Pike tilted his head up slightly, so he could see more clearly through his helmet. He raised his arm and glanced at the detector in his gloved hand. With his other hand, he pointed straight ahead.
“That way,” he said.
Captain Tai drifted past him, holding her own arm up, so that the light beam panel on the forearm of her suit could illuminate their way.
The dark side of the moon was not just regular dark. It was pitch dark. If not for the trackers, and the back-up trackers, and the emergency back-up trackers, in their suits and their equipment, Pike would have at least hesitated wandering any farther into the unmapped region from which the anomalous signal seemed to be originating. More likely, he would have talked his captain out of venturing ahead altogether. Even more likely, she wouldn’t have needed to be convinced.
But the signal was definitively stronger here.
“There’s a structure ahead,” Tai said. She clicked on the video recorder at collarbone level.
Pike saw it. At first, it looked like a mound, a hill maybe. But as they moved closer, and as the faint signal became stronger, he discerned grooves and striations that looked constructed. That didn’t mean the structure was in fact constructed. He’d once seen a cliff face that looked like it had been hammered into rough faces by giants, but his local guide told him that it was a coincidence. The particular way that the seas receded in that area, and the tides came in and struck the cliff in millennia past, just happened to result in shapes that to human eyes looked like human faces.
But then one of those grooves began to spill pebbles and dirt, and a small section of rock slid away, revealing a dark opening. Pike glanced over at his captain.
“Hold on,” she said, though she didn’t glance back at him. Her gaze was fixed on the opening.
They both stopped advancing for a moment. Then the captain said, “I’ll go check it out.”
“No, ma’am. The commander would kill me if I let you get hurt.”
The captain sighed. “Your parents would kill me if I let you get hurt.”
Captain Tai grunted in agreement. “Stay a few paces behind me. If something jumps out of the dark and grabs me, run like hell and get me some help.”
“Yes, Captain. Acknowledged.”
They started forward again. Despite the white hot bars of light emanating from several places on both of their suits, the opening remained ominously dark.
So they were surprised when they stepped through it into the dim, warm light of several burning fires.
Beeps on their suits alerted them to a sudden change in atmosphere.
“Yep, I see it.”
Pike wasn’t sure if she was acknowledging the atmospheric readings or the sight that lay before them.
They were in a large room with smooth silver-gray walls and recognizable furniture, like chairs and couches—also in varied shades and tones of silver. To fires were burning in recesses within the walls. On the far side of the entrance they had just passed through, a large fireplace burned with a roaring fire.
Someone sat before the fire with their backs turned to Pike and Tai. Someone who wasn’t wearing a suit. But then again, according to the readouts that Pike had just seen, there was breathable oxygen in the room.
“Come in,” a female voice said, picked up by the external microphones on their suits. The figure’s head turned towards them.
The face was human, a woman, with silvery-gray hair that seemed to float slightly.
“Have a seat,” she said. “There’s plenty to breathe, so feel free to take your helmets off, or keep them on, as you wish.”
Captain Tai approached slowly. She stopped before the fire, but didn’t sit on the long cushioned bench across from their host. Pike followed suit.
The woman by the fire smiled up at them. Her face was smooth, and her eyes, dark and glittering, seemed arcane.
“You’ve never made it this far before,” she said. “Congratulations.”
“Actually, we’ve both been to the moon before,” the captain said.
The woman grinned and stoked the fire with a silver poker. “I was not speaking of visiting the moon. I was speaking of visit me.”
“And who are you, if I may ask?”
Captain Tai followed up by introducing herself and Pike.
“I am the lunarian.” The woman rose and they saw that she was quite tall, taller than Pike. “I am very pleased to meet you both. Met by choice, not by fate. Wonderful.”
“To say that we have questions would be an understatement,” the captain said.
Pike was glad she was there. Captain Tai was pretty good with words. He would have just said something like, “I have so many questions.” Though, maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad.
The lunarian smiled and folded her hands before herself. Pike had thought she was wearing silvery robes, but it was actually a long hooded coat. Around her neck were several bands of silver of different thicknesses, and a pendant made of a dark gray stone that gleamed with different colors when she shifted position.
“I know why you’re here,” the lunarian said. “I know the history of your explorations into your system. I know how curious you are, how desperately you strive.” She tilted her head. “There is another ship out back. Its controls are intuitive. There are coordinates programmed to take the ship to one of my closet friends. Ask for her once you arrive. She’ll accept being called ‘Astra’ by a human.”
This time, when Pike glanced over at his captain, she glanced back at him. And he could tell that she was asking herself the same thing he was asking himself. Were they hallucinating?
