Three Eight Two

Climb on board. Find a comfortable spot. Settle in, sling a line hard off the reel, and then wait for the thump. It was one of Ehsan’s favorite pastimes when he was back home in Marjand.

The old trawler still heeled over hard to one side, the way she had before Ehsan’s last trip, and not much different than the way she’d been left there long before graffiti and rust took hold. The trawler had been left there for fate to have its way; its master’s fate had been to ply far-flung cities for work building monolithic steel and glass skyscrapers that gleamed in the sun and glittered in neon and strobe kaleidoscopes at night. Abandoned without a master, the trawler would have gradually taken on water and slipped beneath the surface, forgotten in her grave — if they hadn’t drained the lake.

(Image provided by Andrew Dunn)

They did drain it, though, using its waters to quench the world’s insatiable thirst for fresh, cheap fuel-grade hydrogen. The trawler was left naked on the dry lakebed with dozens like it. Growing up, the old boat’s decks became one of Ehsan’s favorite places to cast a line, and then wait for the tattletale thump when his hook struck sunbaked earth.

Sometimes Ehsan’s hook landed silent, its line pulled so taut his fishing pole bowed under the strain. There was more to catch out there on the dry lakebed than hardened ground.

Ehsan thought it was fitting that after they drained the lake dry, old boats were left to die at one end as a new spaceport came to life miles away on the opposite shore. Ehsan and other young men from Marjand watched from the decks of trawlers immersed in their yesterdays, a daily ritual of space machines thundering off to their tomorrows. Each launch washed in the harsh colors of flame, giant-sized depictions of yesterday’s khans and warriors affixed to launch towers.

Ehsan’s life and future with his bride Zara were inextricably bound to those machines that soared high atop columns of fire, and sullied cerulean skies with grey-white trails of exhaust.

The spacecraft were a lifeblood that sustained their village, Marjand, a shadow of what it had once been. The weight of past and future, uncomfortably intertwined, weighed heavy on him.

He heaved his pole back, then gave it a sling and pop, just like his father taught him, just like grandfathers taught fathers the same lesson ancestors handed down to successors, long before there was a spaceport, back when Marjand was both a fortress and refuge. It was a simple but vital rite of passage that, once mastered, taught young men to provide for their brides, children, and widowed mothers living there on the vast arid plain. The lesson was timeless — the instinctive need for survival never changed no matter how much everything else did.

Ehsan’s line shimmered in the midday heat as it paid out from its reel. He waited to see if the hook would strike hard ground and cough up a wisp of dust for the wind to have its way with.

There was no resounding thump though, and no reassuring quiver that reverberated back through line and pole, into his hands. H had caught something. Reeling it in could be tricky if not impossible depending on who was on the other end of the line.

Like the soul of that ancient warrior — a distant ancestor — Ehsan’s hook once ensnared. Ehsan was sure he had been a surly sort in life, an acolyte of the rites of war and conquest that plied the lake’s waters for sustenance and thundered off on horseback when Marjand’s garrison called. The warrior’s soul fought hard against Ehsan’s line, bending his pole until it nearly snapped in two. Ehsan was relieved when the warrior’s lost soul finally broke free and drifted away.

Other times the catch happened so effortlessly it was though a disembodied loner or downtrodden soul longed for capture. Most had been trawler masters, deckhands, and depending on their vintage, sailmakers or diesel mechanics. Ehsan heaved them up and over the old boat’s gunwales and then led them inside the rusting hulk, through dilapidated passageways and gutted spaces, until they found a comfortable spot. There the souls would sit for a while and share, if for no other reason than to feel close again to those that were still corporeal as they had once been.

Their forlorn nature matched the melancholy Ehsan felt when it was his turn to ride a column of fire beyond Earth’s bounds. The stories they told lessened that feeling and gave Ehsan a sense of connection to fathers, grandfathers, and a lineage that once ruled the steppes around Marjand.

Ehsan knew that but for his own place in time, he could have been a warrior or khan charged with the defense of Marjand and the steppes by rifle or sword. Ehsan absorbed all they wished to share for as long as they could stay. There were schedules to keep on both sides of eternity. Ehsan dutifully led those lost souls back on deck when it was time for them to go and watched them drift out of sight as countdowns echoed across the expansive, dry basin. Each countdown was computer-generated; the language was always foreign. The voice was always precise too — a mere microsecond of error on Earth could doom a quick run up to the moon, longer voyage to Mars, or one of the rare but well-paying expeditions into the asteroid belt.

