The world watched as a cool, confident man took his place at the podium.
“Good afternoon,” he said with a booming voice that filled the room. “I am Administrator Devin Cernan, and I want to thank you all for being here.” He looked down at his feet, and sighed. “Today is both a hard day, and an exciting day for NASA. In a few moments, Artemis 7 will touch down on the lunar surface, bringing NASA, the United States, and the world, back to the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years. That is a tremendous accomplishment, and it belongs to thousands of men and women, who have worked for decades to bring the Artemis program to fruition. However, today is bittersweet, as the highest priority for the Artemis 7 crew will be the recovery of Astronaut Michael Kiernan, who was lost on our last lunar mission–Apollo 19. Astronaut Kiernan is an American hero who laid down his life for all mankind. NASA will never leave a man behind, and we are all anxious to bring Mike home.
“The mission has proceeded without incident. Therefore, I have no updates. And I have time for just a couple questions.”
The room erupted. Dozens of hands shot up. Cernan was pelted with interrogatives until he pointed at an AP reporter in the second row.
“Your remarks just now, Administrator, it sounds like Astronaut Kiernan is going to be brought back to Earth. Is that correct?” she asked.
“Out of respect for Astronaut Kiernan, and his family, there will be a full disclosure after the recovery is complete. We aren’t going to discuss any details at this time,” Cernan said, already pointing to another reporter.
A very tall woman from Reuters remained upright as everyone around her sat down.
“Sir, Kiernan’s son is the flight commander for Artemis 7. Can you explain the significance of that? Why exactly was Kiernan’s son chosen to lead this mission?”
“Well, crew selection for any mission–that is among our most serious tasks. Commander Kiernan has distinguished himself as an exceptional pilot and team leader–very much like his father. Even without the relation, Commander Kiernan still would have been on the shortlist to lead this mission. When presented with this opportunity, Derrick said he wanted to go, and both the astronaut corps, and Personnel Selection Team were unanimous. No one objected to Derrick as mission commander. And that was among the easiest decisions we made on this mission.”
Cernan felt a gentle tap on his shoulder, and he leaned away from the microphones. A warm voice whispered in his ear, “Sir, they’re beginning their descent.”
Cernan snapped back to the podium.
“No more questions,” he said with a wave. The room erupted again as he stepped off stage, and out of the briefing room.
- * *
“There it is,” Tori said, looking outside of Window 2, and pointing to a cluster of small white domes on the lunar surface.
“I see it,” Derrick said.
“We’re coming in a little short, boss,” Marco said.
“Fuel at 9%,” Katie said. “60 seconds to abort.”
“Alright. I’m going manual,” Derrick said, as he grabbed the two control sticks in front of him. The Artemis Lunar Lander stopped its descent, and settled into a lateral hover 1,000 feet above the rocky moonscape below.
“Ok,” Derrick whispered to himself. He started working the thrusters–two down, one left, two forward, two down. All the while, Derrick’s eyes bounced back and forth between the digital displays, and the window, making sure the data represented real progress toward their landing site.
“500 feet up. 500 feet southeast,” Marco said.
“30 seconds to abort,” Katie said.
“Copy,” Derrick said. “Almost there.”
Derrick’s steady hands kept working the thrusters–three down, one right, two more right, one forward. Finally, Derrick spotted a large “X”, which one of the Pioneer robots had etched into the lunar soil.
“There,” Derrick said. “Coming down.”
A huge plume of silvery dust shot upward, enveloping the lander.
“10 seconds to abort,” Katie said.
“In position,” Marco said, watching his display. “100 feet. 50. 20.”
“5 seconds,” Katie said.
A blue light chirped on in the center of the instrument cluster.
“Contact,” Marco said.
“Shut down,” Derrick said.
Everything stopped. The fuel pumps whined as they wound down. No one said a word as they waited for the dense cloud of dust to settle outside their ship. And when it finally did, they each looked out at the stunning, sprawling expanse that was the lunar landscape.
Derrick felt a hand tap his shoulder. He turned, and saw Marco pointing to Katie, who, in turn, was pointing at her display, which read “1 Second to Abort.”
“Good flying, Cap’n,” Marco said, giving Derrick a pat on the back. “Chip off the ol’ block.”
Derrick allowed himself a small smirk, and nodded. “Team effort. Great work guys. Let’s suit up. The Hab will take a while to set up.”
Everyone donned their space suits. One-by-one, they climbed down from the lander, and hopped towards the Hab. The Hab was a circular chain of seven white domes, which had been constructed during the half dozen unmanned Pioneer missions. Nearby, four forklift-like robots sat dormant, covered in moondust, and looking deflated, as if they were recovering from an exhausting effort.
Derrick led his crew to the airlock. Once inside, they passed through a decontamination shower, which blasted their spacesuits with a cocktail of caustic solvents, designed to strip away both moon dust, and organic material. After a rapid air dry, the team stepped out of the showers.
They split up. Each person moved throughout the Hab performing their assigned tasks–mostly checking the Hab’s critical functions. Once the others were done, all eyes turned to Tori, who was wandering the halls with a pair of scanners, which screened the air for toxins, and radiation. Finally, both machines chirped, and two green LEDs reflected off the front of her helmet.
“Clear,” she said with a shrug.
Derrick reached up and unlocked his helmet. He lifted the fishbowl off his head, and took a long, deep breath of fresh air. The other three followed his lead. After removing, and stowing their suits, everyone settled into their individual quarters. Their individual quarters were miniscule by terrestrial standards, but palatial compared to the lander.
The schedule called for a brief rest, and small meal before their EVA. But as the others settled in, Derrick found it difficult to eat, and impossible to sleep. Soon, he gave up on both. He found himself sitting on the side of his bed, compulsively checking his watch every couple of minutes.
“Houston to Asteria Base.”
Derrick keyed his radio. “Go, Houston.”
“We are go for recovery when you are,” Houston said.
“Copy, Houston,” Derrick said.
Derrick gathered the team in the dining area, where they reviewed the plan. They had two rovers. Derrick and Tori would prepare both for use, but would only take one to recover Derrick’s father. The second rover would remain behind with Marco and Katelyn, both of whom would continue setting up the Hab while Derrick and Tori were out, but would also remain on standby in case Derrick and Tori called for help.
Derrick and Tori suited up, and stepped out onto the lunar surface. Derrick powered up Rover 1. The small dashboard glowed, the LPS–Lunar Positioning System–antenna lifted and aligned itself, and several small solar panels angled themselves towards the sun.
“It works,” Derrick said.
Tori laughed. “Yeah, don’t jinx it though,” she said, reaching up and rapping her helmet. “Knock on wood.”
They floated into their seats, and strapped themselves in. Derrick grabbed the wheel.
“Hey,” Tori said, giving Derrick’s arm a gentle tug. “Are you OK, D? Are you ready for this?”
“I’m ready,” he said, lifting his sun visor as she had lifted hers.
Tori’s watery eyes met Derrick’s.
He forced a flat smile. “Four decades is long enough,” he said.
She gave Derrick’s arm a hard squeeze. “OK. Let’s do this, then.”
Derrick pressed the accelerator, and the rover took off. Bounding up and down in the Moon’s low gravity, they bounced over the rough terrain that stood between them and Serenity Base. After 10 minutes of driving, rolling lunar plains swelled into rolling lunar hills, and as they rounded a large bend, Derrick spotted a small gold structure nestled between two large mounds ahead.
“Houston, Rover 1. We have found Serenity Base,” Derrick said.
Derrick parked the rover. They both stepped off, and hopped towards the Apollo LM’s descent stage.
“Wow,” Tori whispered.
So much of the site looked precisely as it had the day of the accident. The descent stage was still intact. The ground around it was covered with crisscrossing footprints, and debris from the LM’s ascent. The only noticeable change was the American flag, which had long since been bleached white by the sun.
“This is unreal. It’s just frozen in time,” Tori said. She held back, staying a couple feet behind Derrick, letting him take the lead.
Derrick moved around the LM’s descent stage. His head swung back and forth, as if he were looking for something. He stopped when he found a small aluminum panel with a large white square on it. Derrick pulled the panel loose, revealing a small electrical compartment.
Derrick looked inside, shook his head, and replaced the panel. Then he turned north.
“You ready?” Derrick asked Tori.
“Yes, of course.”
Together, they went north towards Mount Mora. Derrick soon found what he was looking for–his father’s footprints. They followed the path, but gave it a wide berth.
“It’s this side of Mount Mora, right?” Tori asked.
She knew the answer. They both did, but she was worried about Derrick, and felt better when she could keep him talking.
“It is,” Derrick said. “I’m not sure how much further we need to go though. I thought we’d be able to see him by now. Wait. Look.”
Derrick pointed straight ahead. Tori looked over Derrick’s shoulder and saw the end of the trail.
They both hurried to the last footprints, and found the place where an Apollo-era spacesuit had clearly pressed itself into the dust.
“This is where he fell,” Derrick said.
“Impossible,” Tori said. “That’s impossible. How could he not be here?”
Derrick shook his head. “Houston, we found the end of the line. No Kiernan. Say again, Kiernan isn’t here.”
Tori looked up towards the peak of Mount Mora.
“Derrick, I’ll head up the mount here and see if I can spot anything from higher up.”
“Ok, Tor,” Derrick said.
Tori made several large bounds up the slope. Then something caught Derrick’s eye. Away in the distance, it looked like there was a small, white patch in a vast field of grey.
“There’s something over there, Tori,” Derrick said as he hopped to the spot.
After many bounding strides, Derrick froze.
“No,” he said.
Derrick knelt down, and picked up an Apollo-era glove. Next to the glove, etched into the lunar soil, was a message.
“What is this?” Tori asked. “What the hell is going on?” She spun around, as if she expected to find some unwanted visitor closing in on them.
Derrick felt it, too. His wide eyes met Tori’s. No matter which way they looked, they felt some unnamable presence watching them–drawing closer.
“Houston to Rover 1. What’s going on? Surgeon says your vitals are skyrocketing.”
“We need to go,” Derrick said.
They bounded back to the rover as fast they could, and strapped themselves in. Derrick punched the accelerator, and took the fastest route back to base.
- * *
Derrick sat on the side of his bed, slouched, deflated, playing with his father’s glove. He kept spinning it end-over-end, and turning it inside out, as if it might yield some secret, like a magic lamp would if it were rubbed the right way. But there was nothing. It was an empty glove, singed by an ascent engine’s exhaust, and then left exposed to the cosmic elements for 50 years.
There came a gentle knock on his door.
“Derrick?” Tori asked from the other side.
Derrick said nothing, but the door cracked open anyway.
“I brought you dinner,” she said. She stepped into the room, pulled down a small tray table embedded in the opposite wall, and put down a small plate with some kind of NASA mystery meat, rehydrated potatoes, and peas.
“Oh,” she said, looking down between Derrick’s knees. “You got… your father’s glove? I wasn’t sure if it got left behind or not.”
Again, Derrick said nothing.
Tori lingered for a moment, giving Derrick ample time to ask her to stay. Derrick was still deciding what he wanted when she stepped toward the door.
“My father left a message for me. Before he died.”
“Oh, did he?” Tori asked. She sat next to Derrick on his bed. “What did he say?”
“He said he didn’t want me to look up at the Moon, and see his tomb. He wanted me to know that he was always watching over me. That he would always be here.” A tear rolled down Derrick’s cheek. “My whole life, I thought he was here. And now, he’s gone. Again.”
Tori wrapped both hands around Derrick’s arm, and laid her head on his shoulder.
“I was ready to see a lot of awful things–a lot of things that I could never unsee. But this? I wasn’t ready for this. This doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m so sorry, Derrick,” she said through a couple sniffles. “I thought we’d find him, too. But we’re going to figure this out. There are a thousand people back home looking for answers. They’re going to figure it out. We’re going to find him. Wherever he is.”
Derrick nodded, and gave his father’s glove a hard squeeze.
“Thanks for dinner, T. But I think I’m just going to go to sleep,” Derrick said as he dried his cheeks.
“Sure,” she said.
Derrick laid down on his absurdly small bed while Tori eyed the even smaller open space next to him.
“Would you like me to stay?” she asked.
Derrick looked at Tori, then at the meager gap between him and the wall, then back to Tori.
Tori nodded back, and curled up next to Derrick.
As he drifted off to sleep, Derrick replayed his father’s message in his head. He could replay the entire recording from memory. Usually, he liked to recall his father’s promise that he would always watch over Derrick, but as Derrick floated down into sleep, a different part of his father’s message floated up into his mind.
You are my son. One day, you will know exactly what I mean. Trust your instincts. Follow your heart. And maybe one day, you’ll even follow me up here.
Derrick startled. He snapped upright in his bed.
“Follow me,” he said.
Derrick bolted out of bed. He grabbed the glove, and rushed to the airlock. He donned his suit, strapped himself into a rover, and took off, heading straight for Serenity Base. He flew past the LM’s descent stage, and followed his father’s footsteps to the base of Mount Mora.
He returned to the ghostly message in the soil, and knelt down next to those words.
He pulled his father’s glove from a pocket on his suit. “Follow me,” Derrick said. “Trust your instincts. Follow your heart. Follow me.” He shook his head as he looked at the glove, and the message in the dirt. “No way. There’s just no way.”
“Derrick? Derrick!” Tori’s frantic voice crackled over the radio. “Where are you? Are you OK? What’s going on?”
“I don’t think my Dad broke his promise to me, Tor. I think something happened up here. I think he made a new promise when he couldn’t keep the old one.”
“Derrick? I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
“He’s leading me somewhere, Tori. He’s trying to show me something.”
“Derrick, please. You’re scaring me. You’re scaring all of us. Please, come back here. Tell us what’s going…”
Derrick shut his radio off.
In the eerie silence, he looked around. He was as alone as any human could be, yet something lingered there. He felt it. He knew it. And it was watching him.
“Follow me,” he said to the message in dirt.
Derrick looked up toward the Earth–the gorgeous sapphire sphere, which hung just above Mount Mora’s summit. It was the most beautiful thing he would ever see.
“Follow me,” Derrick said for the last time. Then he shrugged. “OK.”
He grabbed the steel ring around his right wrist, which connected his glove to his sleeve, and depressed the locking lugs. With a sharp twist, all the air in his suit blasted out into the vacuum of space.
He fell face first into the chalky powder beneath him. Everything faded, getting darker and darker. He felt the most intense cold he had ever experienced, as every ounce of warmth drained from his body.
But then he saw something. It looked like a column of light, sliding across the lunar surface. Then, a pair of blue moon boots came hopping toward him. Derrick struggled to lift his head. Someone in an Apollo spacesuit loomed over him. A bare hand reached up, and lifted a cracked sun visor, revealing a beaming face that Derrick had only ever seen in pictures.
He couldn’t help but smile back.
In college, Zachary discovered his love of reading, and knack for writing. He minored in English, focusing on composition, and creative writing. Several years after graduation, he decided to build on that foundation. Zachary’s first published piece, a short story titled “Crimson,” was published by The Fictional Café in 2020. He has remained busy since then, producing two more short stories, which remain in circulation, as well as a debut novel, which will be completed this summer. When Zachary isn’t writing, you will find him with his nose in a book, or an audiobook in his ear.
Zachary lives with his family in Chicago.