1 May 2019: Luna Australis

I was reading about Australia's history as a penal colony and reading KSR's Red Mars series when I wrote this. I had a vision of a moon colony, not built by leading scientists and titans of industry but as a penal colony that eventually becomes a lunar city, a gas station and shipyard for earth, a legitimate lunar colony with a dark past. Honestly probably a little too big of a canvas for someone of my ability [and followthrough] to paint but we don't get to choose what ideas pop unbidden into our heads, do we?

I haven't worked on this since I pushed this all out, not sure if it's dead or just sleeping.

“If you’re ready, sign here.” Cole looked at the document spread out in front of him. At least a dozen pages of dense legal nonsense, culminating in an empty line at the bottom of the last page. The signatures of his advocate, warden, and psychologist already filled the lines above. He glanced up at the public defender, a young woman, almost a girl still. Her blond hair, tied back tightly into a bun, stirred unwanted memories from the dark parts of his mind. He caught a trace of her perfume over the antiseptic smell of the room and it threatened to take him over the edge. He made eye contact with her and she suppressed a shiver. She knew why he was in here.

“Sir? Right there, unless you have any more questions.” He didn’t. He scrawled his messy signature onto the line, put the pen down, and pushed the paper towards her. She collected the documents into a pile, straightened them, and stood up. “I’m going to go make copies of these, and you’ll be on your way.” She left the room, her heels clicking into the distance on the polished concrete floor.

Cole sat back in the metal chair and sighed. He looked around the spartan room, wondering if he’d miss anything about this prison. Probably not. The pale green walls, the constant chill of a concrete building, flickering fluorescent light, the ever-present murmur of men’s shouting voices echoing from unidentifiable sources didn’t really make one sentimental for the place. But what now awaited him might be worse. He ran his clammy hands over the legs of his orange jumpsuit. He wasn’t nervous, but damn if he ever felt warm in here.

The sudden harsh sound of the door unlocking broke his reverie. The guard walked in, holding an unlocked pair of handcuffs. “They want to get you moving tonight, spaceman. Get anything you want to keep out of your cell and I’ll take you down to processing.” Cole stood, and held his hands out for the cuffs. The guard clicked them on and walked him out of the counsel room, back towards the cell block. There wasn’t much he could call his own in there, much less anything worth taking. Arriving at his cell in block D, his cellmate looked up. Angel was an asshole, and Cole couldn’t wait to put a few hundred thousand kilometers between them.

“You’re really going, huh, cuz? You know there’s no pussy up there.” Angel smirked at him, laying on Cole’s bunk, clipping his toenails with little regard for where the clippings went. “No pussy here, either, but I guess you don’t mind that”, Cole growled, and shoved him off the bed. Angel was a lifer, sentenced in his early 20’s and had adapted to his environment a long time ago. “Life finds a way”, he thought. On the wall over his bunk he had a few photos of his wife and daughter. Angel, groaning when saw, jeered “Hey man, at least leave one for me so I have something to get off to!” Cole’s fists tightened reflexively, ready to rearrange Angel’s teeth, but he calmed himself and straightened up. No use ruining this for himself this close to the finish line. He slid the pictures into the pocket of his jumpsuit and brushed roughly past Angel. Turning to the guard, he nodded and walked to the door. “You’re not going to say goodbye or nothing?” Angel asked as the door was shutting. Cole shook his head and followed the guard back out of the cell block.

When Cole arrived at the out-processing desk, the clerk looked a little surprised at his lack of belongings, but shrugged and processed his paperwork, stamped it, and handed the sheaf of identifying documents to him. “Good luck out there, man”, he said, and smiled. Cole wasn’t sure if the clerk was being genuine, but grunted out a “Thanks” and took the papers from him. From there, the guard shuffled him to the garage, where a police vehicle was waiting. As he slid into the back seat, he relished the comparative comfort of the padded seats of the cruiser. It had been a while since he’d sat on anything that wasn’t cold steel.

The drive to the airport was the first Cole had seen of the outside world in over a decade. Billboards flew by, advertising movies with actors he’d never heard of, products he barely remembered using, and fast food – he hadn’t had a burger in years. His mouth suddenly watering, he asked the cop driving “Hey, any chance we could pull off for a bite to eat? Might be my last chance at a burger, you know, ever.” The portly officer grinned at him in the rearview mirror and said, indulgingly “Sure, space cadet, pick your poison.” A short detour later, they were back on the freeway, Cole savoring the artery clogging bulk of a triple cheeseburger, the juices dripping into his thick stubble. It was, hands down, the greatest thing he’d ever eaten. The cop, eating a handful of fries and driving one handed, looked at him in the rearview and laughed. “They don’t feed you like that in prison, do they?” Cole wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and replied thickly, “Hell no. But if this whole thing goes tits up, at least I’ll die happy.” The officer, laughing again, pulled onto the exit for the airport and told him to finish up, as they’d be arriving soon.

Cole hadn’t known what to expect, but he certainly wasn’t expecting the cruiser to pull into a hangar alongside a sleek Learjet. He figured maybe a military transport or a cramped seat in coach, handcuffed to a US Marshall. He’d only flown once before, as a kid, to Florida for his grandfather’s funeral. His memories of the pre- 9/11 airport and flight were hazy at best, and now, mid 2020’s, were certainly way out of date. Still, he didn’t think this flight would count as a typical airport experience.

The hatch in the side of the plane opened and, after waiting for the stairs to descend, a tall, wiry man wearing the white officer’s uniform of the Space Force stepped down the stairs. He took the sheaf of Cole’s identifying documents from the police officer and quickly flipped through them, nodding. He gave a single sharp nod to the officer and turned to Cole. “Cole Hawser? Looks like everything’s in order. Would you like to change out of that prison orange and use the bathroom before we take off? It’s a long flight.” The military man held out a plastic-wrapped bundle of clothing. “I’m Commander Ricker, by the way.” Cole gaped at the bundle for a minute, confused. He hadn’t worn anything other than the rough, dingy orange jumpsuit in years. The Commander gestured the package at him, and said “Go on, bathroom’s over through that door. Shoes in there for you as well.”

Surprise after surprise. Cole gently took the package and walked toward the bathroom door. This was almost too much to take in all at once. He opened the door to the bathroom, marveling at the fact that he could take a shit in private again. That was a luxury quickly forgotten inside. He pulled the pictures brought from his cell out of his pocket without looking at them and placed them face down on the counter. He stripped off the grimy jumpsuit and threw it in the trash can. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he stopped and took a second to reflect. Was this all a cruel dream? He splashed cold water from the (porcelain!) sink onto his face and slapped himself a few times. Still here. He looked over his shoulder and saw a real toilet, with a separate seat, and what looked like at least two-ply toilet paper on a normal spinner. What luxury! He used the facilities, trying not to spend too much time gawking at all the little luxuries he’d thought were gone forever from his life, and slipped on the grey and white camo fatigues the Commander had given him. Included in the package were the first new pair of socks and underwear he’d worn in over a decade. Military issue clothing may not be considered luxurious to most citizens, but slipping on the new, soft pair of socks almost made him tear up. “Keep it together, man” he muttered to himself while lacing up the boots he was given. Shoelaces! When was the last time he’d had shoelaces! Or shoes with any kind of structure! He still wasn’t a free man, but for the moment, he felt like a king.

Grabbing the photographs from the counter and slipping them into the chest pocket of his fatigues, he looked at himself in the mirror again before leaving the bathroom, and almost couldn’t believe it. Over a decade of seeing himself by grubby mirrors wearing an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit in harsh fluorescent lights had done little for his self-image. Seeing himself now in a military uniform, in the indirect lighting of the bathroom, he might have been another person entirely. Someone he wasn’t scared of.

Cole left the bathroom and walked back towards the jet, where Commander Ricker was talking to what looked like the pilot, who was wearing a helmet weighed down by several technical looking attachments Cole couldn’t guess the purpose of. A lot had changed, technologically, while he was inside. He recalled smart phones hitting the scene a few years before he’d – nope, no. Don’t think about before. Nothing good lies that way. Focus on now.

As he approached, the Commander grinned at him. “Enjoyed that, did you? Figured you might take a few extra minutes in there. Hop on and get strapped in, we’ve got a schedule to keep.” Cole mounted the stairs and took in the cabin. Two rows of seats flanked a center aisle. Two MP’s, pistols and tasers clearly visible, sat in the back row. “Sorry about the heavies,” Commander Ricker said apologetically, coming in behind him, “but it’s regulation for transporting prisoners. Your psych profile checks out, but we can’t take any chances on you trying to take off in one of our jets!” He laughed and clapped Cole on the back amicably, which didn’t really make Cole feel much better. “Go on, take a seat. No drink service on this flight, I’m afraid!” He laughed again and sat down across the aisle from Cole. Another helmeted crewmember came out of the cockpit and pulled the cabin door shut, sealing it with a heavy click. Cole was unpleasantly reminded of the sound of his cell door locking. The crewmember ensured everyone was seated and returned to the cockpit. The plane taxied out of the hanger and towards the tarmac of the runway. A rising whine signaled the start of the jet’s twin engines. Cole marveled at the field of various colored strobing lights of the airfield through his window. “I still can’t believe all of this is real” he thought.

Pushed back into his seat by the acceleration of the plane’s takeoff, Cole looked out the window and saw the edge of the sun coming over the horizon, fat and orange. He reflected that he should try and watch the sunrise, he probably didn’t have very many left. However, the greasy burger sat heavily in his stomach and his body had other ideas. Cole slipped off into sleep somewhere over Chicago. Alaska was still a long way away.


She still wasn’t used to the way the stars looked up here. Without the filtering of several miles of atmosphere, the friendly slow twinkle and occasional satellite sailing by were gone, replaced by hard, unwavering pinpricks of light scattered across an unfathomable blackness. Wolf eyes in the dark night. Val shuddered and hit the shutter controls. Her cabin, cast back into a human shade of soft light, was starting to feel like home after a month. The Air Force recruits into Space Force always had a tougher time adjusting compared to the Navy, who were already used to a world of bulkheads, exposed pipes, and recirculated air.

Val was standing inside a ship on an enormous scale, a great spinning wheel orbiting high above the planet, the United States first official military foray into space. Housing the forward operating base of the emergent Space Force, it was roughly a kilometer in diameter, with a large spike of superstructure towering out of the axis. At the top of the tower was an armored bulb, bristling with barrels, launch tubes, and waveguides of the cutting-edge arsenal that defended the reactors housed within. Scattered throughout the armaments long, black, fern-like fronds could be seen emerging from this pod, dispersing waste heat. Caught out of the corner of the eye, these could be seen to glow, dully, in the weird light of the near-infrared. The overall appearance of Near Earth One (NEO, in the acronym-riddled parlance all militaries seem to revel in) was that of a mechanized, potted palm tree, its fronds flexing and curling, spinning slowly and dotted with twinkling lights. It would almost be beautiful if it weren’t the most powerful conglomeration of destructive force humans had ever constructed.

The pictures, schematics, and diagrams she’d been shown during her SF indoctrination hadn’t prepared her for the sight of NEO as it appeared out the window of the shuttlecraft on her first approach. It was built on such a terrifying, inhuman scale, it was hard to comprehend. Without the constant pull of Earth’s surface gravity, the architects of this station were free to build, limited only by the resources available. 30 years ago, this was a hard limit, as everything had to be laboriously lifted up by chemical rockets, crawling out of the atmosphere, carrying humanity’s best and brightest, riding, what was essentially, a controlled detonation of several tons of liquid oxygen and jet fuel. Today, drone-piloted supply carriers could be flung up fairly simply from the High Velocity Orbital Insertion complex in Alaska. However, this was only a trickle compared to what the planned development of the Moon promised, which is why Val was here.

She had joined the Air Force against her parent’s wishes during the global conflicts of the early 2020’s. Serving with the Air Force had mollified them somewhat, as it allowed her to serve without being on the front lines toting a rifle. Her degree in civil engineering and aptitude for big-picture thinking had landed her in the logistics and supply chain wing of the USAF, siting and planning new airfields. Distinguishing herself as an exceptional officer, she was ready to take her discharge when she was approached by the Space Force and offered the chance to serve on NEO, planning the next human leap forward. It isn’t every lifetime you’re handed the chance to engrave your name in the annals of history, so she traded in her Air Force blue for Space force white, and began training for her strange new posting.

Six months later, she turned away from her window, adjusted her uniform in the mirror by the door, and made her way through the endless, upwardly curving corridors of NEO to the access point for one of the spokes connecting her wheel to the central mast. An elevator car stood waiting as she approached, and she entered, taking hold of one of the many handholds ringing the wall of the elevator. The acceleration of the car made the apparent gravity shift diagonally against the centrifugal force of the great spinning wheel. She slumped briefly against the wall, and straightened as the car cleared the wheel and gravity resumed it’s normal unidirectional pull. Somewhere around the midpoint of the trip, the car started to brake in preparation for its arrival.

Her first shipment of conscripts was due to arrive at 1400, and she wasn’t sure what to expect. The convict volunteer program was new and untested, and it would make or break her career. She nervously smoothed her dark curly hair back over her head outside the entrance to the hangar bay before entering. Passing through the double set of emergency airlock doors, the strange tang of metal exposed to vacuum pervaded the air of the huge empty space. A massive, convex wall dominated the far end of the space, the floor between gouged with the currently inactive surfaces of conveyors and grapples. Painfully bright lights mounted in the ceiling failed to illuminate the space fully, leaving darkened corners and sharp-edged shadows hanging off the various equipment mounted on the walls. Stepping onto the catwalk leading to the control booth, the metallic ring of her shoes on the grate alerted the crewmen at the operating station to her presence and they snapped to attention as she entered. “Commander Freeman!” The head crewman saluted. “The passenger vessel is on an approach vector, ETA 3 minutes.” “At ease, crewman. Do we have visual yet?” She asked, gesturing towards one of the large screens overhanging the windows of the control booth. The crewman’s hands swept deftly across the screens in front of him and activated a manual toggle. The screen above lit up with the view from a camera somewhere above them on the mast.