Rick Gauger

A PLACE FOR ALL THE STUFF CRAMMED IN ONE MAN'S MIND TO BE OFF-LOADED…

The Vacuum-Packed Picnic

Posted on | May 12, 2010 | 4 Comments

Rick Gauger ©1987, 2009
   
   As she approached my table across the pilots’ crowded ready room with her teacup in her hand, I felt an urge coming over me. I had an urge to bite her on the smooth, ivory neck, which emerged from the heavy aluminum collar ring of her close-fitting pilot’s vacuum suit. Maybe it was the way she jangled all those pockets, tubes, clipboards, and electronic terminals as she made her way through the mob toward me. The typical space pilot’s swagger-but female. Maybe it was the merry brown eyes and the humorous twist of her lips as she sat down in front of me.
   “You’re Captain Suarez, aren’t you?”
   “Yeah. My friends call me—”
   “Pancho. Right?”
   “Right. I hope you’re one of my friends,” I said, my figurative tail wagging furiously. Worst case of vibes I’d ever had. It seemed to be mutual. She studied me amusedly while her tea cooled.

   I said, “Surely we’ve never met before. I know I’m pretty absent-minded, but … ”
   “Your friend Arunis Pittman told me about you. I met him on the polar sky station. He thought I should look you up when I got to West Limb. He said you would probably offer to keep me amused. You were highly recommended.”
   “Old Arumis! Damn! How is he?”
   “He’s fine. He said I should ask you whether you’re still keeping the CO2 high in your spacecraft life-support system, instead of doing the regulation aerobic exercises, the way you’re supposed to.”
   “Damn again! How could he know about that? I’ll bet he’s trying to warn me that the agency is monitoring’ my life-support system again. I appreciate that. Thanks, Captain … er … ”
   “Cramblitt. I prefer Stacy, however.” After a pause she asked, “Well, are you?”
   “Not anymore. I don’t want to be grounded again. I’ll do my exercises like a good boy.”
   “I don’t mean that,” she said. “I mean, are you going to amuse me? This is the first time I’ve been on the moon. I don’t have anything to do until the passenger shuttle begins its preflight countdown tomorrow night.”
   An opening big enough to drive a truck into. I had to think of something, immediately, that would capture her imagination. She tucked an errant strand of glossy black hair into her chignon as my mind raced.
   “A picnic. How would you like to go on a picnic? With me,” I said, blurting out the first idiocy that came into my mind. “If you like, I’ll take you to one of my favorite spots. It’s not far, just a short walk from the base.”
   Her reaction was everything I could have hoped for. Her delicate mouth dropped open a little. “You’re kidding. An outdoor picnic?”
   “Why, sure,” I lied. “It’s a new recreation we’ve come up with here on the moon. Gets us away from the madding crowd. A great view, the hills, some nice rock colors. Perfect time of the month for it, too.” Bridges were flaming behind me. Why do I do these things? “Of course you’d probably rather not go to the trouble. You’re probably too tired, right?”
   Her excitement showed on her face. Her eyes began to twinkle. “Oh, no! I wouldn’t miss this for anything!” she exclaimed. “A picnic on the moon! That’s fantastic! Arunis was right about you, Pancho.”
   “Aw,” I mumbled, standing up and giving her the boyish grin. “Just leave it all to me. Meet me at Hatch Seven-Charlie. Anyone can tell you where it is. At ten hundred, tomorrow. Put on your vacuum suit and bring a fully charged backpack. I’ll take care of the rest. I have to make a hopper run now. See you then.”
   Her smile followed me across the ready room as I made my way to the hopper dock. I waved goodbye before turning into the corridor. Male residents of the base who happened to be in the ready room watched all this enviously. They didn’t see the grimace that appeared on my face as soon as I was out of sight. I had really jumped into it with both feet this time.
   The business I had handed her about a picnic wasn’t one-hundred-percent baloney. No one had ever really been on a picnic on the moon before, but the West Limb intellectual elite (my pals and me) had been discussing the idea for quite a while. We regarded our project as a noble pioneering effort, an expansion of man’s capability in the space environment, but, mainly, as a way to get some privacy with our female colleagues. The base at West Limb hadn’t yet become the luxurious suburb that it is today. In those days it was more like a big locker room on the moon; a crowded, noisy set of tunnels and domes, which reeked of old socks and new paint. We all lived in this warren like so many rats in a hole. Life on the high frontier was rough, yes, sir!
   Unfortunately, plans for outings a deux hadn’t gotten past the speculative stage yet. One of my friends had analyzed the problem of picnic-site selection. Using lots of stolen computer time, he had determined which areas on the lunar surface around West Limb could be inhabited by a man-and a woman-for a reasonable length of time in a standard vacuum-survival tent. Of course, the idea was to obtain a comfortable shirt-sleeves-or-less habitat.
   You know what survival tents are. They’re what’s inside those emergency boxes you see everywhere on the moon. Buggies have to carry one per passenger; so do the rocket hoppers. You’ve undoubtedly got several small ones under the bed in your hotel room. Solo prospectors and other outdoor workers use them regularly when they can’t get to any other pressurized shelter. They climb into a tent, seal the opening, and inflate it with their reserve air. The tents blow up into a transparent plastic dome. Once the dome is pressurized, you can take off your vacuum suit and relax a bit. The old-timers say they’re for leaks, whether you get one or have to take one. That’s a joke.
   Anyway, the most important element of my friend’s analysis was the temperature inside the tent. Sunshine was everything. Anyone exposing his ass to the direct rays coming through the plastic would be rapidly rump-roasted. Complete lunar nighttime would be a glacial and gloomy experience, to say the least. No, what we wanted was a cheerful, sunshiny, picnicky sort of experience, with lots of scenery, close to, but not in sight of, the base or any of the main trails. A flat, shady spot on a slope facing a sunlit landscape, with an illuminated boulder nearby to reflect warmth toward the picnickers, would be ideal.
   The computer in my friend’s office, properly (and illegally) stroked, coughed up a number of map overlays, one for each standard day in the lunar month, showing where such sites might be looked for in the area around West Limb. It was a brilliant piece of applied astronomy.
   That afternoon my rocket hopper was scheduled to haul a load of hung-over engineers back to Polar Solar from their monthly spree at Grimaldi, and we had to make a lot of local trips, too. I let my copilot do all the flying while I studied one of those maps. Each time we boosted out of the West Limb hopper pad, I compared the map with the territory (or it is lunitory?) round about. By quitting time, I had selected a promising rock field a short distance north of the base. It all seemed so safe and easy.
   That night I cashed in on the accumulated favors that people on the base owed me. I got the next day off and a free recharge of my vacuum-suit backpack, and I borrowed two one-man vacuum-survival tents. I arranged for an airtight case packed with cold chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, some vegetables, a fresh loaf of French bread with real butter, lemonade, and two bottles of Boordy Vineyards’ vin gris. West Limb may have been a real sty in those days, but the pigs ate and drank well.
   The cafeteria manager had heard rumors. He drew me into a corner of the kitchen, looked around carefully, and leered at me. “Suarez,” he said confidentially, “What are you up to? I mean, really?”
   “Porkner,” I said, “a gentleman, who is entrusted—”
   “No, I mean; really. No kidding. Is it—”
   “You got it. It’s a technical operation. Something new,” I said, leering back at him.
   I made my escape while he was oh-ho-ho-ing at me. It doesn’t do to antagonize the cafeteria manager, or to tell him anything, either. I went to bed early that evening. Lucky for me, it was my turn in the shower.
   Stacy Cramblitt was waiting for me at the hatch when I got there at ten hours. All the running around and plotting I had done had seemed a little sordid to me, I guess. But the way she looked, standing there, cool and amused, in her tailor-made, fluorescent-pink pilot’s vacuum suit, made my conscience clear up right away.
   “Everything set?” she asked.
   “Not quite yet,” I said, putting my load of survival tents, blankets, and the food case into the airlock. For once there wasn’t anyone in the corridor near the hatch. I held her by the arms and drew her close to me.
   “I’m setting your suit radio on my private channel,” I said: She looked at my face as I clicked the knob on her chest module. A delicate perfume rose from her collar ring.
   “You’re nice,” she said. “Now you’re blushing. “
   “Nonsense. After you.”