Even after so many countdowns, the daily ritual remained an aberration, almost an intrusion, that resounded in uncomfortable parallel with the clarion call from minarets on that timeless plain. The countdowns reminded Ehsan that, like the lost souls, he couldn’t err in his departure either.

  ✸✸✸

Ehsan took a spot in a queue outside a low building that sat squat alongside disused railroad tracks on the village’s edge. The word ‘Reception’ appeared in peeling black over the entrance — a block-lettered version in English and another in the calligraphy of his native script.

Soldiers from the Interior Ministry, dispatched from a day’s drive or more away, loitered aimlessly, their rifles slung haphazardly across chests or over shoulders. Leaving always began in a queue and under their watch outside the building. It was necessary but never easy, there wasn’t much work for young men in Marjand anymore.

Casting lines from derelict trawlers would never bring money home for Ehsan’s widowed mother or his love Zara, living as they did in a collection of rooms over a small shop that sold spices, candy, and phone cards. So, when the call went out as it often did for young men to hire on for a six-month hitch mining the moon’s interior for precious water, Ehsan trekked through dark, dusty streets with dozens of other young men, all hoping to be chosen.

It had been little different for previous generations whose trawler masters gave up the lake to build skyscrapers, or warriors who gave up rifle and sword to work oil fields. Fathers taught sons that a young man’s duty was to provide for his family.

Ehsan stepped out of pre-dawn darkness into the Reception Hall where tables and benches sat in rows underneath stark light cast from buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead. There were forms to complete. Ehsan thought about Zara as he filled in blocks that would make sure remittances for his work would make it back home to her. Then, there was the form that would make sure Zara and his mother would both receive a year’s worth of his wages if something catastrophic happened on Earth or the moon.

Zara hadn’t stirred when he left. He was careful not to wake her as he made his way from their bedroom to the street below. He was sure she’d feigned sleep with her dark hair strewn across the pillow and eyes firmly closed, wanting to embrace him but at the same time not wanting to show a hint of emotion that might weaken his resolve. He regretted that he hadn’t taken Zara in his arms one more time, knowing it might have been the last time he would ever be able to hold her close.

He completed the forms and handed them to a nondescript official from the spaceport. The official squinted over the pages through thick glasses, nodding occasionally, and then said, “Dengdai”, ‘Wait’, as he motioned toward a newly forming queue. Ehsan nodded and took his place in line.

His session with a medic was quick and perfunctory. Temperature, blood pressure, and respiration rate were all within parameters expected of a man Ehsan’s age. The medic then began asking questions designed to assess a man’s resilience for work on the moon.

Some men used the questions as an opportunity to confide and whisper second thoughts about leaving, or their lack of nerve for work in the mines. Others would conceal their fear behind exaggerated enthusiasm for the trip. Ehsan knew to keep his answers brief and dispassionate so as not to stoke the medic’s curiosity. The medic alone decided which young men would be able to cope with a barren lunar world, where there was no day or night but instead time divided between periods spent below ground in the mines and above in cramped quarters.

The soldiers casually made their way into the hall as the nondescript official stood and prepared to read the list of names, in no particular order, of those chosen to work the mines. Tension in the air was palpable. The soldiers were there to maintain order, but it was rare for a young man to become unruly as they all came to terms with what their lives would be like over the next six months, whether thousands of miles away from Earth, or left behind and struggling to get survive in Marjand.

Those that were chosen exited through large doors on one side of the building to board a waiting bus. Those staying behind gave their email addresses and mobile numbers to the official — an ineffectual gesture. Ehsan knew of no one that had ever been contacted to work the mines after the list of names had been read aloud.

“Ehsan. Three Eight Two,” the official called out, substituting Ehsan’s birth name for a production number.

Three Eight Two would be the number stenciled on Ehsan’s bunk and locker, and what foremen would use to identify him when they gave out work assignments. The number would be used to track his hydration and food consumption. If Ehsan managed to exceed production goals, Three Eight Two would be allotted time to chat with Zara over video from the moon, though Ehsan had never seen many rewarded with a video chat session for their work in the mines.

He boarded the waiting bus. Thirty-six were on board, not counting the driver and a couple of soldiers that dozed off as the bus groaned away from the hall and jostled over rutted ground. The spaceport always hired in groups of thirty-six, but most trips never left Earth with that number – two or three were usually removed from the roster before launch. The drone of the bus’s engine lulled Ehsan to sleep.

