matter how much you made from all those contracts, it isn’t enough. Lunar living’s expensive if you don’t have a job that comes with free accommodation.”
She fought back tears. “He won’t last long back on Earth. Please…”
Don’t beg, Katya.
“Osteopenia? His bone density must be low. There’s lack of muscle mass too I guess.”
“And his immune system’s compromised. Okay up here, but down there he’ll spend his life in a wheelchair and a plastic bubble, not that he’ll last…” She lost her battle with the tears.
“No need to cry, well not unless you feel obliged to refuse my offer.”
“You got closer than anyone ever has. I’m getting old, and my staff, well they’re hardworking but this job doesn’t pay enough to afford the sharpest tools in the box. It does come with rent free accommodation however, though nothing as fancy as you’d get in Peary Town of course.”
“Please tell me this isn’t a joke?”
“No joke. You’re familiar with the phrase ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ I presume? Well that’s what I need from you, someone smart enough to plug gaps in security but desperate enough to do it for minimum wage.”
Sanjeev tugged at her hand. She looked down and saw him mouthing words inside his helmet. His eyes were wide; fearful. She turned the com back on.
“…all right, mummy?”
“Everything’s fine, Sandy. Seems I passed a test and got a new job.”
“Then we get to stay here?”
She looked at the barren lunar surface. Next to her son’s smile it was the most beautiful thing in the universe. “Yes, we get to stay here.”