Ch 38 – Angle of Repose

38. Angle of Repose: Desmond Pollock’s Death

 

After I killed Rudy (killing because I knew all along how would turn out), I became depressed, because, I think, of the killing and my wider responsibility for the other deaths. And for some reason I fixed my thoughts on the guns I had left in the locker.

 

I obsessed on the deaths and pointless loss they symbolized, and my role in it all haunted me. I had never thought that I would ever kill anyone.

 

It started me thinking back to the stories of the early days of the settlement, and the sacrifices that the founders of the settlement had made. And strangely, I remembered the story of Desmond Pollock, a mining engineer, who had been the first person intentionally killed on the moon, and how one of those very guns that I had rejected suddenly became the tool of his deliverance.

 

And then I understood the burden I felt. There are those who are consumed by it, and those left behind to live it. Both are part of it, but they don’t get to choose their part. It is the price to be paid, and all you can do is accept it.

 

I dug out the account of the incident written by his friend Bert Sissons, and I present it to you without further comment.

 

I killed my best friend today.

 

He was trapped there, a hundred meters from me. A rockslide caught him and damaged his suit, crushing his legs under tonnes of rock. Shattered stone was all around him – at the maximum angle of repose, steep on the moon. As people trained on Earth, with more than five times the gravity, we had had no intuitive understanding of the slope one-sixth gravity allowed. We had guessed wrong.

 

In the early days we didn’t have all the machines we have now and our only working drill was stuck. Notwithstanding the dangers of radiation exposure, and the physical danger the job involved, someone had to go and clip on the wire rope to free it or we weren’t going to be doing any more work that shift, or any other.

 

He went that time.  The next time it would have been me. It was supposed to be a five-minute job. But it was just on the point of subsidence, and it fell on him – that was what happened.

 

Then there was no way to get him out without endangering the would-be rescuers. And he was in such agony that the only certain resolution was a slow death in unendurable pain. The rocks had crushed his suit around his legs enough to form an almost perfect seal around his waist. His Medmon readings were perfectly stable. He would have lasted for hours.

 

So, they asked me to talk to him and comfort him because he was my friend. But what could I do for him except give him the sound of my voice? I couldn’t help him.

 

Although a brave man, inured to most pain by long experience at physical work, he was sobbing and gasping at the surges of pain and he begged me to kill him. That was all there was left to do. In the short seconds it had taken for the rock to slump and fall, he was done, He knew better than us that there was no chance of rescue. Any attempt would only kill more people.

 

So, between the spasms he could not bear, and the screams that followed, he asked me again to kill him. “You do it, Bert. Please, you’ve got to. I trust you. Make it fast. There’s no-one else. Do it, please. Use one of the guns. You can do it from there.”

 

I couldn’t refuse him. I loved him more than a brother. The brother I never had and my soul mate in one. Sounds funny, maybe, that I could be closer to him than my own wife and children, but it was true. And it was true for him to me.

 

The fear of killing him overwhelmed me, but there was nothing else to do. I couldn’t let a stranger do it. I needed to do it right. Half a lifetime spent at his side compelled me. Loyalty, instilled with love, demanded it.

 

I asked them to get that dammed gun from the weapons locker. Strange that someone thought to send lethal weapons to a deserted planet. And the last use anyone would have imagined for a gun, designed to kill in anger, to be used as an instrument of mercy.

 

And who in his right mind would otherwise have been grateful that we retained the capacity to reach out and pluck a life? But I was. I needed to stop my friend’s suffering, and I would have done anything.

 

When I got the rifle, I set it up in the prone position with a sling arm support just like I had been taught at the rifle club at Hart House when I went to school in Toronto all those years ago. I took care to remember the paper-punching lessons I had been taught. I didn’t want to miss. I didn’t want to wound him. I needed to stop the pain as quickly and reliably as I could, and I needed to kill.  The best place to put the tumbling bullets was right in his head. Now guns have guided projectiles, so I just needed to tell the gun where to send the bullets.

 

I had just barely contained my emotions long enough to target the rifle. Tears were starting to cloud my eyes, and I blinked them back and took deep breaths. The act itself was simple. All I had to do was place the laser dot in the center of his helmet and touch the trigger button to confirm acquisition. Then I just had to hold it while the rifle fired on its own at the target intercept and took my friend’s life.

 

They told me afterward that I had let out a cry after his head disappeared in a cloud of red mist from the double-tap, a cloud that hung in the vacuum before it froze and sublimated, leaving its salts behind in a little shimmer that dispersed in an instant. But it all was a movie after I pushed the button, happening in a world where I had no more place. The gun did its merciful work. The two bullets hit his helmet and exploded it in violent decompression. That released me and horrified me in the same instant.

 

I wasn’t even aware of the sound that had come from my mouth. My eyes immediately filled with tears and I began sobbing, not what you want to be doing in a surface suit. It was life-threatening, actually, and Rana and Mila, the other two members of our shift standing beside me, needed to bundle me to the rover we had used to get to the site.

 

I continued crying and it was starting to interfere with my oxygen transport system. We made it inside with not much time to spare because I remember gasping for air through my tears and sobs. I don’t remember when I stopped. Maybe it was minutes, maybe hours. I was unconscious to the passage of time. They didn’t even bother to strip off my leg unit. They just took off the helmet and torso and left me alone until I had recovered enough to do the rest myself. I was in bad shape.

