It’s still inside me; I can feel it, even now. I’ve tried to block it out, erase it from my memory, but it’s always there, like a splinter in my mind, burrowing deeper into my subconscious.
Looking back, I wonder if it happened at all. Perhaps it was nothing. A hallucination. A fantasy. A dream within a dream.
I can’t talk about it with the other sappers in Sector-22. We came here to forget, not dig up the past. Once you step off that ship, there’s no going back. It’s like you never even existed.
The first few cycles, I was doing fine. I was enjoying it, in fact. The anonymity. The monotony. I kept my head down and worked through the rhythm. Drill, eat, sleep. Eat, sleep, drill. Hunky-dory.
And then, I saw the damn hare.
I’d had a productive shift. I shelled the last core and sealed the payload when a white-hot spark shot across my EVA. I turned as it dived behind a rock, ears flat, legs outstretched, fur white as midnight snow.
I could have left it. Put it down to a flare, or a floodlight. Anything. I could have hustled out of there, forced down some god-awful Meal Ready-to-Eat junk, and hit the rack.
But no, I had to make sure. Of what? Probably that I wasn’t going fucking insane.
Stepping through the regolith, I headed toward a towering outcrop in the middle of the crater and edged around its smooth, monolithic face.
Switching off my cam, I crouched next to the fetal form. It curled into itself, a quivering ball that peered at me with an eye as big and blue as an ocean.
The comms crackled through my helmet and I stumbled backwards. As I hit the deck, plumes of pewter particles spiraled around me and hung like ice crystals in the void.
“Hey, Boot, what are you doing out there? Sightseeing? Lockdown in thirty minutes. Get your ass back here. And what a fine ass it is too.”
Gale in the background, giving me shit as usual.
“OK, OK, just checking the perimeter,” I said, standing up. “I’m on my way. Oh, and Cap? Tell the Lieutenant to get his hand off his dick and make sure he washes his hands before dinner.”
“I’ve got your dinner right h—”
A crash, a scream, laughter.
“Sorry about that, Boot. Interference. What’s the haul?”
“A solid tonne,” I said. “You were right; I think we’ve hit the jackpot.”
“I knew it! That’s five zip. Carry on like this and I’ll be sitting fat and pretty on a mountain of rations.”
“You’re already fat and pretty, Cap.”
Laughter again, distant and artificial.
“Careful, Boot. Pack it up and roll out. That’s an order. Besides, it’s way past chow time.”
“What’s on the menu?” I asked. He liked to play this game. His personal cornucopia.
“Fresh shrimps to start. Thick sirloin to follow–bloody as hell. Applepie to finish.”
“Can’t wait, Cap. Keep mine warm.”
“Will do, Boot. Out.”
I silenced my radio. The hare sat up and bounced to the lip of the crater in two long, floating leaps. As I chased after it, every step kicked up sediment like smoke. We skirted the edge of a ridge and hopped down a steep incline. I checked my GPS and O2 as debris tumbled around me, wiped the powder from my visor and jumped again, and again.
I don’t know how long we were out there, but, eventually, we reached the tree.
A sharp stitch sliced across my side, buckling my knees. The hare waited, head cocked, eyes fixed on mine.
The tree was broad, tall, with moss-covered roots that jutted from the dust like buckled bones. Its branches were thick and curved like a smile. Bunches of needle-sharp leaves sprouted in every direction, protecting rounds of huddled red pearls. I reached out and touched it; thick, honeyed sap burst from the bark and oozed between my gloved fingers.
My stomach clenched like a balled fist. Gasping for breath, I dragged myself up against the trunk. The hare crept over, ears down, and nestled its head in the hollow of my hip. We stayed there awhile as the stars burned around us, comforted by the distant orb of sapphire and emerald turning in eternal ellipse through the pin-pricked abyss.
I scraped a handful of silver sand and let the grains fall between my fingers like ash. Who would have thought that the future of our planet–so balanced, so beautiful, a perfect cradle crafted over billions of years–would come to depend entirely on this little corpse of a satellite. On this parched, dead rock.
When I looked down the hare was gone, although I could still feel the shadow of its small skull pressed against me. Feel the throb of its tiny heart, the twitch of its limbs.
There is a theory that the Moon was once part of the Earth, until a devastating impact ripped it away. A punch to the gut that sealed its fate as a distant stranger.
I suppose there is consolation in the constant shadow of its presence, in its gentle rock-a-bye tug of the tides.
It will always be a part of us.
Christopher M Drew is a flash fiction writer from the UK. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Point Press, (b)OINK zine, Firefly Magazine, Flash Frontier, Ellipsis Zine, Bath Flash Fiction Award, and others. You can connect with Chris on Twitter @cmdrew81.