The last hour of Jake’s double shift was the longest. Gail had been flagged during decon and sent back to her quarters until the virus in her bloodstream gave up under the assault of chemistry. The team leader had been unable to line up a replacement at short notice and Jake was conveniently at hand. “Just this time, Jake,” the team leader said. “We’ll make it up to you.”
To be fair, they always did. Double pay and a day off. They were sticklers for fairness on Moonbase Alecto. They had to be. With personnel being shipped out to the new settlements at an accelerated rate, the technicians who stayed behind to keep the station in operation were increasingly valuable. Jake hoped to leave in a couple of weeks. This wasn’t the right time to make a stink about the minor inconvenience of a double shift. He checked the clock. Hey, ten minutes into a third shift! Where the hell was what’s-his-name – Dennis? Jake punched the intercom. It wasn’t out of line to inquire about the delay.
“Hey there,” he said. “Is Dennis in decon?”
Going through the decontamination tunnel took a solid six minutes. Dennis better be in there right now or Jake would give him a piece of his mind. Being on time for the handover was a matter of respect. Shift duty in the vault was a sensory deprivation ordeal. It required mental toughness and after his shift – even more so after two! – Jake was eager to get back to the living and noisy world. Pilots joked that the vault was great training for solo space travel. There wasn’t a huge difference between being locked up in a shuttle floating in the middle of nowhere and sitting behind a bank of pulsating screens in the underground bio repository. If anything, there was more activity in the shuttle, at least you had changing instrument readings to look at. In the vault, the screens didn’t vary and you didn’t want them to vary. Deviations in measurements meant something was wrong with one of the billion microscopic organisms in storage. The samples were the building blocks of known life, as the science pundits called them, of possible life forms to come added the dreamers, of life now extinct said the romantics. After a year working in the vault, staring at immobile screens and sterile metal cabinets, Jake seldom thought about what he was paid to watch. In the beginning he had been awed. The importance of the repository made his heart beat faster, and his responsibility as a keeper put a knot in his throat. It didn’t matter that he was one of a team of six shift workers, with more support people outside, security agents, maintenance employees, and biologists; it didn’t matter that he was a tiny part of a vast project; they were all dedicated to the preservation of precious strands of life. Jake wasn’t the least bit religious but the first time he came down in the slow elevator to get to his workspace, he couldn’t help thinking of the divine. Minuscule wonders were imprisoned in these metal boxes and he was their protector; his hands trembled when he entered his password to access the monitoring system.
No answer from the intercom. Jake poked it again. “Guys? I’m overdue down here. Tell Dennis to hurry his ass!”
He wanted his bed. He had filed his shift report, given a last look at the screens, pushed the required test buttons and answered the questions designed to verify that he had been awake the entire length of his stint. There were ways to game the system but it was hardly worth the effort. He got up and stretched to work out the stiffness in his neck and shoulders.
The intercom crackled. “He’s on his way?” Jake said. The answer was static. What was the matter with these people? “Can you hear me?”
He tapped the device and pushed every button without result.
“Better go check for myself,” he mumbled.
The vault was shut up tight but he had access to the service corridor with the locker rooms and the kitchen. The decon station was at the end of the corridor, behind a solid wall of tempered glass. Jake leaned on the glass, squinting to see beyond the machine. The technician was sitting in the usual place in front of the control panel. Jake couldn’t see who it was. Rachel maybe, or Geo. The green overalls and mask were anonymous. He banged on the glass to attract the technician’s attention.
Nothing moved. He switched on the transmitter next to the door. The light turned green and he saw a companion green dot appear on the technician’s panel. It reflected in the visor of the tech’s mask. “Hello? What’s going on folks?”
He didn’t get a response. What was sitting over there, a stuffed dummy? Jake felt the first ripples of anxiety. He was locked up in a cellar, a bunker, a silo, a sturdy sealed place, designed to be impenetrable.
Anxiety turned into panic, raw and blind.
Jake screamed, tried to break the glass that closed his prison, and stuck kitchen forks in the electronic lock. Unsuccessful and pointless efforts. He cursed and despaired and howled in terror. When his voice cracked and he slumped to the ground shaking with emotional exhaustion, his fundamental common sense eventually prevailed.
The repository team leader had said that his lack of imagination made him a perfect candidate for the job. Jake had been offended – nobody likes to hear they’re a stick in the mud. Now, he saw both the truth in his supervisor’s assessment and the irony. Yes, he was the perfect man for the job, especially now that the job was going south. Too much imagination was guaranteed to send you over the bend.
Jake didn’t even try to figure out what happened upstairs. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. He doubted Moonbase Alecto had been flattened. He had power and access to data, and a trip to the kitchen confirmed that the food supply worked. He wondered why the technician in the decon station didn’t respond. Heart attack? Jake was confident someone would come for the treasure of the vault. They wouldn’t come for him; he was a worthless cog.
All he had to do, was hang in there.
There was no reason to freak out.
The clock on the wall didn’t mean anything anymore. Jake wasn’t thinking about shifts. He wasn’t thinking about much. The hours were flowing into minutes or into days, speeding up or slowing down. Had it been weeks already? Jake wasn’t counting. He didn’t remember when he had come to work. Was it November 10? The date stuck in his head but he couldn’t remember why. The computer told him what day it was and he thought about writing the date down to have at least a starting point, but then the idea somehow dissolved and by the time it surfaced again, the date on the computer had changed and he didn’t remember how many days had passed. His grasp on reality was tenuous. He knew when he was hungry, and that was about it. The kitchen supply loop worked without a hitch and there was always a meal ready for him whenever he needed one. He couldn’t even count the discarded dinner trays in the garbage disposal because the bin was emptied automatically.
From time to time, Jake tried the intercom on his desk, if only to hear static. It was a presence of some kind. The transmitter in the corridor kept blinking green and so what its partner at the decon station. The dummy in green overalls was still there, motionless. Jake walked endlessly between the rows and rows of bio samples. He had his favorite that he visited frequently. A box labeled BG7853, twenty rows in. He had looked it up in the database and knew that it contained the genetic material of a Luna moth. He loved the name and the picture. The vibrant green held his gaze for hours. He had access to limitless information and read everything ever published on Actias Luna, as the creature was officially known. He printed a large picture of the moth that he taped to the wall near his improvised cot, a spartan bed made of paper and bath towels. He made a point of keeping clean and always showered after dinner. The small razor from the first aid kit soon gave up. His beard grew. His hair too. When he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, he thought of his grandfather. The beard and hair could have given him an idea of how much time had passed, but again calculation and measurements eluded him. What was the point? He was as locked up as the other life forms. The only difference was that they were monitored by the computer and he wasn’t.
If his vitals had been connected to the system, the glitch in Jake’s temporal lobe would have been diagnosed. If he’d been on the surface, a colleague would have noticed his wandering focus and lack of attention. A short stay in the hospital would have taken care of the problem and medication would have prevented a recurrence. Down under Moonbase Alecto, in the solitude of the vault, none of that happened.
Time went by unnoticed and the little glitch in Jake’s brain was followed by others. Connections were broken and cells died. There was no pain and no anguish. Jake ate, bathed, slept and spent time with his friend Luna. He moved his bed near her box and taped her picture on the bank of metal containers. In his sleep he talked to her, flew with her on soft velvet wings over lush country at night, and tasted the subtle sweetness of quivering flower buds. It was enjoyable and he slept a lot. Soon he was able to talk to her and fly with her when he was awake.
“Was he contaminated?” the captain said.
The doctor shrugged. “Of course not. He wouldn’t be alive, would he?” The deadly virus had swept through Moonbase Alecto leaving no survivors, except Jake. “We were lucky. The bug didn’t penetrate the vault. We would have lost the entire repository.”
“What happened to him? Did solitary confinement do this to him?” The captain watched the nurses that were putting Jake through a full battery of tests.
“Twenty-eight months of solitude,” the doctor said. “Completely shut off, without a whisper of human contact. I would have gone stark raving mad. He suffered a series of mini strokes. I can’t tell if stress caused them. The strokes must have happened soon after he lost the connection with the surface. His brain has had time to start rewiring.”
“Will he recover?” the captain said.
“His full mental abilities? It depends on your definition. He’s not crazy but he’s definitely a different man than when he went down that elevator. His level of perception is amazing. And if you need an expert on moths, he’s your man.”
“Yes, about that,” the captain said. “What’s the deal?”
“Good looking bugs,” the doctor said. “Do you think you could get us a live one?”
“Just an idea. Humor me. He’s the unexpected lone survivor of Moonbase Alecto. Thanks to him our mission is not controversial anymore. Find a Luna moth for Jake, please.”
The captain’s squad had been tasked with retrieving the bio samples, if they were found intact. The mission had faced strong opposition. People were terrified of the deadly unidentified virus. A significant portion of the population wanted the entire settlement nuked. Finding Jake alive in the intact repository had swayed public opinion and made the rescue mission popular. Jake was hailed a hero.
The captain laughed. “Now you want me to go look for butterflies!”
The doctor didn’t correct him. Jake could tell him about the differences between the species, in excruciating detail.