By C.R. Hodges
The claxon blares three times: all clear. We file out of the underground shelter and up the serpentine lava tube. Our semi-annual hibernation drill, bureaucratic gibberish for run down to the emergency shelter and hide, is now monthly. I’m all for avoiding nuclear annihilation, but I wish the drills weren’t scheduled so close to lunar sunset.
I jostle my way toward the front of the long line headed for the surface modules. It’s been fourteen Earth days since I’ve talked to my best friend. Sure we could have emailed or texted, even from two-hundred and thirty-nine thousand miles away, but that would be cheating. We’re the Interplanetary Morse Code Club. Sally is President, Earth District; I’m Vice President of Lunar Operations. It’s a small club.
In the beginning, back in fourth grade, we used pulsed lasers with computer translators operating at one megabit per second. But now that’s cheating too. The club rules are clear now: lasers are allowed, but only with hand modulation. I use a thermal tile, painted pink, scavenged from the silly dollhouse Mom built for my fifth birthday. Sally uses a kayak paddle. Means we can only communicate when it’s dark on both worlds, and here on the moon it takes literally a fortnight for the stupid sun to set.
I make it back to our family’s module with two minutes to spare. Facing the video feed from the twelve-inch telescope I’ve positioned outside in the cold vacuum, I watch the abrupt nightfall as the terminator line passes overhead. While the telescope is slaved to my computer and can track automatically, I’m equally adept at tracking via joystick. I find the bright lights of Denver, then scroll west to the tiny mountain town of Frisco, lit up as well. A nudge east to a small hilltop overlooking the lake, with only one house on it. Gently scrolling as the Earth turns beneath us, I wait. It’s an hour past dusk Colorado time, the earliest we can see each other’s signals.
“H-e-l-l-o,” I code, waving the tile between the penlight laser and the viewport. I’ve put an anti-reflective coating on the glass but the reflection still illuminates the interior bulkhead of my sleeping module. Di di di dit. Dit. And so forth. No nineteenth century Western Union operator would have quaked in her boots about losing her job to my blazing speed, but I am the reigning lunar champ.
I’m not directly signaling Earth, of course. A homebuilt sensor duct taped to the telescope detects my dots and dashes and feeds the code into an industrial laser mounted coaxially with the telescope. I’m also the club’s chief engineer. Originally the rules required me to stand outside in a moon suit waving the tile, but Mom nixed that one. After some parliamentary debate, the club amended section thirty-eight of the bylaws to allow my indirect hand modulation.
No reply. While I wait, I do a quick check for inbound space traffic between Earth and the Glasnost Peace Lunar Cooperative Settlement, aka the Colony. Home. While satellites orbiting the Earth are impossible to see with my limited telescope, anything with a rocket engine is visible to those of us who know where to look. The weekly space freighter fires its stage four boosters and heads our way. My stepdad is in charge of Colony logistics. He does a good job, and sometimes smuggles in a little chocolate for me.
Returning my view to Frisco, I try another “Hello.”
“Hi Ivana.” Sally is on station.
“Good evening,” I signal. “Missed you.”
The red light from Sally’s laser, tiny but discernible, blinks on and off. Dah dah. And so on. “Missed you too,” Sally signals.
Text speak is banned, as are contractions. Only prosigns, the traditional Morse code abbreviations, are allowed. Section twelve of the bylaws.
“Is your mom home?” I ask.
“Yes.” Means we can only talk for fifteen minutes, then Sally will have to do her homework. Sixth grade isn’t as tough on Earth as it is here on the moon, but her mom still insists on study time. And Morse code doesn’t bring in any extra credit points, no matter how proficient.
We’re up to twenty words a minute, which gives us a few hundred words in total, allowing for the speed of light latency. We cover club business, boys—apparently they’re cuter in Frisco than in the Colony—and finally politics.
Politics is one of the reasons we communicate in code. Russia and the United States are beyond saber rattling. The Colony was originally a semi-utopian American and Russian co-op, until palladium was discovered in the Maskelyne crater. Now we’re caught in the middle. Discussing the pending war is a big no-no on all three sides, and interplanetary radio waves are routinely snooped by the NSA, the newly-revived KGB and the embryonic Lunar Security Agency. Anyone with a telescope and a dog-eared Young Pioneer or Girl Scout handbook can eavesdrop on our conversations, but there is an advantage of being so retro as to be ignored.
“Dad got called up,” Sally says. Her father is a major in the United States Army Reserve. My father is back on Earth too, in St. Petersburg. Sally politely calls him a sanitary engineer. He cleans up trash in the subway when he isn’t too drunk to make it to work.
Mom and I live on the moon with my stepdad and Stepjerk, aka my stepbrother François. Everyone thinks Mom is a Russian spy. They’re probably right. My stepdad is almost certainly a spy too, of the French variety. But he’s a really nice guy, for a stepdad, and all he drinks is a little wine with dinner.
“Ouch,” I say, pausing inadvertently, using up precious bandwidth. “I hope he stays safe.”
“You stay safe too.” Her family is about as safe as one can get in America: nine thousand feet in elevation, prevailing winds blowing east out of Denver and a mountain range in between. But the Colony, located in the Sea of Tranquility twenty miles from where mankind first set foot on the moon a century ago, has a giant target painted on it. Probably from both sides.
We do have a secret. The first explorers discovered a lava cave beneath the lunar regolith. Our bomb shelter now, it takes an hour for us all to make it past the blast gates deep underground. Both the United States and Russia placed nuclear-tipped drones in lunar orbit during the last crisis. They can be commanded to crash dive into the Colony’s dome. Stepjerk, a freshman at Armstrong University, says his professors have calculated that it will take seventy-two minutes for either country to annihilate us. Gives us a small buffer, assuming our detector arrays spot the deorbit burns in time.
I’ve never told Sally about the cave. Talking about it is the only high crime in the Colony. “We will survive,” I say, hoping she will not ask how, yet feeling treasonous nonetheless.
“Run for the cave if the time comes,” she says.
So much for our secret. “How did you know?”
A long pause, far beyond the accursed lag second.
“There is a video on Moontube.”
A poorly kept secret.
“Supposed to be —”
I stop, the pink tile held chest high. A bright flash on Earth, east coast of the United States. Five seconds later another. The evacuation alarm goes off, bright lights and a siren, followed by that awful recording. “Please proceed in an orderly fashion to the cave. Walk, do not run. Please proceed . . . ”
“CL,” I code, the prosign for going off the air, then quickly add, “luv u.” I drop the tile as Mom grabs my hand. We run, section twelve and the incessant commands be damned. This is no drill.
The evacuation down to the cave takes us fifty-six minutes and forty-three seconds. As the blast doors creak shut, there’s a group sigh, all seven thousand of us.
We wait. I tap my fingers on the lava ropes that snake across the floor of the cave. What hath god wrought? Samuel Morse’s original message. Seems appropriate. Doesn’t help.
Stepjerk expounds on his seventy-two minutes theory to anyone who will listen. Too many do. At seventy-one minutes someone starts softly counting down. We don’t actually know if the cave is deep enough and, of course, we will be trapped here for months at best, entombed forever at worst. We have food, water and air for a year max. Sixty, fifty-nine . . .
As the count drops below thirty, more voices join in. Chanting softly, like in church.
At two everything goes quiet.
Ten seconds past zero Stepjerk whispers in my ear, “Boom.”
I ignore him. A half minute later he opines that his professor did not say that the explosion would be at exactly seventy-two minutes.
After two days the mayor declares all clear and we return to the surface. There’s a full spectrum blackout but news filters in via the Colony militia. Eight nuclear strikes says one rumor, twenty-three another. Moscow and Washington, St. Petersburg and New York, those are given. My father is likely dead, although my stepdad holds my hand and says, “Subways are underground, Ivana. A good thing, oui?”
I hug him even though I fear in my heart he’s wrong.
“Denver?” I ask Mom, as we’re heading back to our module.
“I haven’t heard,” she says. Her eyes say it is a lie, but then again she hasn’t tried to cover up St. Petersburg. Part of me is sure Sally is alive in any case, shielded by the Continental Divide; part of me fears the worst.
Part of me is horrified that I’m more worried about her than about my father.
The broad Pacific is facing us by the time I activate my telescope. It looks peaceful, until the pyres that were Tokyo and Shanghai swing into view. It isn’t just America versus Mother Russia anymore.
The sirens go off again before I can see Europe, much less North America. A rumor spreads like a hairline fracture in an oxygen tank that the Russians have obliterated our detector arrays. Panic ensues, and it takes us over sixty-nine minutes.
The rumor is unfortunately true. Twenty days later the mayor reluctantly allows us back up to the surface. The detector arrays are indeed down, and we’re naked. I camp by the telescope, waiting a little less than an hour for the Rocky Mountains to show up. Denver isn’t burning, but just to its south floats a huge cloud of ash over where NORAD must once have been.
I cry all day. Transmissions with Earth are severed and we’re five days till lunar nightfall, when I can communicate with Sally. Attempt to communicate.
The longest five days of my life, made worse by daily evacuation drills. We’re running now, but orderly, and we have it down to forty-nine minutes. On the fourth day a French space freighter—thanks to my stepdad, I suspect or at least hope—lands. With much-needed rations but also the news that both the Americans and Russians have moved their drones into lower orbits. It will only take fifty-three minutes for them to annihilate us, or so the University experts are telling everyone. Not that it matters. With our detectors down, as Stepjerk is keen to remind me, we’re as blind as cave lichen. Fifty spotters are deployed with binoculars to scan the heavens manually, but deorbit burns are much tougher to see looking at the pointy end of a drone missile rather than at its fiery butt.
Lunar nightfall is only an hour ahead of Denver coming into range, so I wait up.
“Hello,” I signal.
When I re-sight the telescope I realize that there are almost no lights in Colorado, outside of the hellacious glow over NORAD. Sally can’t operate her laser. Even if she is alive.
Then I see something, the color off and way too dim. Four long segments of vaguely orange light, well beyond any dot or dash. Yet uniform in length and spacing. I wait, holding my breath, hoping that it’s her, just signaling very slowly. Another overlong dot, followed by an excruciatingly long dash. Di di di dit. Di dah. “Hi.”
“Sally?” I reply.
“Yes.” Of course it’s her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Bonfire. Big mirror. Mom helping,” she signals, over the course of eight long minutes. “You okay?”
“Yes. Except for my . . . ” I stop, set down the tile and wipe my eyes. “ . . . father. St. Petersburg.”
“I am sorry.” Her speed is improving.
“Sally, I’m scared. We’re blind here,” I blurt aloud, then remember to signal it, sans contractions.
How to say this? I wonder. Carefully I signal, “We will not know when we need to go running.”
“SN.” The prosign for understood.
“Time for bed,” Mom says softly, a hand on my shoulder. Weary, like I’m supporting her.
“Just let me say goodbye to Sally.” I give Mom’s hand a quick squeeze.
She nods, a wry smile on her haggard face.
“I have to go to sleep. Stay safe. Good night. CL.”
My finger on the off switch, I wait for the second o. A budding journalist, Sally never misspells anything.
Nothing more. “Bedtime,” Mom says.
“Just a minute,” I say. To Sally I signal, “Everything okay?”
A flurry of blinks, Di di di dah dah dah di di dit. All one control character, without pauses between the letters, just like the prosign is supposed to be sent. Just like it has been sent, ever since the days of steamships, in times of imminent peril. The international—the interplanetary—distress code: SOS.
A short pause as I hold my breath, waiting for another flash of light, another city destroyed. But two seconds later there come more blinks. Slower. Deliberate.
Di dah dit. “R . . . ”
“Bed.” Mom is tugging on my upper arm now, but my feet are rooted to the flooring.
Di di dah. “ . . . u . . . ”
The infinite cold of space is seeping through the bulkhead walls.
“Ivana.” In that drawn-out, three-syllable parental fashion.
I ignore her, staring at Earth, at Colorado, at Sally’s campfire.
Dah dit. “ . . . n.”
No earthbound telegrapher would have ever abandoned her station without acknowledging, even in such dire times. “SN,” I reply, signaling so fast the tile flies out of my hand with the final dit, shattering against the bulkhead.
“Mom,” I yell, as I grab her wrist. “Run!”
About the Author
C.R. Hodges writes all manner of speculative fiction, from ghost stories to urban fantasy to science fiction. Twenty of his short stories have been published in markets such as Cicada and Escape Pod (EP356: “Three-Quarters Martian”), and he is a first prize winner of the 2016 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. When he is not writing or playing the euphonium, he runs a product design company in Colorado, where he lives with his wife, dog, and no ghosts that he knows of.
About the Narrator
Eden Royce is a Geechee writer from South Carolina. Her short fiction can be found in various print and online publications including: FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and PodCastle. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic novel Root Magic is out now from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. More at https://linktr.ee/edenroyce