 

I loved that man. I had met him while at school, where we both went to the school of engineering in materials science, and gravitated to mining engineering, him in a direct line and me drifting in through Core Eight, the general course that catered to indecisive people like me. Des always knew exactly what he wanted. He went straight into materials science.

 

But I didn’t meet him in engineering school. I had seen him around the school, but since he was in a different course, I didn’t meet him there. Even for relative dilettantes like me, it was an intense course, and there wasn’t much time for casual friendship. I met him in the Junior Common room at University College, the Arts School, where all the girls were. We went over there whenever we could, which really wasn’t too often. We didn’t have the courage to approach the girls in the engineering school. They were too frighteningly intense for us to have the confidence that they wouldn’t just cut us dead and leave us in pieces, humiliated in the sight of our colleagues. Much safer to fail at University College.

 

I first saw him sitting at a table near the center of the hall, sitting alongside a slim woman with dirty blonde hair at one of the scratched, bleached oak tables on a threadbare wicker chair, with his usual cavalier attitude of boundless confidence, meticulously dressed, even in the casual clothes we wore at school. The sun was streaming through the tall cut glass Gothic style windows and turned strands of his long light brown hair a metallic blonde.

 

Although I later found out that the self-assurance was all a show, he seemed so serene and laid back that I was sure that he would have no problem in allowing me to sit down and share his space.

 

It proved to be true and he welcomed me to the table and introduced me. He was always generous with his friendships – a great attraction for me because I have never been a gregarious person. He could make friends with anyone and he took me along for the ride.

 

Intellectually, we were a perfect match. I could never quite keep up with him, but he never dwelt on that. He branched into geology and theoretical work, and I stayed with the practical stuff, designing the automated extraction equipment that had become essential with the changes in atmosphere and the severe shortage of labor that the mass die-offs from the impact caused for decades. I went into mining and he took a job with a UN institute doing research on extraterrestrial mining, because it was already obvious that we were going to need to know what to do off planet.

 

We kept in touch all along, more due to him than to me, and when we both met women to spend our lives with, they liked each other and that drew us even closer. We spent a lot of time together even though he was a much more noted professional than I was, and we just didn’t run in his circle. Our meetings were often at his house, where we listened to the esoteric music that he loved, and I learned from him to love it too. He played it on his fabulous sound system, us eating their food and drinking plenty of their liquor – no wine any more, of course, with the climate changes.

 

He became very instrumental in developing the extraction technology that we would need in our first colony on the moon. When they were setting up the physical plant, they asked him to go up in the third group after the first shelters and basic environmental plant supplying air and water were set up.

 

It was not an easy decision to make to leave one’s family forever, but you need to remember the sense of dedication we had. It was just about 30 years after the Impact then and we were all still concerned with the survival of mankind. We felt obliged if we could be of help.

 

Our wives were both independent and capable women, we rationalized, and our children were maturing too. So, in the manner of men who want an adventure, unconscious of the current of feelings all our married lives, and also of the emotional needs of our families, we signed off in the way men do. We decided to leave, dedicating ourselves to a crusade our partners would not have joined.

 

There are no longer any wars, but that was the moral equivalent of it, and I think many of the abandoned women felt that there was a large selfish component in the pretended dedication of their men.

 

Now, in retrospect, looking back at the lost years of companionship, and the emotional distance that persists between us and our families, I admit there was a lot of sense to their opinion.

 

I am still sure we did the right thing in making our so-called sacrifice, but I am more aware of the cost paid by others who were not allowed to choose. There’s a lot I am sorry for. But it is too late to change it much. For Des, impossible.

 

We told ourselves that the difficulties of developing a sustainable settlement on the moon needed the best there were, and we fancied we were them. There was truth to that, because developing a technology allowing survival on the moon proved to be extraordinarily difficult. More so than any engineering project ever undertaken.

 

Because everything we needed to do required a technical miracle. The moon was a place of catastrophe just waiting to happen. Even going in a door required systems that had never even been conceived before. Moon dust was toxic, and pervasive. Every time we went in and out, we needed to screen the dust so that not just most was excluded, but that every particle of it was.

 

The soil we would need to grow at least some of our crops did not exist on the moon and we needed to fabricate it from local minerals, some of which we hadn’t found yet. We needed to breathe air that we would need to make with enough efficiency to afford it, and we needed to make power on a planet that had a night two weeks long.

 

The problems went on and on. Earth couldn’t afford to subsidize us long, and there was no way to bring up all the things we would need up the deep gravity well of Earth. We had to make our own way, and there was no room for error or we would all die. And with us mankind’s need to spread to the planets. This was not a casual thing we were undertaking.

 

Des had done much of the theoretical work we needed to locate the minerals that we needed. Also he helped to develop the protocols and processes we needed to extract them in vacuum without active human intercession, on a planet so flooded with lethal radiation that it was dangerous to go out for even brief intervals. In the early years we sacrificed ourselves, so others would live.

 

This was the man whom I killed that day. He was a complicated and brilliant man, a great loss to us all. But the web of humanity has so many tears in it already. Does anybody but the closest ever notice?

 

There is no day that goes by that I do not think of him. I suppose it would have been no different if I myself had not taken his life. But I tell you also, that to this day, I still feel the guilt.

 

And to this day, when I think of that day, I wish it were me who went that time, and I wish it were me who died.

 

He was the better of us two, but I would have let a stranger kill me. Killing a friend is almost too hard to bear.