“Try again,” Helena ordered over the radio.
I braced the drill against my suit’s chest pad, squeezed the worn trigger, and felt rather than heard the teeth-grating whine as it bit into rock. Fine basaltic dust drifted lazily down onto the regolith. This lunar rock was tough, baked in solar furnaces at the birth of the solar system. Whatever its secrets, they would not come easily.
I stopped and withdrew the drill bit. The suit fans whirred a little faster now, but I would have given anything to be able to wipe away the little beads of sweat with the back of my hand. The hole, just a finger’s width, was shallow. A dozen others riddled the rock face, lit by portable lamps now the sun had set below the crater’s rim. If we’d hoped this facet would simply flake away, we were in for a disappointment.
But then I saw something. Deep in the heart of the hole, a glint of silver: a polished metal surface where none should be. After all the false alarms and disappointments, could this really be a remnant?
“Again,” Helena said.
We called ourselves the Ageless Ones.
Even that was a lie—or at least a subtle, ego-flattering adaption of the truth. Those of us who chose lifespans best measured in centuries (and troublingly, some did not) carried nanomachines in our bloodstreams to purify and repair. Perhaps in our agelessness, we had become a little like them, more machinelike and less human. Less fallible.
But we could thank good old relativistic time dilation for our main claim to longevity. That, and the passing of a few millennia in fugue sleep while our ships laboured across the gulfs between the stars. So we were not truly ageless, but the galaxies did grow older while we slept.
We were the travellers who turned our backs on mankind’s birthplace for a chance of immortality. We weren’t the first to try, but we were the first to succeed.
It was a chamber, an elongated room shaped more or less as the gravitics had hinted. Once there must have been a door, but with the chamber entombed in that unyielding basalt, we opted to cut our way in through this first point of contact. Ultimately it made no difference: vacuum without, vacuum within.
We hoped for wonders from a bygone era, but what we got was a junk room, a store cupboard at best. The ancient inscriptions were not immediately decipherable, but the ship’s databases remembered the languages of our distant ancestors and translated for us.
A museum, of sorts.
Still we didn’t understand. Not then.
Only one ship had returned to the home system. After a million years (or perhaps two, or three) there was a certain inevitability to it. Curiosity compelled us to see where humankind had arisen. Not our birthplace, for we were shipborn creatures, but we felt the bond nonetheless. As predicted, we found Earth dead and devoid of all life. The moon, grey and airless, still the faithful companion. A little more distant now, but there, just as the ship remembered.
In the passing of a thousand shipborn generations Earth had changed, burnt and poisoned, returned to a rocky lifeless ball much as it must have been at the birth of the solar system. Like a nest nurturing hatchlings until they’re old enough to fly, it had served its purpose and now lay ruined, dismantled by the fledglings in their struggle to leave the nest.
The ship was—had always been—our home. And yet. . . . During this brief sojourn from it, Helena and I walked the lunar surface sometimes, suited hand in suited hand, the formalities of her command put to one side, and I felt something close to happiness.
We all dreamt of what it must feel like to walk in the open air, warm sun on our backs and wind against our faces. The shipboard simulations could only go so far. But this was not enough either.
And at night, in her eyes I thought I saw something, a kind of cold despair. Or maybe just tiredness. It became an unspoken barrier between us. I knew Helena had decided not to enter the fugue-sleep chamber again—and I wondered what I would do without her, journeying on alone.
The vacuum-sealed box seemed to be all that remained intact. (And the irony was not lost on us: vacuum sealed? On the moon?)
Blade, the inscription said, repeated in three different prehistoric languages. The rest of the description we did not understand.
There were protocols for this kind of thing. Scientific methods to preserve irreplaceable artefacts. But there was also human curiosity, undimmed with the passage of millennia.
So we opened it.
Inside we truly found a wonder. It might even have been the first of its kind. I imagined the pride felt by some ancient curator carefully placing it in the delicate glass case—pride at the magnificent audacity of all that it represented. The single blade of grass and seed-head, long since brown and desiccated, had obviously grown tall and strong in the one-sixth gravity. I pictured the lowland dunes where it must have flourished, bathed in sunlight while Earth looked on. This, the first blade of grass naturally cultivated on the moon.
On its unprotected surface.
Disturbed by the opening of the container, it crumbled to a fine dust.
It will take time—much time, all are agreed. Eons will pass while the task is executed. But aren’t we supposed to be the masters of time, the Ageless Ones? Once the work is set in motion and we retire to our fugue-sleep chambers, the passing of millennia is but a good night’s rest.
“It’s good to have hope again,” Helena says to me. She will sleep again, after all.
We have a shared dream—to walk the lowland plains above Mare Vaporum, or climb into the Apennine foothills and gaze across the green slopes toward the shoreline of Mare Imbrium, where waves break languidly. To breathe that oxygen-rich air and pluck the wild flowers which grow in the meadows. Perhaps we will gaze up at that brown, lifeless orb hanging low on the eastern horizon and think dangerous thoughts.
And we too will leave our legacy. Deep in that same museum vault: a blade of grass to replace the one we carelessly destroyed, plucked from the second greening of the moon.
David Cleden writes business proposals by day and fantasy stories by night and tries hard not to get the two jobs muddled up. He lives in the UK with his wife and family and a ridiculously large number of cats, as per the rules of all author bios.