✸✸✸

Ehsan jolted awake as the bus transitioned from dirt road to flat concrete. Before the spaceport was constructed, the road, itself once an artery of empires, had been dirt its entire length. Ehsan daydreamed souls of ancient traders making their way along its path to and from Marjand, and further out on the plain, horseback warriors charging forward under colors that no longer flew from staff or mast.

Ahead, spacecraft loomed like monoliths tethered to skeletal launch towers adorned with colossal, painted murals of Tamerlane, mounted men, and ancestral life on the steppes. As the bus drew closer to its destination, Ehsan made out faint depictions in the murals’ painted skies of scientists who devised rockets and methods to extract water from beneath the moon’s crust – past and future rendered coexistent on blast-resistant canvases.

The bus sighed to a stop outside a chalk-colored building with black windows. One side of the building’s exterior was devoted to the Xiang Yueliang Marjand corporate logo. The logo consisted of a circle that represented the moon over a stylized line that symbolized skylines of Marjand and the spaceport, and the company name rendered in Chinese characters and English as Soaring Moon Marjand. A woman in sagging blue coveralls with the same logo embroidered over her left breast pocket, emerged to lead the hired men inside.

Ehsan moved with the others from dusty warmth outside into cool processed air inside the building where the rites of indenture began. There was the usual repertoire of safety videos to view. When those were done, Ehsan went downstairs with the others into a series of rooms where they would be processed for launch.

In the first room, their heads were shaved bald. Then, they all stripped bare, donned tinted goggles, and walked single file through a gauntlet of high-power jets that coated bodies in cleanser, rinsed it off with steaming water, and applied a thin film of disinfectant to their flesh. The cleansing process was efficient, impersonal, and sure to remove any vestigial trace of Marjand or the steppes from their bodies. Even the simplest terrestrial lifeform, if allowed to spawn in the lunar confines they would soon be living and working in, could prove calamitous to the company’s mining operation.

After cleansing, they directed Ehsan and the others into the blinding antiseptic white of an adjacent waiting area. “Three Eight Two. Lai zhijia.” ‘Come. Stand.’ A squat technician, anonymous in a head-to-toe protective suit, said as he directed Ehsan to stand on blue footprints decaled on to the plastic floor.

Ehsan fought off the room’s chill and waited as more similarly cocooned technicians assembled in the room. The technicians drew stainless steel wands connected by coiled cables to handheld devices from shelves on one side of the room and began their work. Technicians moved in groups of two or three, swarming around each man, waving their wands over each body so that sensors could determine whether the disinfectant treatment had been successful.

Still-moist disinfectant would require reassessment — a failed reassessment would see a man sent back to Marjand. An allergic reaction would too, and technicians would flag the man’s name in corporate databases so that for twelve months he wouldn’t be chosen for work in lunar mines.

Ehsan grew nervous as the man to his left was escorted out the way he had come, his trip over. They would scrub the man down and place him in observation for a while, and then ship him back to Marjand on the next bus. Ehsan braced himself as the swarm encircled him, their wands passing all over less than an inch from his skin, and then studying data on their devices. Ehsan never had a problem with the treatment before and couldn’t endure that now.

“Three Eight Two, hao.” ‘Good.’ It was impossible to tell which technician said it, but that was all Ehsan needed to hear.  He followed others into the next room to be outfitted for flight.

“Lai tang xia, ‘Come lay down’, Three Eight Two,” a man in grey coveralls said, pointing at a slab-like table. Ehsan climbed on and laid face down. The man moved quickly, gluing patches of mesh to the back side of Ehsan’s body, and then rolling him over and doing the same to the front. Another hurried over and connected the patches with thin, clear wires that collectively formed a network that would monitor Ehsan’s body during spaceflight and his first few weeks on the moon. After that, the mesh would wear down and peel away brittle like a scab.

“Three Eight Two, hao,” the men called out before hurrying to apply mesh to another man identified only by a number.

Ehsan made his way over to a small booth at the far end of the room and selected coveralls and space suit from bins built into the wall. A man inspected the suit for proper fit, gave another “Hao,” and motioned for Ehsan to move on to a waiting transport.

✸✸✸

The transport reminded Ehsan of subways he had seen in television shows. It squeaked and clattered through dark tunnels that snaked like veins beneath the spaceport before sliding horizontally into a lift. Ehsan stared out the window as the lift carried the transport vertically up the side of a skeletal launch tower. Weatherworn grey and brown buildings that made up Marjand, cloistered in a loose circle around crumbling remains of the old fortress, became visible as the transport rose high above the launch pad. The trawler fleet was reduced to little more than dark specks against the sun-scorched expanse.

Ehsan tried to allay his unease by reminding himself that it would all still be there, a little more worn down, when he returned in six months’ time. So would all those wandering souls with their yesterdays waiting to be hauled on board, even if only for a little while. Thoughts like those never eased the pain of leaving, nor did they lessen the urge to go back home where Zara would be waking, and he could try and find another way to make a living even though he knew there weren’t many options in Marjand. No matter how many trips came and went, leaving always hurt.

Men in red coveralls entered the transport once it reached the top of the tower. One called them out by number in quick staccato. “Four One Zero. Nine Six Five. Three Eight Two.” Ehsan took a deep breath and walked from the transport into a sheet metal structure. Another swarm of technicians surrounded him, jabbed wires and hoses into various fittings on his space suit, and then shepherded him to his pod inside the rocket’s passenger compartment. They buckled Ehsan into his seat, shoved a helmet into his lap, and plugged the wires and hoses into outlets above his head and down close to his feet. Like all the other pods, Ehsan’s faced outward toward a wall that curved to match the contour of the spacecraft’s hull.

The safety videos promised the pods were installed in the passenger compartment that way so overhead projectors could display informational messages on the wall in the event of intercom failure on board the spacecraft. Ehsan knew it wasn’t true. In Marjand they said the pods were positioned that way so that no man would see the panic on another’s face if something went wrong during launch.

“Qifel zhunbei.” ‘Prepare.’ The same voice from countless countdowns crackled over the intercom and reverberated for miles around Pad 3A-8. Ehsan dutifully checked to make sure his seat was firmly locked in the upright position and that there were no stray items inside his pod.

“Zhichi.” ‘Stand-by.’ Was the voice really just a machine, or was it human? Ehsan knew the answer, that the voice was machine – its tone was always the same, without emotion, never satisfying the visceral need for human contact. Ehsan longed for that contact, for someone to confide the fear welling up inside right then.

“Shi. Jiu. Ba.” ‘Ten. Nine. Eight.’

Adrenaline-fueled fear ran rampant through the passenger compartment. Everyone wondered how lift-off would go. Would it be like dozens of others that went by unnoticed, or would it be the one people around the world learned about when video of a fireball appeared as breaking news on televisions and mobile phones.

“Qi. Liu.” ‘Seven. Six.’

Ehsan reached up to make sure his helmet was firmly locked in place. If the spacecraft’s hull breached during lift-off an unlocked helmet would leak pressurized emergency air into the thinner, high-altitude atmosphere. A hull breach wasn’t survivable without a steady supply of emergency air.

“Wu.” ‘Five.’

If there was a hull breach or any other emergency, would an emergency supply of air really matter? How could it? Thirty-three human beings plus however many were on the flight crew were little more than specks buckled-in atop a massive edifice of carbon fiber, steel and rocket fuel.

“Si.” ‘Four.’

Ehsan closed his eyes tight and imagined he was back on the trawler casting his line, begging for strength in stories told by long lost souls.

“San.” ‘Three.’

One thousand meters down, hydraulic pumps whined as they began to surge high-pressure fluid through cast-iron arteries so that ground anchors would release the towering rocket from their grip when the time came.

“Er.” ‘Two.’

Ehsan’s mind raced back down the road to Marjand, past the Reception Hall, through a warren of streets and finally up narrow stairs where he would find Zara. Ehsan longed for Zara and her deep, dark eyes that seemed able to penetrate through to the very sinews that bound his body and soul.

“Yi.” ‘One.’ Ehsan waited to feel that tattletale thump as hydraulics slammed ground anchors back from the rocket’s base so that a millions pounds of thrust per square centimeter could sling another behemoth through pale blue sky on a course for tomorrow.

No one on either side of eternity would hear the voice say, “Sheng king,” Lift-off over the thunderous din of a dozen rocket engines turning hydrogen and oxidizer into torrents of white-hot flame.

 

This story previously appeared in Antipodean SF 2021 in two parts.
Edited by Marie  Ginga

Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar Anthhology – his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected].