The moon, Alfred Bonnet thought to himself, is a harsh mistress.
He was standing below the great dome of Armstrong City, staring out at the scene below him. Dozens of sealed tractors were digging into the lunar surface, or transporting lunar ore from the mines towards the mass driver in the distance. Men wearing regulation colour-coded spacesuits walked the surface, performing their tasks under the watchful eye of the rising Earth. Most of the civilians on the Moon lived in the vast underground warrens that had been dug under the lunar rock, providing some protection from the storms of radiation that bombarded the moon frequently. There was never any shortage of volunteers to work the surface, even if it did pose some health risks. Living down in the warrens was enough to drive a man stir crazy.
Alfred lifted his eyes towards Earth and smiled to himself. It had been ten years since he had answered an advertisement for a man to serve as a combination of secretary, librarian and general gofer on the moon. The dream had captured him ever since Tony Jones had landed on the moon in 2018 and proclaimed that this time the human race was here to stay. Ten years…he’d spent ten years serving four different Administrators, all the while working overtime to keep the moon’s limited bureaucracy functioning. And if they asked him if he wanted to go back to Earth, he already knew what he would say. He wanted to live and die on the moon.
Earth wasn’t what it had once been, he reminded himself. The war still raging in the Middle East, the riots spreading across Europe and the Southern United States, the release of a tailored bio-weapon in North Africa, the brief, but nasty nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan…it all seemed a distant nightmare to those on the moon. They might have been working to place the human race firmly in space, and to mine HE3 that could replace the crippling dependency on oil, yet there seemed to be a certain distance between the Earth and the Moon. He caught sight of a flicker of light as the mass driver launched another payload of lunar rock into orbit, the first step in its journey back to Low Earth Orbit, and smiled again. No matter what else happened, he never grew tired of seeing that sight. It was a mark of humanity’s achievements on the High Frontier.
His wristcom buzzed, reminding him that his break was almost over. Shaking his head, he tapped a command into the small panel and the window became a mirror, blocking out the sight of Earth. Instead, he saw his own balding head looking back at him, along with signs of muscle decay. It would be dangerous to return to Earth now, even if he needed the kind of medical treatment that Armstrong City couldn’t supply; Earth’s gravity would drag him down and leave him feeling trapped in his own body.
Shaking his head, he left the observation dome and stepped through the airlock, opening it with his priority override. The dome was really meant for high-ranking visitors from Earth, but one of the early Administrators had given Alfred permission to use it and it had never been rescinded. They all knew that Alfred was the man who really kept the lunar colony working – and he did it all while also serving as a librarian, of sorts. Physical books might be rare on the moon – boosting cargo to orbit was expensive – but he had ties to all the major publishers. Electronic books weren’t quite the same, yet what other choice did they have?
The original designers of Armstrong City had been more than a little paranoid – with reason, Alfred considered. It was only forty metres from the observation dome to Administrator Howard’s office, but he passed through no less than three airlocks before he finally stepped into his cubicle. If there was ever a blow-out, a leak into the airless vacuum surrounding the moon, it would be limited. Or so they had been assured. No one, in his certain knowledge, had ever considered testing the system the hard way.
He took his seat and placed his fingertips against the computer monitor, allowing it to identify him and unlock the Administrator’s files. They’d been growing more paranoid about computer safety too lately, somewhat to his annoyance. It was a headache sorting his way through all the different security passwords and firewalls, although he had managed to convince the system administrators to give him admin-level access. He could read all of the files stored on the network if he saw fit. But there had never seemed a reason good enough to invade their privacy.
Besides, he added in the privacy of his own thoughts, it would only upset people.
The computer screen lit up, revealing the Administrator’s timetable. Alfred served as his secretary, something that had upset several government officials who had believed that the position of Administrator demanded a full staff to support their position. Their complaints had never made any difference; it was costly to boost people from Earth to LEO, let alone to the moon. Alfred would have to keep moonlighting as a personal secretary until the day he died.
He keyed a switch as soon as he saw the first item on the timetable. “Administrator,” he said, when the channel opened, “you have a meeting with the miners in twenty minutes.”
“I’m busy,” Administrator Howell snapped back. “Can’t you tell them to come back later?”
“You’ve already put them off three times,” Alfred reminded him. Half of being a PA was managing the boss. Howell wasn’t the worst Administrator to have been sent to the moon, not by a long chalk. Alfred sometimes wondered who he’d managed to annoy to get the post. It wasn’t always seen as the most important position in the American government, even though the lunar colonies were vitally important. Trillions of dollars were tied up in the colony. “They’re not going to be too happy if you put them off again…”
He waited. “Very well,” Howell said, grudgingly. “You may show them in when they arrive.”
Alfred returned to his computer and started to key through a number of emails from Earth. Most of them were simple enquires that the people on the ground thought had to be answered instantly. During his first year on the job, he’d run around like a crazy man trying to answer them all, but eventually he’d started taking a more relaxed approach to such demands. No one had ever complained. By the time the hatch opened to admit the miners, he’d managed to shelve over forty demands for information or pass them on to specific individuals. It passed for a good day’s work.
“Alfred,” the lead miner said. Johan Richardson was a tall burly sort, who’d emigrated to the moon five years ago and brought his wife and two baby girls with him. Alfred couldn’t say that he knew the man, but he had a good reputation among his fellow miners – and a string of black marks in his file, all issued by temporary supervisors. “Is His Nibs in for us today?”
Alfred shrugged. In truth, Richardson intimidated him a little. “He’s willing to see you,” he said, as the other three miners staggered into the cubicle. It was barely large enough for two people. “I hope you’re not here to waste his time.”
He keyed the hatch and allowed the miners to enter the Administrator’s office, following behind them quietly. Administrator Howell lived well, by the standards of the moon, even though his office was tiny compared to an office on Earth. It was large enough to house all four miners, Alfred and the Administrator himself, who was currently watering one of his plants. Alfred sighed inwardly as he felt the suppressed anger shimmering around the miners. Their water was rationed and the Administrator was watering a plant! And it wasn’t even the genetically-engineered grass that passed for carpeting in the city!
Administrator Howell had been a General during the invasion of Iran, although his personal file – which Alfred hadn’t been supposed to read – stated that he’d made a better administrator than a leader of men in combat. It didn’t disqualify him from serving on the moon; indeed, an experienced administrator would be far more useful than a fighting man. Howell was a tall, dignified man, with an unfortunate tendency to billow up in low gravity. It made him look depressingly overweight.
“I’ll come right to the point,” Richardson said, when both sides had exchanged insincere greetings. “The safety situation has gone critical.”
He placed his hands on the Administrator’s desk, silently daring him to interrupt. “We have had three cave-ins in the last two weeks alone,” he said, ticking off points on his fingers. “We have nearly lost four men because a vacuum seal on one of the tractors was not replaced. Much of our equipment is old and frankly, Administrator, it is wearing out! It is only a matter of time before we have a serious accident that kills half the mining crews!”
“The equipment you use has been rated for many years of service,” Richardson said, flatly. “The only problems are caused by men who don’t know…”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Richardson snarled. Alfred, behind him, sighed inwardly, wondering if he should send for the Sheriff. The miners were known for settling their disputes physically. “The equipment was the lowest-bidder, wasn’t it? They didn’t bother to test it properly before they bribed some congressman to insist that it be bought off some fat cats who own factories in their states.”
“The proper procurement procedures were followed,” Howell countered. He didn’t look as if he was going to back down, unsurprisingly. “I happen to know that the Oversight Committee…”
“Fuck the Oversight Committee,” Richardson said. There was a dull rumble of agreement from the miners. “And even that doesn’t begin to touch on the conditions here, sir! My kids aren’t getting the proper education they were promised. The food here is dreadful, we keep being charged extra interest on our contracts and…”
“You signed the contracts,” Howell thundered.
“At no point were we informed that a Nazi Concentration Camp would have better facilities than this place,” Richardson said. “At no point where we informed that we were going to be taxed for oxygen, water and food – which means, Administrator, that we can never get out of debt. And I am fucked if I am bringing my kids up in this goddamned place without some goddamned improvement…”
“Write to your congressman,” Howell suggested. For a long moment, Alfred was sure that Richardson was going to punch the Administrator. Howell was either too stupid to notice or too brave to allow any apprehension to show. “There are very limited budgets…”
“And who, precisely,” Richardson demanded, “is the congressman for the moon?”
He had a point, Alfred knew. Officially, the Administrator was appointed by the United States Government, but he would be pushed forward by the corporations that had invested heavily in the moon and would be expected to serve their interests. Congress looked at the barely ten thousand people on the moon, then looked at hefty campaign contributions from the corporations, and then generally turned a blind eye to problems on the moon. The lunar citizens were supposed to be represented by the politicians from their home state on Earth, diluting their vote.
Howell opened his mouth, but Richardson spoke over him. “I want to make it clear, Administrator, that we are not going to allow ourselves to be ground under purely to serve the interests of some goddamned profit margin,” he said. “We want a good place to bring up our children, not some poxy little hole in the wall because all of the money we earn vanishes somewhere within the system…”
“If you have problems,” Howell began…
“We seem to have no legal way to complain,” Richardson snapped. “Your paymasters have tied us up in legal red tape. Well, I’m telling you right now that we are on the verge of cutting through the damned red tape…”
“This is treasonous talk,” Howell thundered. “This city exists to support the interests of the United States of America. The prosperity – the freedom – of the entire country depends upon Armstrong City. I will not sit here and listen to your attempts to dictate terms to the government!”
Richardson stared at him for a long moment. “Administrator,” he said, finally, “it will not be long before something finally breaks and we have a major accident. And when that happens, we’re damned if we’re going to allow a bunch of penny-pinching corporate hacks to pass the blame onto us. We want our rights as American citizens, the rights laid down in the Constitution. And if you’re not going to give us those rights, we will take them by force.”
With that, he turned and stalked out of the office, followed by the remaining miners. Alfred watched them go, feeling a tremor of uncertainty deep within his heart. In truth, he knew that Richardson had a point, and yet…why rock the boat? It would be worse for the miners and most of the others, he realised slowly. They had their families on the moon with them, their children growing up without ever seeing a butterfly, or running on grass. And what sort of society would the moon become if it made no attempt to educate those children? God knew that Heinlein had been right, years ago; the moon’s environment punished stupidity – or ignorance. A child who had never been taught how to don a vacuum mask was certain to die if there was ever a leak in the city’s atmosphere.
“That man,” Howell remarked, “is dangerous.”
Alfred said nothing. Few of the Administrators ever seemed interested in his opinion, even though he knew Armstrong City far better than any of them had ever bothered to learn. It was safer just to listen from the sidelines and do as he was told. The Administrator was the one charged with the safety of the colony.
He nodded his head as the Administrator turned back to his desk and headed back to his cubicle. Someone was waiting for him there, seated in front of his desk. Alfred allowed himself a puzzled frown as Richardson stood up and held out one massive hand. He took it in some surprise and shook it firmly.
“I thought we’d better have a chat,” Richardson said. “We so rarely have a chance to meet down in the warrens.”
They didn’t meet at all, Alfred knew. His routine was moving between his office, the library and his apartment, little else. There were plenty of miners who wanted to download and read the latest books, or watch the latest movies, but Richardson had never been one of them. He shrugged as he took his own seat, half-wondering what would happen if the Administrator saw them talking together. Howell would probably see it as a sign of disloyalty.
“You’ve been one of us loonies for ten years,” Richardson said, cheerfully. “What do you think of our living conditions.”
Alfred considered the answer, carefully. He had been quite happy – but then, he’d always been on his own. A man with a wife and kids would probably feel differently…of course, he’d never even come close enough to a woman to get engaged. How was it, he asked himself often enough, that he just froze up when the time came to get out the chat up lines? Other men seemed to find it easy to talk to women. He couldn’t hope to convince a girl to give him her contact code, let alone anything else.
“Could be improved,” he said, finally. “They won’t do it, of course.”
Richardson lifted an eyebrow. “This colony pays for itself,” Alfred explained. He’d seen all of the accounting reports. “Every dollar above the cost of running this place is one that is pure profit. They’re already talking about expanding the HE3 mines so they can fuel more reactors on Earth. I don’t think they’re going to be responsive to any suggestions that more of those profits should be spent up here.”
“Which isn’t very good for our kids, is it?” Richardson pressed. “How often can you take them to McDonalds before you get sick of semi-beef and synthetic Freedom Fries?”
Alfred nodded. With the exception of the very highest levels, and the rich oldsters in their separate habitat, the food they were served was locally-produced pap. It was possible to improve the taste slightly, but it never had the flavour of real food. There was no real reason why they couldn’t bring up a breeding population of sheep or even cows, yet the expense would be considerable. He was sure that there were kids in the warrens who had never realised that most food wasn’t grown in algae vats.
“We need to convince them to listen,” Richardson insisted. “What can you do to help us?”
“I don’t know,” Alfred admitted. Part of him wanted to join up with Richardson, to fight oppression; the rest of him wanted to stay safe. It was the same sort of caution that had kept him in his present role, rather than trying to reach higher. “What can I do to help you?”
Richardson patted him on the back as he stood up. “You’re in quite a vital position, Alfred,” he said. “I think you should keep an eye on our esteemed lords and masters. And if you see anything you think we should know about, why not give me a call?”
“Our calls are recorded,” Alfred said.
“Then come and visit me in person,” Richardson said. “Battle lines are forming, Alfred. It’s time to take a stand.”