“If you have found your way to me,” the lunarian said, “then you are ready to go even farther and further. Beyond your system. Beyond the shield. I know you won’t leave until I satisfy just enough of your curiosity to convince you that there is the slightest possibility that you are not hallucinating, that there really is a ship in the back, one that both of you would find most exciting to pilot. And I know you won’t leave until I give you sufficient assurances regarding your connections and obligations to your home that you feel comfortable in knowing you are not abandoning those connections and obligations, not abandoning your home. Though, if I may ask for your trust, the journey you are about to embark upon is for the noble purpose of protecting that very home, protecting Earth.”
“You seem to have a story to tell,” Captain Tai said.
“Sorry, are you human?” Pike asked.
The lunarian smiled. “I am not. Do I appear to be?”
Pike nodded stiffly.
“Yes,” the captain said.
The lunarian sat down again and gestured to the bench before the fire. Captain Tai sat down. Pike followed suit.
“Bear with me,” the lunarian said. “My story will seem to start far from where your questions begin. So I’ll try to be as straightforward as I can be.”
Once, there were four celestial beings who gathered in friendship on a barren and rocky world, and ended up giving rise to one of the most wondrous places in all the cosmos, planet Earth. At first, they only marveled at it. But when life arose, again and again, in varied form and kind, the celestial beings began to fear for the unique treasure they had unwittingly made. To protect Earth from being plundered and ruined, the celestial beings placed a shield around the planet, one they extended to the moon, and eventually to the system. The plan was to keep extending the shield as humanity ventured farther and farther out into the solar system and beyond. The plan was to allow as much truth to filter through the shield as they dared, save for one truth, the existence of life outside of Earth.
The celestial beings thought that since several sentient species had arisen on Earth, they would keep each other company, help each other grow, and when they were all ready, as a whole, when they were strong, inside and out, then they would find one of the four celestials, and the truth would be revealed to them. But the other sentient species of Earth left or went into hiding, when one particular one began to exert its dominance. Humanity found itself alone, or thinking that it was alone, with stories that were once histories and now thought to be legends, made up only to comfort themselves as they sat alone in a vast and empty universe.
Still, the celestial beings had hope that humanity would advance to the point of finding one of the four celestial beings who were responsible for their existence. Then that celestial being could provide them with guidance for the next step in the continuing journey of their species.
The closest being was the tellurian, who lived within the Earth. But the celestial beings predicted that humanity would first find the lunarian. It was just in the nature of humanity to be eternally curious, and to strive more for grand and glorious achievements than for humble and necessary ones. For far too long before humanity finally abolished thirst and hunger and so many more causes of worldwide suffering, they had the means but not the will to do so. And yet they still longed for celestial heights.
There was never a doubt that humanity was a species capable of becoming strong enough and worthy enough of leaving their shield behind, and joining their sister sentients in the rest of the cosmos, and protecting their precious home from those who would threaten it.
The doubt lay in whether or not they would be able achieve that strength before destroying themselves or even the very planet they were meant to guard.
“That is a lot to take in,” the captain said.
Pike frowned. “A shield?”
The lunarian turned to him. “There is a…lens around your solar system that’s filtering the messages and information coming in, including whatever you’re reading from any of your probes that managed to make it out of the solar system and send data back.”
Captain Tai rose. She took in a deep breath. “The lunar threshold. Is that because of the shield?”
The lunarian’s dark eyes glittered as she looked up at the captain. “Unfortunately, yes.”
No human being had ever managed to travel past the moon. The moon seemed to mark some threshold that humanity could not get through. Rovers and orbiters made it through. But all three attempts to send humans to Mars had failed, even the last one, a joint planetary mission that everyone believed was certain to succeed. Some mishap or malfunction caused every crewed mission to be aborted. The last ship was lucky. It managed to return to Earth. But the first two were lost. Despite putting every possible safety measure in place, they were lost.
Space exploration had always incurred risk and certain death, but the modern global space program made safety the utmost priority, so that any risk encountered would be one that they had never thought to prepare for. So humanity pulled back from Mars and designed a series of missions to send more people to the moon. Humanity hoped that if they established a base on the moon, maybe they would be able to solve the mystery of the lunar threshold. Maybe they would eventually succeed in sending people to Mars or Titan, maybe even beyond.
If what the lunarian told them about the shield was true, it explained why those missions failed, and why any further ones would fail.
“What would really happen if you dropped this shield?” the captain asked. “Would Earth immediately be invaded? Would humanity be wiped out?”
“We almost wiped ourselves out,” Pike said. “We almost destroyed Earth ourselves. It might have helped…I don’t know, but it might have helped to know we weren’t alone. And if you didn’t interfere, we would have known. We…we might have gotten our act together a lot sooner if we knew we weren’t alone in the universe, if we knew just how precious and vulnerable our planet was.”
“But we did know, Pike,” the captain said. “We did know that last part. History tells us so. Our forebears and ancestors did know better. But they didn’t always act upon what they knew. Those who would have acted did not have the means. And those who had the means did not often have the will.”
“I’ve been here the whole time,” the lunarian said, leaning toward Pike. “You found me for two reasons. Because you finally perceive me. And because you followed that perception out of curiosity. What you found was benign. But what if it hadn’t been?”
“Are you saying we need to build weapons before we go out into the cosmos?” Pike asked.
The captain turned to him. “She’s saying we tend to leap before we really look. And that could get us into a lot of trouble.” She turned back to the lunarian. “But facing that trouble is our burden to bear.”
The lunarian smiled. “When I first came to the home of my friend, the tellurian, accompanied by two more friends—the solarian and the stellarian—it was barren and rocky. In our joint presence, the planet began to bloom and grow in beauty, a turbulent beauty that thereafter required our care, but only from afar. If I were ever to set foot on Earth again, it would freeze over. If the solarian were to come too close, the Earth would burn. The lens shield was our flawed attempt to protect our precious creation. It will be dismantled someday, but not by us.”
The captain turned toward the fire. “She’s saying, Pike…that weapons would do us no good. So she and our other celestial makers have come up with another plan. And that’s where that ship comes in that she mentioned when we were first walked in.”
“The cosmos is full of sentient species,” the lunarian said, “some of whom have existed for eons longer than humanity, who have far superior technology and numbers. The best defense for Earth is for humans to do something that most humans are very good at doing in various different ways, making friends. By being charming and curious. By exploring and asking questions. By reflecting upon themselves as well as the world around them. These qualities are not uniquely human. But they are valuable. For there are many in the cosmos who do not possess them, and don’t care to. But there are also those in the cosmos who highly value and treasure such qualities.”
“And they’d be impressed at how curious and friendly us primitive humans are?” Pike asked.
“That has been my observation, when I have had the privilege to observe,” the lunarian said.
“So that’s the plan,” the captain said. “Go out there and make powerful friends who’ll help us protect our planet. Because if we want to develop the technology on our own, it’ll take so long that we can’t even fathom how many human generations would have to go by before we find that shield and take it down. We might never even perceive it. Because we’re inside it.”
The lunarian poked at the fire. “That’s as close to the truth as I can lead you with your current level of understanding.”
“Well, that’s not cryptic at all,” Pike quipped. He raised his arm to check the oxygen levels of his suit. The reading hadn’t shifted. He frowned and lowered his arm.
“It’s not,” the lunarian said, turning to him. “You are adept at calculus now, aren’t you? Judging by that machine you’re carrying, advanced mathematics is a part of your required skills.” She gestured to Pike’s detector. “But what did you know about math when you came to your first lesson as a child?”
The lunarian lifted what looked like a small copper pot sitting at her feet and hung it over the fire. “It will take time, and effort, and a building upon prior knowledge before you can understand the greater complexities of your place in the cosmos, the need for the shield, and other such…mysteries.”
“The difference is that when we’re young and learning how to do fractions,” the captain said, “we know for sure that there is higher math and that there are grown-ups and experts who understand that math and can teach that to the rest of us. But if all of humanity is ignorant of the higher math, then who will teach us?”
“Those who invent and discover, of course. Those who refine and add and synergize. Those who make mistakes and even those who destroy.”
“But Pike is right. You’re standing in the way. Because of your shield, we are not receiving information that would help us invent and discover, destroy theories that are outdated and wrong, and create new ones that might be right. You built it that way. You said so. That means you can adjust it so that it still protects Earth, but also let that information through.”
“The danger in perceiving is that the perceiver too is perceived,” the lunarian said.
The captain huffed. “Pike, you’re right about her being cryptic too. With respect, lunarian, you could have just said, ‘if you can see them, they can see you.’”
“That is what I said.”
The three were silent for a moment. Whatever was in the copper point began to boil. The lunarian removed the pot from the fire and set it on a table.
“Perhaps it would help to see the ship,” she said. She rose and waved her hand over a spot beside the fireplace. Another door slid open, leading outside. Several meters away, a vessel rested in the dark. It seemed to glow a silvery glow. The lunarian led them to it. As they approached, the hatch opened. The vessel was three times as big as the one they had arrived in.
She invited them to follow her in. The captain didn’t even bother asking Pike to stay behind this time. They both ascended the ramp side by side.
The ship was like something out of a space sci-fi dream. There were no wires inside. All the panels were smooth. All the labels were in the language Pike could read best. The chairs looked padded and comfortable. He saw spacesuits hanging in a closet with a glass front. The suits looked light, almost flimsy, compared to the massive bulk he was lugging around. The only reason he wasn’t exhausted was because of the moon’s lesser gravity.
The lunarian tapped one of the panels in the main cabin and showed them the pre-programmed destination. Pike could have sworn she said something about stopping by a diner on the way, if the cuisine produced by the ship’s fabricators was unsatisfactory.
“I’ll do it,” Pike found himself saying. He looked at Captain Tai. “I’ll go.”
The captain laughed at him. “Of course, you’ll go. Assuming we’re not both hallucinating right now, I want to go too.” She waved her hand over the panels. “Who wouldn’t?”
Pike sighed. “Sorry, Captain, you’re right. I just realized I’d saddle you with the burden of telling the crew and my loved ones that I’m gone. I don’t even know what you’ll say, or be allowed to say—“
“That’s not the point, Pike. I signed up to do all of that. The point is that this shouldn’t be secret. Everyone on Earth should know about this.” She turned to the lunarian. “They should know about you.”
“They’re welcome to know about me. I’ve sent out the invitation, haven’t I? But I can’t set foot on the Earth. I would alter the planetary balance and cause harm. I must remain where I am on the moon.”
“If Pike goes, is there any chance that he would be able to return?”
The lunarian furrowed her silvery brows. “Of course. For now, he may leave a message for whomever he wishes. He only has to complete his requisite training and learn how to navigate the shield without being followed, not a difficult task for those who are native to this system. Then he can return to visit Earth any time—barring the limits of travel, of course. Depending on what you decide to do, it may not always be possible to make it home for whatever holidays you are most keen to celebrate with your nearest and dearest.”
Pike gaped at the lunarian. “What!”
The captain exhaled. “So…this isn’t a one-way trip?”
“Not at all. Unless you wish it be.”
Pike really wanted to sit down on one of those comfy-looking chairs. “We’re not the first people—the first humans from Earth—to have met you?”
“You are not.”
Pike swiveled a chair around and sat down. “Okay, are there humans from Earth out there right now, outside of the solar system, tooling around the galaxy, making friends and alliances with…with aliens?”
The lunarian clasped her hands behind her back. “Well, technically if you’re on someone else’s home planet, you’re the alien. But to your meaning, yes, there are.”
“The Mars missions,” the captain said in quiet voice. “All those people we lost…the ships that never returned to Earth, that just vanished. Are all those people still alive?”
“Oh yes, as far as I know.”
“But none of them have returned to Earth.”
“Some have not wanted to. Some return regularly.”
The captain shook her head. “That’s not possible. We would know.”
“Are you implying that there are families on Earth who know that their loved ones are…cosmic explorers, and they’re not telling anyone?”
The lunarian inclined her head.
“Then why haven’t we heard about it?” the captain asked. “If our planetary leaders are keeping it secret from everyone else, why not tell us? We were specifically tasked with coming to the moon. Is it a test? Are they testing us?”
“You are assuming they know.”
Pike craned his neck forward, or tried to until his collar caught. “How could they not know?”
The lunarian raised her head and pulled back her shoulders. “I attempted once, to go through your leaders. But they betrayed you. I provided them with ways through the shield. They sold those ways to…aliens, in exchange for nothing more than power and wealth. Some of you were abducted against your will. Even after we fixed the shield so none more could get through, the ones who were still trapped in the system continued to abuse. And I could do nothing but vow to myself that I wouldn’t make that mistake again. And I will not.”
Pike shook his head. “Abducted? By aliens? It used to be reported a lot a few generations back. Not so much now. We thought it was because we were beginning to venture farther out into space and becoming more accustomed to it as a species. Less fearful. Those stories were real?”
“Perhaps your leaders now are different. Perhaps they are noble. But I dare not take that chance. I dare not give this opportunity to any who already wield considerable powers on Earth.”
“Then you’ve only got a handful of people, lunarian,” the captain said. “Not exactly a mass movement to recruit ambassadors.”
“The ambassadors will sometimes take a guest out with them, and bring them back. These guests may themselves become ambassadors.”
“They what?” Pike asked.
The captain closed her eyes and inhaled. “So there are ordinary people on Earth. Untrained. Just going out into the cosmos on a Tuesday. Coming back on Wednesday.”
“And here we are thinking we’re hot stuff just for coming up to the moon,” Pike said.
The lunarian raised one of her silvery brows. “The moon is nothing to scoff at, young ambassador.”
“Of course, ma’am. Sorry.”
“But it makes sense, doesn’t it Pike? There are so many things going on, so many important things going on right under our noses.”
Pike rose from his chair. “Captain, this was supposed to be your last mission. But it’s not mine. They won’t let you come back up here. But I’ve still got missions to fly. I can return, can’t I?” He looked at the lunarian.
“Now that you have learned to see in the dark,” the lunarian said, “you’ll be able to find me again.”
Pike turned to the captain again. “I really, really want to go with you. But one of us has to stay behind to pass on the other one’s message. To explain to the rest of our crew. And to let your family know you’ll see them soon.”
“They warned you, Captain, that if you declared this was your last mission, they wouldn’t let you change your mind.”
“Then we can both go.”
Pike looked at the lunarian, at her dark and glittering eyes. “It’s not my turn yet.” He looked at the captain, at the obvious guilt in her eyes. “Maybe I’ll get an upgraded ship by the time it is.”
The captain reached out and rested her hand on his shoulder. “I’ve really spoiled all of you, haven’t I?”
“Yes, Captain. We expect only the best.”
“Pike, I told them I’d come home.” The captain’s family had been looking forward to her retirement.
“And you will. I’ll make sure I convince them of that.”
“Thank you, Pike. I have one last order. And one last favor to ask.”
When Pike woke up in a dimness filled with amber light, he was disoriented. He tried to sit up and found a hand pressing down his shoulder.
A hazy voice spoke. “We’re still looking for her…”
He fell asleep again, and the next time he woke, he knew where he was. And he deduced how he’d gotten there. He remembered a brilliant fountain of neon pink plasma bursting from the thruster of the silvery ship that carried his captain beyond the moon.
The Lunarian had told him to rest, and he had.
And when next he woke, he was inside the landing module, and his crew told him that they’d come searching for him and the captain.
They found him, and they looked everywhere, but couldn’t find the captain.
Pike told them that she was all right. He called a meeting, and told them he would explain. He asked if they had encountered anything else, the anomalous signal that he and captain had been following.
The signal was still there, but they found nothing in the area except for him.
In the hour that the crew went about the basic necessary duties, Pike prepared his statement. And as soon as they could, the remaining six members of the fifth lunar exploration and mapping expedition gathered in their mess hall so Pike could tell them what had happened to their captain.
“I’ll tell you what I perceived happened,” he said.
Pike was afraid that at least one of them would accuse him of doing something to the captain, or at least of allowing her to be harmed by something, a lunar quake, or something reasonable, more reasonable than a moon being opening a panel through a shield that was guarding Earth from the rest of the galaxy, so their captain could go be an ambassador and an explorer on a journey none of them ever dreamed possible.
“I believe what I experienced was true,” Pike said. “But I have no proof. I’m sorry. I have no proof.”
The commander, and now acting captain, peered at him. “We believe you, Pike. We would anyway, but we have some proof of what you experienced…aside from the signal. Some interesting data we gathered in the vicinity where we found you. Your oxygen levels too. Still almost full. We didn’t see any structures though, except in the video the captain took. But it cut out right as you approached that opening. We think that anomalous signal fried it somehow.”
One of the other crew members sighed. “What are going to tell Command about the captain?”
“The truth,” Pike said. “The lunarian said it’s my choice, but she recommended that I tell the truth.”
The crew psychologist sighed. “Well, yeah, they’ll probably come up with some psychological rationale. Like the captain got lost in the dark, couldn’t find her way back. Her tracker malfunctioned, the back-up. Maybe her whole suit was damaged. So you couldn’t find her, and you knew we wouldn’t be able to. You tried until you almost died yourself. And then you made up a story about how she’s still out there on a mission. Because it’s too painful to think she just got lost in the dark, and ran out of oxygen and died on her last mission. It’s too much to think that her remains will just be here out in space until someone else finds her someday.”
Pike felt something in the pit of his stomach. The scenario and rationale that the good doctor had just laid out was so terrifyingly reasonable. But it was also completely wrong. The feeling he felt in the pit of his stomach arose from his utter and total certainty that what he believed was true. The feeling was envy and excitement swirling around each other. It was worry and wonder clashing and colliding. It was the profound sense that the captain had begun her journey. And that he—and maybe even some of the people around the table—would soon follow.
He rose and gazed out of the capsule window.
See you soon, Captain, he thought. He blinked, and in his eyes, he caught the faint afterglow of neon pink plasma.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel