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Americans on the Moon

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Americans on the Moon

By Oleg Divov

Translated by Alex Shvartsman

Fiction

| Issue 3

| July 17, 2019

 

he employment of moon-based weapons systems against earth or space targets may prove to be feasible and desirable. Moon-based military power will be a strong deterrent to war because of the extreme difficulty, from the enemy point of view, of eliminating our ability to retaliate. Any military operations on the moon will be difficult to counter by the enemy because of the difficulty of his reaching the moon, if our forces are already present and have the means of countering a landing or of neutralizing any hostile forces that has landed.[sic]

  • Project Horizon, Volume I: Summary and Supporting Considerations, 1959

There was no doubt that the lunar rover was Russian. It looked like an oversized bucket with a lid and eight wheels. To make it abundantly clear that this bucket had arrived on the moon to build communism it had the flag of the Soviet Union painted on its side. For anyone especially dense, it also said: USSR.

Underneath in smaller letters it added: explosive—do not touch.

Due to the nature of his assignment Major Earl was an expert in lunar rovers, but he had never seen anything like this. The Soviets had never built machines this powerful before. The bucket was huge. It could easily fit a pair of cosmonauts with room enough for a mortar or a rocket launcher.

The lid of the bucket was open. It looked like an invitation: why don’t you peek inside? Check out the unexpected present. But don’t touch or you might explode. . . . A typical moon rover had a heat exchanger under the hood. An atypical one—you’ve got three guesses as to what might be lurking within.

Peaceful Russian lunar rovers didn’t just appear in the sovereign US territory where no one had been expecting them.

Major Earl rubbed his eyes with both hands.

Somehow we screwed up at the tactical level, he thought.

Somehow we forgot that the Russians have fallen behind in the space race in every metric save one. They have an overabundant supply of recklessness.

The masterminds behind Project Horizon figured that if the Soviets were to have the temerity to attack the American moon base, it could only be accomplished via a classic infantry strike. The enemy would surreptitiously move their forces as close as they could to the base, then rush it in an attempt to destroy the antennae and pierce the command module. No other option made any sense.

One couldn’t sneak up on the Moon. One couldn’t launch a warhead from Earth to nuke our lunar outpost. We’d have time to notice, time to question its meaning, time to respond with an overwhelming force from which there’d be no escape.

A shootout on the Moon would be the inevitable precursor to the Soviets initiating hostilities back on Earth. The Russians had only one chance at winning World War III: to first capture the Horizon 1 moon base. The Russians would have to show up here immediately prior to an attack on Europe or the US, or everyone at once. They’d have to do it suddenly and without the declaration of war.

The only option left open to the Russians was betrayal and subterfuge. They’d have no choice but to conceal the invasion as a scientific expedition, land far away, and attack over the surface. If those faux scientists managed to reach us at all. The Moon is a harsh mistress.

In order to deter uninvited guests, Horizon 1 was built at the base of an impenetrable rock. The plan was to surround the base with minefields and install an early detection system. When the Russians come, the mines will blow them up, then we’ll come out and shoot the rest, maybe even capture someone alive. Then the State Department will call Comrade Brezhnev and say, “See what you’ve done, you warmonger? We’re about to broadcast live from the Moon. What do you say to that?”

And Comrade Brezhnev will have to explain why his scientists invaded our territory with weapons in hand.

We were also pretending to be a scientific expedition here. This is an understandable and forgivable necessity.

But the Russians will be forced to lie to the entire world, and the world will not forget or forgive.

It seemed simple enough: whoever established a stronghold on the Moon first was the victor. Their homeland would get to dictate its will to the rest of the world. Except—Oops! A soviet lunokhod showed up in the middle of our base. Sneaked in without a single shot being fired.

Earl rubbed his eyes one more time, just in case.

He badly wanted to say, “Somebody pinch me.” He wanted his guys to start snickering and then laugh out loud, because it was all a practical joke. Some Houston egghead faked the footage and our brainiacs displayed it on all the monitors and were now enjoying the show as their commander’s hair stood on end. It was just innocent hazing—we were all soldiers there, after all.

Except the entire day shift of the Horizon 1 base, all twelve of them, were staring at the rover wide-eyed and weren’t laughing. They were barely breathing.

The lunokhod stood in the middle of the construction zone, next to the convex lids of the fifth and sixth launch silos. It was the show of strength, the demonstration of possibilities. To get there, the rover had to follow a complicated trajectory past the piles of construction garbage, squeeze between the disassembled components of the crane, the drill rig, and the excavator. Considering the signal delay—it would take video at least three seconds to reach Earth—the Russians had very talented operators. It was even worse if the rover was capable of navigating the terrain on autopilot.

“Somebody pinch me,” uttered Captain Roberts behind him. “Or tell me this is a stupid prank. We’ll all laugh together. The commander will forgive you, I promise. I’ll beg him to.”

The command center was silent. It was a heavy silence, pregnant with uncertainty and fear shared by everyone including Earl himself as well as his second in command.

“Fine. Then explain to me how we missed this!” Roberts raised his voice.

“As if you don’t know,” Earl said without turning. “Quit looking for scapegoats, it’s not our fault. The Russians have outplayed us, if this is what I think it is.”

An impressive move, Earl thought. Elegant and inexpensive. What a shame. If only we kept to the schedule and had enough time to set up the minefields.

To be fair, the United States Army never in its history managed to build anything within the designated timetable and budget. This project nearly cracked the nation’s economy. A hundred Saturn launches in the past two years alone, nearly three hundred tons of equipment delivered, including a pair of nuclear power units. Who could worry about the schedule when they were building something incredible, something that had never been built before.

The military base on the Moon was the cornerstone of securing peace for the entire world, a permanent defense against the communist threat. It was practically the eighth wonder of the world. How does one do that on a tight schedule?

“What?” Earl asked, coming back to reality.

“I’m not talking about us, specifically,” said Roberts. “But overall. How did this jalopy fly over here? Do we know?”

“It rode in,” Earl corrected him.

“But first it had to fly in!”

“Stop,” Earl said, steel in his voice this time. “Enough. It’s not your fault. It’s not our fault. It’s not anybody’s damned fault, all right? Time to get to work. Goretsky, grab the camera and go check out this thing up close. See how it says “don’t touch” on it? Don’t touch it. Don’t even think about touching it. But definitely peek inside, under the lid. If you’re not tall enough, pull up the excavator and climb on top of it. Irving! Grab the Geiger counter and take its measurements, see what wonder of technology has dropped by for a visit.”

His people started to move, as if their commander had woken them up. The command module felt packed as usual, instead of spacious with everyone deflating due to fear or uncertainty.

“What’s to measure? It has plutonium batteries for sure, maybe even a reactor. It’s got to be leaking radiation like crazy,” said Irving, as he made his way toward the exit.

“Our job is to measure and to report,” Roberts called after him.

“Your job,” Earl corrected him quietly. “Go supervise. The guys, they’ll feel braver with you along. And they won’t do anything foolish.”

“Do you realize this is treason?” Roberts hissed. “It couldn’t be done without treason. They couldn’t outwit us like that! No amount of surveillance—”

“Blake and Morgan,” Earl called. “Take the rover and trace back the lunokhod’s tracks. Within reason, please, no heroics. Try to establish the direction it came from. Everyone else, get back to work. Anyone who’s off shift, rest up if you can. Gentlemen, leave us.”

The astronauts silently headed out the door. Earl finally found the strength to look away from the monitors. He swung his chair to face Roberts.

“Why are you freaking out?”

“What else can I do?” Roberts whisper-screamed. “Five hours! Five hours from now two congressmen will arrive. They’ll come here to oversee the completion of the project America nearly gave itself a hernia to undertake. And what are we going to tell them? ‘Gentlemen, we’ve been betrayed’? How it’s not our fault, the surveillance system hasn’t been fully set up yet, the minefields aren’t ready, and there wasn’t enough time? What do you think they’ll say to that?”

“I think I know.” Earl’s lips curled into a sad smile. “Swigert is one of the boys, he’ll say, ‘You’ve really dug a hole for yourselves.’ I’m not sure about McCain though. He’s a veteran and a real war hawk. He’ll probably threaten to dishonorably discharge the lot of us after this. I’ll get arrested. And why not? At least I’ll catch up on my sleep.”

Roberts opened his mouth to speak but he took a closer look at Earl and exhaled instead.

“Sorry, Commander. I’ll go suit up. I should’ve kept my emotions under control. It’s just that I’m in shock and . . . how’re you holding up?”

“Fine,” said Earl. “If the rover contains what we fear it does then, as you rightly pointed out, it means several years of Sisyphean labor flushed down the toilet, along with my life’s work. What a grand game it was while it lasted, eh? Such high stakes. Such a powerful adversary. Everything about it was dialed up to the max. And I got to be a part of that game. Not too bad, right?”

Roberts shrugged. Earl glanced away.

“Now the important thing is for that rolling bucket not to explode,” he added, in a different tone. “We dug a hole for ourselves, indeed . . .”

“What do you think the payload is?”

“Five, maybe six hundred pounds? If it were me, I’d put a simple artillery shell in there. Cheap and effective. That means a couple of kilotons; enough to blow the entire base to smithereens.”

“Wait, the warhead wouldn’t last very long in a regular container, not without a special microclimate. We know this because we’ve researched it! But the Russians haven’t. Maybe their fuze has already rotted into a dud?”

“They wouldn’t need a long time. Lunokhod-4 landed two weeks ago.”

“Damn it.”

“Yup. It simply didn’t land where they said it would. It missed, the poor thing. It also turned out to be much larger than we had thought. . . . Anyway, go say hi. Today was supposed to be a historic day. It seems, no matter what happens next, history has already been made. Two civilizations met on the Moon!”

Roberts chuckled mirthlessly and headed out but he paused in the doorway.

“McCain doesn’t have the authority to releive you of command. But if. . . . What should I do then?”

“Keep things running. Politicians are going to negotiate, but while they do, we have to keep working.”

“You’ve got nerves of steel,” said Roberts.

Earl turned away and closed his eyes.

 

 

The establishment of a manned base of operations on the moon has tremendous military and scientific potential. Because invaluable scientific, military, and political prestige will come to the nation that first establishes a lunar base, it is imperative that the United States be first.

  • Project Horizon, Volume I: Summary and Supporting Considerations, 1959

 

The rover looked pretty rough close up. It was dented and scratched. Two of its eight wheels were chewed up along their edges. Two of its manipulators were bent and one more was broken.

And yes, the thing had manipulators: sliding articulated rods that terminated in pincers. The rover bristled with photo camera lenses and carried two video cameras on brackets. One of those cameras rotated slowly as it kept an eye on Goretsky, who circled around the rover keeping a safe five-foot distance. He had determined the safe distance through trial and error. Any closer, and the rover began to fight, in a surprisingly deft and agile manner. It had landed a powerful punch to Goretsky’s thigh, causing him to fall. The machine knocked the Geiger counter out of Irving’s hand, picked it up, and crushed it with one of its pincers.

Irving said it was playing fair, sparing them any real damage.

Goretsky told him not to panic, but sounded rather uncertain himself.

Blake and Morgan didn’t leave because they couldn’t find any rover tracks to follow. Irving jokingly suggested that they should examine the rock that towered over the base. His colleagues missed the joke and went to take a look. Half an hour later, Earl had to remind them that the crane had been disassembled, leaving no way to remove people from a fifty-foot height; and that jumping down was strictly against safety protocols. Reluctantly, Blake and Morgan returned and reported that they’d solved the mystery of the Soviet machine’s arrival.

The designers had assured them that the rock behind the base was impregnable, but they had always been too busy working to pay it any attention, let alone climb and examine it for themselves. Alas, the rock was not as steep as it seemed. The lunokhod had used its manipulators to climb over it like a spider. There were tracks everywhere. That’s how it came to be so banged up.

Everyone looked to the lunar rover with newfound respect.

Then Irving used the excavator to lift Goretsky over the top of the rover so he could peek inside. Its two cameras observed this operation with genuine interest.

The bucket had a heat exchanger, after all. There was also a container with the radiation warning sign and some text in Cyrillic. The steel innards of the rover were photographed from every possible angle. Those photographs were sent to Earth along with the report. Having done all that, they could finally–with a clear conscience and a foul mood–get some breakfast.

The conversation over breakfast centered on how awesome the Russian rover was, and how they’d like one like that—or better yet a couple of them—on their team. And how many useful and interesting things they could do with such a device.

Captain Roberts reported to Major Earl that the crew was succumbing to defeatist tendencies by the minute as they were praising enemy technology.

Major Earl told the captain to let it be. Any time now, a pair of congressmen would be arriving. One of them a hero of the space exploration era, the other a hero of the Vietnam War. And when they got there, they’d chew everyone out to sufficiently teach them the meaning of defeatist tendencies.

“I thought you said Swigert was one of the boys?” Roberts reminded him.

“Yeah. He was the only single guy in the Apollo program and the only active astronaut to have a bar with a beer tap in his house. I visited him once. . . .” Earl sighed as he recalled those pleasant memories. “But he’s a politician now. He’s coming here to make an historic announcement about how America is saving the world. Except—here come the Russians! And we let them into our base!”

“I wouldn’t mind getting as far from this base as possible,” Roberts said, staring into his plate.

“See?” said Earl. “You’re not immune from the defeatist tendencies, either.”

To be second to the Soviet Union in establishing an outpost on the moon would be disastrous to our nation’s prestige and in turn to our democratic philosophy.

  • Project Horizon, Volume I: Summary and Supporting Considerations, 1959

 

“You’ve really dug a hole for yourselves,” said Swigert.

He and Earl were sitting atop the excavator and staring down at the lunokhod. It stared back at them.

They were long overdue back at the command center, but Congressman McCain was raging in there. He was arguing with Earth and also threatening dire consequences for anyone who got underfoot.

Earl figured that the two prominent government officials were selected in a logical manner. One of them knew how to pilot spaceships while the other could survive the trip without showing any sign of weakness. They looked like they were bred and groomed specifically for this mission, too. Swigert and McCain looked great together: one animated, blond, and clearly a civilian; the other obviously a military man, his hair turned gray in a Vietnam prison. Both looked like true heroes.

Earl imagined the pair standing in their spacesuits amid the launch silos and declaring: “On behalf of the United States . . .” Letting the world know that ten warheads with one-megaton payloads are standing watch at the Horizon 1 base. Weapons of retaliation. There will be no winners in World War III. Whatever happens on Earth, the Soviet Union’s ten largest industrial centers will be destroyed three days after the war begins. Our retaliation will be humanitarian: this delay will allow you enough time to evacuate the population, but will cause irreparable damage to your infrastructure. We’ll bomb you back into the Stone Age. Think twice. Cease this senseless arms race. And so on.

Beautiful. Amazing. Perfect.

Were it not for the rover.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Earl. “If only we kept to the schedule—”

“According to the original schedule for Project Horizon, this base should’ve been completed in 1970,” Swigert cut him off. “It’s 1980 now, in case you forgot.”

“I meant our realistic schedule. If everything went according to plan, without the constant hiccups. If the Russians behaved like decent enemies and didn’t attack from behind. Except . . . even if our minefields and surveillance systems were in place, those lunar claymores are antipersonnel mines designed to damage spacesuits with shrapnel. It’s unlikely they could stop a rover. We’d have to go out and shoot at it with recoilless rifles—a dubious pleasure. We’d damage it and in retaliation it’d self-destruct and—boom.  There’s basalt everywhere. It’d mangle our silo shafts through a moonquake and game over. And what if they were to send troops in these huge rovers? What if there were a half dozen of them? We couldn’t defend against that, so we’d have to request permission from Earth to use the Davy Crockett. But they won’t sanction it! They’ll say that we’re good Christians, peaceful people, and we can’t start a world war by firing a nuclear projectile . . .”

Swigert clapped his hands silently.

“Although, isn’t that why we’re here? To threaten the Soviets with the big nuclear stick from a safe distance? Threats beget threats, I guess.”

“I agree, this hasn’t been thought out properly,” said Swigert. “We weren’t ready for a confrontation. All that paperwork, but when the time came for a real standoff, we fell into a stupor. Which is understandable. Project Horizon was invented to show up the Soviets. And then it was buried because of the lack of funds. When they resurrected it, the funds still weren’t there. But, then they could just print as much money as they wanted, since the inflation was going crazy anyway. Horizon was going to boost manufacturing and create jobs. If not for the contractors robbing us blind, we would’ve been on schedule. . . . Forget I said that. My point is, this project wasn’t resurrected to steal money. It was done for national prestige! We needed a victory. Any victory. Preferably a victory over our own fears.

“Are things that bad?” Earl asked carefully.

“Listen, Major, I didn’t understand how bad things were until I got into politics. The seventies were not America’s finest decade, to put it mildly. Forget about Vietnam, Watergate, the Nixon resignation, and all that. Let’s look at what can be measured in dollars. There were two oil crises, the economy is stagnant, and inflation is sky-high. Jimmy Carter is a worthless demagogue. But when he says our economy is ailing, our nation is in crisis—that was written for him by competent people. Did you know that America could’ve hosted the Olympics this year? You haven’t heard that?  Guess why that hasn’t happened. Why we passed on the next Olympics, too. There’s no money! Not enough funds, even though we literally print them. The money is here.” Swigert waved his hand. “It was buried in lunar soil, so the nation could be proud.”

It was difficult to see the congressmen’s facial expression through the faceplate of his spacesuit, but his voice sounded young, sonorous, and bitter.

“To be clear, I was against all this from the beginning. And, as I recall, so were you. Unless you’ve changed your mind?”

“I really wanted to go to the Moon,” said Earl.

“We all did,” said Swigert.

“Everyone was against it, but everyone wanted to go to the Moon,” came the voice in their earphones.

“Irving! Stop spying on us, you son of a bitch.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I just wanted to say, the politicians did a number on us until we all became indoctrinated with the importance of our peacekeeping mission. Isn’t that right, sir? Sorry, sir. Switch to the third channel if you don’t want the entire base to hear you, sir.”

“Hey, astronaut,” Swigert said, “Lower us down. I’d keep sitting here, but the oxygen is running low.”

They climbed off the excavator and waved at the rover—everyone treated it like a living being—then headed for the base.,

“What do you think is going to happen?” Earl asked, when they reached the entrance.

Something will. The airtime has been reserved. You don’t mess with television. The nation is expecting an announcement, so there will be one. Competent people are writing one for John McCain. Let him read it. I can stand next to him humbly. My job was to pilot the ship. They needed an astronaut, a space pilot, otherwise they would’ve never sent me here, and I would’ve never made it to the Moon.”

“Everyone wanted to go to the Moon.” Earl shook his head.

“More than anything,” said Swigert.

It is believed that the foregoing shows that the policy of the United States requires “HORIZON”; that indeed the failure vigorously to prosecute such a program is to disregard the plain intention, if not direction, of the executive and legislative branches of the Government to take proper measures to insure our national survival. [sic]

  • Project Horizon, Volume I: Summary and Supporting Considerations, 1959

 

“Jack, do you read?” came a creaky voice.

“I read you.” Swigert’s eyes grew so big that this time Earl could see them through the Plexiglas.

“Don’t take off your spacesuit. Can you stay outside a while longer? Like an hour?”

“If I change oxygen tanks, no problem. Even four hours. What happened?”

“What I expected. That weakling Jimmy surrendered.”

“Ahh,” said Swigert.

“The Russians told him the rover contains a twenty kiloton—”

“Liars,” said Earl. “Two kilotons, max!”

“What’s the difference, Major?” said McCain. “Our experts confirm there’s a nuclear charge in there. Even one kiloton would be enough to destroy the silos and the base. The Russians gave the president one hour to think it over, and he folded his cards. The game is lost.”

“Ahh,” Swigert repeated.

“Jack, you have to be present for the inspection. Major Earl will order the silos open and the rover will look inside with its cameras. Damnation! The major’s orders are already here, they’re being decoded. One more request, Jack. Washington sent a new communiqué instead of the announcement we were supposed to read. Some nonsense about our peaceful science base and future scientific cooperation with the Russians. It has to be read in a spacesuit, in front of the rover. . . . I can’t do it. I’ll stand next to you humbly as you read. Eh?”

“I understand, John,” said Swigert, in a very serious tone. “Yes. This is a job for an astronaut.”

It total silence, he and Earl attached fresh oxygen tanks to their suits and went back to the lunar surface.

That’s when Earl did something unexpected. He pulled Swigert toward him and gestured for the congressman to turn off his radio. Then he touched his helmet to Swigert’s and spoke. His voice was muted, but clear.

“Jack, you’re older and more experienced than me,” Earl said quickly, “but I’m the commander here. I’d like your advice. As base commander, I haven’t received any orders yet. Whatever Congressman McCain said, I didn’t hear him, my radio got accidentally turned off. Suppose I’m convinced the Russians are bluffing. Irving can get into the excavator, scoop up the rover, and carry it as far from the base as possible. The excavator can probably handle that. Then you and John come outside and read the original announcement. The one about the weapons of retaliation and world peace. As to whatever agreement the Russians negotiated with the president, that’s their business and their problem. The whole planet will be listening. The whole planet will know we have missiles here. Now tell me, Jack, what should I do?”

“What if it blows? The whole planet will know the Americans brought an atomic bomb to the Moon and were stupid enough to blow ourselves up.”

“Nothing will blow!” Earl shouted. “The Russians are liars, just like us! We don’t have any missiles on the Moon because we have no money, and everything is being done ass backwards. The entire Project Horizon is ass backwards! One enormous bluff. And the Russians don’t have the bomb either, because they’re always playing chicken with us and we always blink first. Just like we did this time. There’s only a crappy reactor in that lunokhod. It’s leaking radiation like it’s got holes in it. There’s nothing else!”

“Are you ready to test that theory?” Earl saw Swigert squint, saw the sly expression of a man who is older and more experienced and saw the sort of things you never even dreamed of, but who doesn’t want to give you the answer. Who wants you to decide for yourself.

Because some things, a man has to decide for himself.

Major Earl took a step back.

Swigert grinned and turned his radio back on.

“To be honest, I’m rather glad,” he said. “It may sound unpatriotic, but if we had our way I’d be forced to lie to all of humanity today. And then live the rest of my life with that lie. Same for McCain. And the president. And you. We’d be forced to constantly lie to people. Some might say it’s a necessary lie because of the communist threat, world peace, national prestige, and all that. But I think national prestige is not earned through deception. Sooner or later the truth will come out. It will be a huge blow to our nation’s pride, a blow it frankly doesn’t deserve. What do you think?”

Earl shrugged. The movement could not be seen inside a spacesuit, but Swigert seemed to have understood.

They slowly approached the rover.

The rover raised a video camera and stared at them.

And either the movement was softer and calmer than before, or maybe the psychological pressure was gone, but the gesture seemed friendly to Earl.

“Screw the missiles,” said Swigert. “At least now no one will doubt that Americans have been to the Moon.”

He waved at the rover.

It had two large cameras at the front, like a pair of eyes. A grain of dust must’ve shifted on one of the lenses, or maybe it was stray sun flare, but Swigert could’ve sworn the rover winked at him.

 

http://future-sf.com/fiction/americans-on-the-moon/

 

Personal Comment: Read it, it's worth the time.

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