"One of the power cells has been pulled out of the chassis. It's sitting here on the ground."
"You mean it's physically pulled out?"
"Hold on. A6."
"Is it damaged?"
"There's gotta be dust intrusion, but otherwise it looks okay. I'm not sure I should put it back in. Recommendations?"
Quarles was quiet for a few seconds. "Blow it out as clean as you can with compressed air and reinsert it, carefully please. We'll probably have to go back and replace the drive anyways. Let's see if that's the main issue."
"Copy. Reboot in one minute."
Dechert blew as much moondust from the triangular power cell as he could and jammed it back into the rack. He flipped the breaker and green and red dots flashed into life on the plasma screen. He could sense the xenon mining lights charging up behind him, blooming one at a time.
"She's recharging." He walked around the shack. "I don't get it, though—why didn't we receive telemetry when the cell was pulled out?"
Quarles hesitated and Dechert could almost hear him thinking. "I'm not sure. It's a variable frequency drive and it's got advanced cell bypass, meaning if one power cell fails it gets automatically isolated, and the others pick up the slack. But it also means the other cells burn out quicker."
Dechert continued to walk a widening circle around the shack. "So whoever did this knew it would slow-bleed the sifter, but we probably wouldn't be alerted?"
"That's right," Quarles said. "And they knew not to pull the cell at the star point of the configuration, which would have shut the whole thing down immediately."
"Well, whoever did it left footprints all over the place down here, and they aren't ours."
"Okay, are they alien or human?"
"I mean they aren't American, smart-ass. Treads are different, and I don't recognize them from anything I've seen on Luna. Taking pictures now. Tell Vernon or Lane to cross-reference the soles and look for a match."
Quarles was silent for several seconds. "Okay. So what the hell's going on, boss? Is this someone's idea of a prank?"
"Making us do an EVA in a shadow-sided crater is no fucking joke, Quarles. Neither is screwing with our water supply. Someone's sending a message."
"Great," Quarles said. "What language do you think it's in?"
Sea of Serenity 1 had been open for fourteen years, and it looked it. Buried under ten feet of lunar soil in the southern rim of Mare Serenitatis to protect the crew from radiation, the station's tunnels, modules, and decks felt more like the innards of a World War II submarine than a Level-1 lunar outpost. The cramped outer passageways stank of sweat, cigar smoke, and hydraulic fluid. Moondust, smaller than grains of sand on Earth but spiked with crystalline edges, covered everything outside of the clean rooms, burnishing the web of access tunnels in a slate-gray haze. The air filters and nano-sweeps fought a losing battle with the dust every day. It found its way into computers, processors, spacesuits, electrical systems, and purifiers, breaking them down like a cancer. The station and everything in it needed more repair work than an old army tank.
In the first decade of spaceflight, Robert Heinlein described the Moon as a harsh mistress, but Dechert always thought of her as a desert gone too far. Earth's stillborn sister, stripped of the wind, clouds, and air that could have saved her from lifelessness. He felt a connection with the Earth tribes who spent ages perfecting how to live in such desolation. The Bedouin, who handled sandstorms that could rip flesh from bone. The Inuit, who hacked out a life on frozen slabs of ice. How did they do it? After more than four years on the Moon, he was beginning to understand. They learned hard lessons the first time.
There aren't second chances in such places.
Dechert was a careful man. He always checked twice. So when he sealed the inner hatch of the airlock and checked the board for green lights after coming in from his flight at Dionysius, he punched the status button twice before fumbling with the seals on his helmet.
"You've got balls," Vernon Waters said behind him. "Not a chance in hell I'm serving as Quarles's guinea pig, especially five hundred klicks out. That boy smokes too much weed."
"It gives him creative energy," Dechert said.