   We stepped into the airlock and went through the rest of the suit-checkout procedure. I locked us through to the outside. The sun was glaring in the west. The structures scattered on the surface extended inky shadows across the rutted, pockmarked ground. As we walked, Stacy’s helmet swiveled. She was taking in the torn-up ground, the glinting litter of aluminum scraps and shards, the awkward tangle of antenna towers and guy wires, and the humped and ugly buildings.
   “It’s not very pretty,” I said.
   “The human race takes its mess with it everywhere it goes,” she said.
   “Better here than on the earth,” I said. “Besides, it’s not all like this. This is a little zit on the face of a whole world. We’re just a short walk from the real moon, where no one has ever set foot. Give it a chance.” I took hold of one of her gloved hands.
   “Okay,” she said, looking at me. I couldn’t see her face through her mirrored sun visor, but I felt her squeeze my hand.
   We must have been an odd sight as we hiked out of view over the first ridge north of the base. There were undoubtedly a hundred people peeking at us from the windows of the base buildings. I was lugging the rolled-up tents and the food case. Stacy had a blanket over each shoulder. One of the blankets was a garish plaid; the other was white with green and orange stripes and the words FUERZAS ARMADAS DE MEXICO printed on it.
   An hour later we were crossing the vast, boulder-strewn slopes of Hevelius Crater, overlooking the flat Oceanus to our right. I noted that our feet were in the shade, but the tallest boulders reflected a lot of sunlight onto the ground. We could see well enough to pick our way along, and my blackbody thermometer registered in the middle teens. The map supplied by my computer-pushing pal was proving remarkably reliable.
   “You know, it’s not just all gray, black, and white,” Stacy said. “I can see all kinds of subtle colors. Look at that greenish streak in the rocks over there. See it?”
   “I sure do. You’ve really got good eyes. Most people can’t see these things until they’ve been on the moon for a year or more. Most don’t care. There’s a lot of beauty here. It just doesn’t smack you in the eye the way it does back on Earth. God didn’t make this scenery for clods. You have to have some talent and sensitivity.” I was laying it on a bit thick, but it wasn’t all crap.
   Stacy was having a good time in the low gravity,. bouncing around me as I went striding along. She kicked up a big cloud of dust in front of us.
   “Look at that,” she said. “That dust settled so quickly that I could almost hear the thump it made on the ground. I’ve logged a lot of hours in space, but this is the’ first time I’ve ever been on my feet like this on another world. Do you ever get used to the strangeness?”
   “Not really,” I answered. “I never-really get completely used to it. I’m always finding new things to look at.” I stopped suddenly and stooped to look at the ground. “Look here.”
   As she bent over, I pointed out a circular pattern in the dust. In the center of the circle was a tiny grain of shiny glass. Hairlike lines radiated from the center of the pattern. The lines looked as if someone had drawn them in the dust with a fine needle’. The entire formation was about the size of a dime. There were also concentric arcs in the pattern I had discovered.
   “What is it?” Stacy asked.
   “I call them dust flowers,” I said. “Don’t touch it; it’ll fall apart if you do. A friend of mine thinks they’re micrometeorite craters. Where the glass in the middle.is where the micrometeorite struck, and the pattern around it was formed by shock waves traveling in the dust. My friend says they can form only on this kind of fine-dust surface. He’s writing a paper about it.”
   “What do you think they are?”
   “I think they’re dust flowers. We’ll probably find more of them if we look around carefully.”
   “I’d hate to step on something that’s maybe been waiting here for millions of years.”
   “Let’s keep our eyes open.”
   We started off again, passing among shattered heaps of rocks and skirting around the lesser craters.
   Stacy said, “You know, it seems odd to me that there should be so much fine dust on the ground around here. I thought the lunar soil wasn’t supposed to be differentiated-no wind or water to sort it out into particles of varying sizes, and so forth.”
   “That’s right,” I said. “Somebody’s not following the rules.”
   We marched along in silence. I kept looking for an open spot to pitch the tents in. After a while Stacy and I emerged, so to speak, from a forest of boulders into a clearing. The scene was extraordinary, really. It was like a natural Stonehenge, with a circle of rough columns surrounding a sort of terrace in the hillside. The circle was open to the east, and we could see far out over the flatlands. A nearly full Earth hung low over the razor horizon. I almost expected to see a sail on that dappled, ocean-like expanse and surf rolling in on the beach several kilometers below us.
   Stacy was super-impressed. She just stood there and said, “Glorious. Glorious. It really is.” She turned to me. “No one else has ever been here, have they?”
   “Don’t see any footprints, do you? I’ve been saving it for someone special.” Someday God is going to punish me, I thought.
   “Let’s get out of these suits and have some lunch,” I said. “I’m starving.”
   I untied the roll of survival tents and laid them out on the ground, arranging them so that their door openings faced each other. The openings in tents of the kind I had are round, surrounded by a complicated, flexible gasket. You can seal up a single tent with its own door, or double up two tents by pressing their door gaskets together. The gaskets are supposed to interlock tightly when the tents are filled with air.
   I held up the entrance of one of the tents to allow Stacy to crawl in, dragging the food case and the blankets. Then I crawled into it. Crouching on my knees, I carefully sealed the two tents together.
   “That looks airtight,” I said. “Let’s see what happens when I let the air out of one of these reserve bottles. If it doesn’t hold, we’ll have to call it off and go back to the base.”
   “That would be miserable,” Stacy said, poking me playfully in the backside.
   I opened the valve on the air bottle. The tents stirred like living things, then ballooned into a pair of dome shapes.
   “It’s like being inside a waterbed mattress,” Stacy remarked.
   “Or two jellyfish kissing,” I answered, watching the other tent through the transparent plastic walls of our tent.
   Stacy began to spread the blankets on the tent floor. “Why did we bring two tents?” she asked.
   “For storage. When we take our suits off, it’ll be like having two extra people in here.”
   “So long as they don’t want any lunch. Did you notice what’s happening to the blankets?” she asked, holding up a ripped-off handful. “Looks like vacuum and sunlight aren’t good for wool.”
   “They were getting pretty worn out anyway.”
   “How’s the inflation going?” she said.
   “Looks okay so far,” I answered. The two tents, joined at their doorways, had become rigid. The air temperature had leveled off at twenty-five degrees centigrade, and the air pressure was holding steady at an alpine two hundred thirteen millibars.
   “Can we take off our suits now?”
   “Let me go first,” I said. Cautiously I rotated the locking ring on my suit collar. Nothing happened. So I removed my helmet. The air in the tent felt fine. On my cheeks I could feel the cheery warmth of the nearest boulders.
   “It’s great,” I said, disconnecting my backpack hoses. Soon we were both shucking ourselves out of our vacuum suits.
   In her long johns, Stacy looked like a tax-free million. She removed her inner gloves and socks and sat, twiddling her toes at me and smiling. I gathered up our suits, helmets, and boots and passed them through the now-rigid doorway into the other tent. That made enough room in our tent for us to spread out the blankets. I kept my backpack with us and shoved Stacy’s through the doorway into the other tent with the rest of our gear.
   “All righty,” I said, unlatching the food container, “luncheon is served at noon, under the stars. We have chicken, cold, and French bread, hot. We have slaw, tomatoes, and chilis. Have a glass of this good rosé, my dear Captain Cramblitt.” I poured some wine into our glasses. Then I dished up big platefuls of everything. We lay down together on the blankets, resting our backs on my backpack.
   “Pancho, this is delicious,” Stacy mumbled through a mouthful of Porkner’s warm bread.
   “Yep. My compliments to Cookie, and I’m so glad he’s not here now,” I joked.
   After two hours I was feeling pleasantly tight around the middle. Stacy was pouring refills for us from our second bottle … The atmosphere in the tent was tropical. The brilliant earth, blazing cobalt, turquoise, and white, shone down on us. We lay, hips touching, Stacy’s head on my shoulder.
   I raised my glass to the home planet. “Here’s to everybody who happens to be looking at us right now. Here’s looking at them.” My speech was only a little slurred.
   “They can’t see us,” Stacy whispered, finishing her wine. “We’re in the new-moon phase right now.”
   I turned to her and said, “Well, here’s looking at you, anyway,” and what the hell, I kissed her on the mouth. She kissed me back, clutching at my neck.
   “Guess what we’re having for dessert,” she whispered into my ear.
   Well, I never kiss and tell, but I will say that Stacy and I peeled each other out of our remaining clothing. I threw the food box and our long johns into the other tent with the other stuff. Infrared from the ground and the surrounding boulders shone on our naked bodies, but it was nothing compared to the glow that was in the tent already. Her breasts flushing dark rose, Stacy spread herself on the blankets and held her arms out to me.
   Now, you’re not going to believe this, but I hesitated at this point. I was, after all, an old space hand, and the open doorway leading to the other tent had been troubling me. There was no reason to worry about it, but open hatches of any kind hover in my mind’s eye until I get up and close them. Most of us out here are like that.
   “Don’t go away,” I said, rising to my knees. I found the tent’s door, a flat disk of flexible, transparent plastic, rolled up in a corner. I unrolled it and pressed its gasket into place around the circumference of the doorway between the two tents.
   “Now I can give you the attention you deserve,” I said, and I embraced her. Stacy snuggled in my arms and gave me ‘a kiss. I really was enjoying every moment of this.
   While Stacy was tickling the lobes of my ears, we were interrupted by a strange noise. It sounded like a sudden release of steam. The total silence of the lunar mountainside had seeped into our unconscious during the afternoon, and this uncanny sound made us leap off the floor. There was one second of panicky thrashing as we disentangled our arms and legs. I crouched like a cornered alley cat, glaring around at the motionless landscape outside the tent. I didn’t see anything. Then I noticed Stacy was staring goggle-eyed at the entrance of our tent.
   “Holy Mother of God,” I moaned. The other tent, the one with our stuff in it, had become detached from the tent we were in. The two door gaskets had separated, the air had escaped, and now the other tent was lying collapsed over our suits, our helmets, our boots, our underwear, the food container, Stacy’s backpack, the dirty dishes. All of it was out there in the clean, fresh vacuum I had been talking about. We were left buck -naked in the tent, with nothing but the blankets and my backpack.
   Stacy gulped for several seconds. “Well,” she finally said in a small voice, “now we won’t have to wash the dishes.”
   There was only one reason we weren’t already dead of explosive decompression. I had sealed the door of our tent after getting rid of the last of our clothes. I could see my vacuum suit and helmet less than a meter away through the transparent plastic of the tent. I studied Stacy’s backpack. A little red tag was sticking out of the air-regulator compartment. For some reason, the safety on her air bottle had blown, allowing the bottle to vent freely in the sealed tent. The excess pressure had blown the door gaskets of the two tents apart. The storage tent lost its pressure suddenly; if it hadn’t had all our equipment in it, it probably would have flown away like a released balloon. Our own tent was holding air just fine, although the plastic door was bulging outward unnervingly.
   I dragged my backpack toward me and looked at the readouts. Four hours, at the most, of reserve air and CO2 absorption. The arm’s length of vacuum that separated us from the radios in our helmets might as well have been millions of kilometers. Our ass was really in a sling, and my face must’ve shown it as I looked up from the backpack.
   Stacy covered my hand with hers. As calm and beautiful as an angel, she said to me, “Don’t be afraid, Pancho.”
   Guilt replaced terror in my wretched soul. “N-no,” I said. “We’re not dead yet, eh, Stacy.”
   “Although we might as well disregard the chances of anybody finding us out here by accident,” she said firmly.
   Oh, yes. And my own stupid fault, too.
   “Well, I shouldn’t have pressured you into bringing me out here,” she said.
   “Don’t say that, Stacy. I always think I know what I’m doing.” Don’t I ever! By this time she was holding me, stroking me. There I was, lower than a crater’s bottom, and she was trying to comfort me.
   The sky over our heads was black. The stars were waiting to see what I could come up with. “Whatever we do, we’ll have to do it soon,” I quavered. “Any suggestions?”
   “Only two The first one is, we say the hell with it, hope for rescue, and have a good, but short, time.”
   “I’m not up to it.”
   “Forget it. The other idea is to open the entrance of our tent and try to grab one of the helmets before the decompression kills us.”
   “Now I’m really not up to it.”
   “Nothing to it. You get the helmet and reseal the door. I let out all the air from your backpack reserve bottle to repressurize our tent. One, two, three. Then we radio for help.”
   “I could never reclose the door gasket fast enough.”
   “We could wrap ourselves in strips of blanket, mummy-style, really tight, to prevent embolism.”
   “Darling, it. sounds like a brave way to commit suicide. If we can’t think of anything else, we’ll try it, all right?”
   “Okay,” she said, crestfallen.
   “Besides, the blankets are falling apart,” I said, holding one up. The blankets had become so dried out and flimsy that they were turning to shreds as we moved around in the tent.
   There was a long silence. We sat huddled, arms around each other, like a pair of monkeys in a thunderstorm. Stacy had been doing her best to encourage me. Her proposal, to chance letting the air out of our tent, was a long shot, but it was basically practical. Definitely worth a try. But I couldn’t face it right away. She was a better man than I was.
   Stacy started to droop a little. I hugged her more tightly, and she straightened up again. Damn it! I visualized the path we had walked from West Limb. Just a short walk, if we didn’t stop for sightseeing and fooling around. Between the rocks, the ground was smoother than usual for the moon, like a beach made of fine ash instead of sand. We could do it barefooted. I was beginning to have a thought.
   “Stacy—”
   She responded with a loud sniff. Then she said, “I’m sorry. I thought I was being brave. It’s just such a damn rotten break.”
   “I should be shot for getting you into this,” I said.
   “When we get back to the base, you should turn me in for disciplinary action.”
   “I d-definitely will. Corrupting my morals—” By this time tears were running down my face, too.
   “Listen, Stacy, there’s another thing we can do. We can try to walk back to the base. We could stand the tent on its edge and roll it along from the inside. We’ll just leave all our stuff here. There’s enough air in my backpack for us to make it if we start now.”
   She thought about it for a moment. “Why not?” she said, finally. “Even if the tent rips and we depressurize, we won’t be any worse off than we are now, will we?”
   “Nope.”
   “Let’s do it,” she said, jumping up and pulling me to my feet.
   I lifted up my backpack and hung it on my back, tucking the dangling air and coolant hoses under one of the shoulder straps. Stacy helped me adjust the harness to fit my naked torso.
   Stooping, we both pushed against the wall on one side of the tent, trying to tip it over. The plastic felt icy cold against my hands.
   “Try to shuffle your feet toward the edge of the floor,” I said. The tent slowly rolled onto its side, the scraps of blanket sliding downward as the tent floor tilted upward. The rim of the tent flattened on the ground. It was like standing inside a -huge flat tire. The floor of the tent was now a wall to my right. Since it was no longer resting on the ground, it was bulging outward almost as much as the dome roof on my left side. The floor was made of the same kind of transparent plastic as the dome was. I tapped on it to knock off the dust that stuck to its outside surface. Very little dust actually fell off, but at least we could see through the material.
   “Okay,” I said. “Luckily, we’re already facing the way we want to go. Stacy, stay close behind me. The idea is to step along carefully and make the tent roll like a wheel on its edge.”
   “I hope we don’t have to make any sharp turns.”
   We took a tentative step. As I put my weight on the plastic that curved up in front of me, it stretched until my foot was on the ground. Alarming stress wrinkles developed in the dome and floor. Abruptly the tent lurched forward. Stacy fell against me from behind. We both staggered, but we managed to keep the tent upright.
   “What happened?” I asked Stacy over my shoulder.
   “When I picked up my foot, the tent rolled forward and pushed me into you,” she said. “If we want the tent to roll smoothly, I’ve got to take my trailing foot off the ground at the same time you put your leading foot down on the plastic. We’ll have to march in step. I’ll have to hold on to your backpack.”
   “Jesus Christ! All right, forward, march. Left, right, left, right, left, right … ”
   And so it went. The tent rolled along like a big wheel, wobbling this way and that, but never quite falling over. Whenever we came to one of the huge boulders, we would walk a little to one side of the edge of the dome, forcing the tent to curve its path in that direction. Occasionally we had stop and put the tent into reverse. Generally, I followed the footprints we had made on our way to the picnic site, but, as we came to more open country, I started taking shortcuts. I carefully avoided the rims of any craters more than a few meters across; I didn’t care to find out whether we could develop enough traction to climb up out of one of them.
   Things went better than I’d hoped. We moved steadily downhill, with me still counting cadence until Stacy yelled at me to shut up.
   On and on we trundled the tent, my arches flattening in little craters, sharp little rocks jabbing my soles. As we tramped out of the dust area into coarser soil, I started worrying about puncturing the tent. There wasn’t a single damn thing I could do about it at all. Stacy was cussing under her breath with pain as she marched behind me.
   The ‘blankets had turned to scraps and’ fuzz by this time, sliding down to the lowest part of the tent as it rotated. I attempted to walk on the stuff, but the effort threw Stacy and me out of step.
   “Even if we had our boots with us,” I said, “we probably couldn’t wear them in this tent. The cleats would hurt the tent worse than the ground outside does.”
   “Yeah,” said Stacy. “Let’s keep moving.”
   I didn’t have a watch, but we must have gone on that way about three hours. We left the boulders behind us, and the air grew chilly in the tent. If the ground hadn’t been warm, we would have had trouble with frostbite. The pocked fields of the moon were around us. It seemed as if we were making our way down the sides of an endless ash heap. My bare skin cringed from the sharp stars overhead.
   “At least it’s a nice cloudy day,” Stacy said.
   “What?”
   “On Earth. We can see where we’re going.”
   “Oh.”
   I wondered whether we could jump the tent over an obstacle if we had to. I was taking bigger chances, leading us into unfamiliar ground, trying to make our return to West Limb along a more nearly straight line than the route we had taken to reach the place where we had our picnic.
   As we got closer to the base, the sloping side of Hevelius trended more to the west. The sun began to peep among the undulating hills on our right horizon. When we came to the first long strip of sunlight shining directly on the ground, it was like stepping on a hot griddle.
   “Yow! Back up, quick!”
   “Is your foot burnt?” Stacy asked.
   “No, thank God.”
   “Will the tent plastic be able to stand the heat?” “Oh, sure. It’s designed for use on hotter surfaces than this. But we’ll need to protect our feet with something.”
   We allowed the tent to topple over. Then we sat down for a breather.
   “How far do we still have to go?” Stacy asked me as we bound our bruised and blistered feet with strips of disintegrating blanket.
   “Less than a kilometer. The base is right around the corner of that ridge.” Good thing, too. I had taken advantage of our halt to inspect the condition of our tent. The plastic was frosty and scratched and was obviously starting to wear out.
   After tying up our makeshift booties, we got the tent up and rolling again. The remaining distance had to be covered more slowly than we had been proceeding. We were forced to go from one patch of shade to another. Crossing the strips of sunlight was hell. I felt as if I was being roasted in a bonfire. At each stopping place in the shade I tried to plan the next sunlight crossing so we could as much as possible avoid running over rocks. The tent plastic was beginning to make little crackling noises with each step we took. I kept slogging away on my throbbing feet. Whatever was bad for me was worse for Stacy, I knew.
   At last, the base buildings came in sight. I never thought I could be so happy to see that dump as I was just then. “Stacy!” I cried. “You see that? We’re almost there!”
   I couldn’t see her behind me, but I could feel her leaning heavily on my backpack.
   “Don’t stop now, honey. We’re getting there,” I said, doggedly pacing on. There were no more sunlit places to cross. I had to consider the problem of how to get inside the buildings. The quickest thing to do would be to head for the buggy hatch, the only airlock big enough to allow us to roll the tent inside without collapsing it first.
   I explained all this to Stacy while we approached the buildings. “Fortunately, it’ll be easy to get somebody to cycle the airlock for us,” I said. “The trail to the buggy hatch runs right under the picture window of the staff bar and lounge. My instincts tell me it must be about Happy Hour now. The bar will be full of people. It’ll be easy to attract their attention—”
   Stacy came to an abrupt halt, jerking on my backpack so hard that I almost fell.
   “What did you say?” she said thickly.
   “Huh?”
   “You expect me to walk in front of the West Limb Base staff bar and lounge during Happy Hour on Friday night stark-naked?”
   “Stacy,” I said, turning to face her, “we’re lucky to be alive, and—”
   She burst into tears. “I can’t. I won’t!”
   She had been carrying me through an .ordeal so harrowing that it still gives me the creeps just thinking about it. We were sunburned salmon-pink; our feet were bleeding; we were in deadly danger just standing there. She had bolstered my morale and she had kept me from despair. This was the first crack in her bravery and her sense of humor I had seen during the whole terrible thing. Some other short-tempered son of a bitch might have raised his voice at that point, but not I.
   I held her close, then looked her up and down. My hands ran up her back, caressed her hair, fondled her breasts, rubbed against her downy belly. I almost wasn’t aware of what I was doing.
   “Stacy, Stacy, darling,” I choked. “You’ll be the most beautiful sight any of them has ever seen!” Just then my left ear popped. It has always been the sensitive one. The air pressure in the tent was falling. We had finally sprung the dreaded leak!
   Stacy felt it, too. She grabbed the straps of my backpack and whirled me around.
   I stifled the impulse to bolt. “Double time!” I barked. “Leftrightleftrightleftright!”
   We were lucky again. Though fog was forming in the tent, I could see that the buggy hatch stood wide open. This was in violation of base safety directives, but I’ll be eternally grateful to whoever was responsible. With me in front and Stacy clinging behind, we bustled across the open space in front of the window.
   I caught a glimpse of round eyes, open mouths, and hands holding drinks in suspended animation. Porkner just happened to be tending the bar that night. He later told me that it was the only dead silence he had ever heard in that place.
   Stacy and I ran into the airlock so fast that I got a black eye colliding with the inside door. Icepicks in my ears, heart slamming, I pounded at the airlock controls through the tent plastic. I managed to hit the EMERGENCY CLOSE button; the outer door clanged down. The tent folded around us as the airlock roared itself full of that wonderful air.
   I staggered against the wall, fighting the tent.
   Stacy sat down hard on the floor. We were both gasping for breath. I was about to say we had made it, or words to that effect, when I became aware of the sound of trampling feet and the murmur of voices from behind the inner door. The Happy Hour stampede had arrived. Stacy ripped the plastic door off the entrance of the tent and stepped out. She said through clenched teeth, “I’ll kill the first bastard who—”
   “Hey! Suarez! You all right?” It was Porkner’s voice, coming over the airlock speaker. He had won the footrace down the corridor from the bar to the buggy hatch. I jumped out of the tent and palmed the lens of the TV camera that surveilled the airlock.
   “We’re all right,” I said into the intercom grille.
   “We, uh, we need some clothes.”
   “Already taken care of,” Porkner’s voice answered. “We’ve got a red light on the airlock panel out here. We’ll have to open the hatch by hand. Stand by.”
   Stacy and I stood to one side. After much talk and clanking, the hatch opened a crack, and Porkner’s arm came through proffering a couple of white tablecloths. Blessed be the name of Porkner, and I’ll never malign his spaghetti again.
   Stacy and I emerged discreetly togaed, to the plaudits of the multitude, and entered the dusty buggy bay. Stacy was escorted into her quarters, and I had to answer a lot of questions. There were some sly remarks about my, ah, alleged physical state, which had not gone unnoticed as we sprinted past the picture window. I always say that it’s up to us pioneers to point the way forward, as it were.
   As for my relationship with Captain Cramblitt, her goodbye kiss at the shuttle pad the next day seemed promising. The next time I saw her, she asked me whether I wanted to go skiing. We were on the north polar icecap of Mars at the time, but that’s another story.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Vacuum-Packed Picnic”

  1. Steven Fox
    July 24th, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    Lucky Suarez I say.I can see why they Omni liked it.
    Steven

  2. John O.
    November 6th, 2011 @ 4:56 am

    This was my favorite story from fifteen years’ worth of OMNI magazines; I photocopied it from the issue when I was forced by circumstance to get rid of my OMNI collection. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Steven M Scotten
    November 17th, 2015 @ 8:00 pm

    I was telling a friend about this story, which I read as a teenaged OMNI subscriber. Though I read countless stories in Omni, this is the one that caught my imagination for it to come to mind repeatedly as a forty-something. The memory of the story has been an inspiration as I’ve been writing my own stories of life on the Moon, but I was skeptical that I would ever find it. It can be hard to track down stories without remembering titles or the name of the author of a story I read thirty-five years ago.

    I’m so very glad that you posted the story, and very glad to have found it.

  4. Tom Gauger
    April 5th, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    I never tire of reading one of the best short stories I’ve ever seen.
    I think Arthur C. Clark would have gotten a big chuckle out of my brother’s “Picnic on the Moon.”
    Rick and Pancho Suarez are soul mates.

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