The boys gathered around him as he finished the knot on the tether. It was dangerous, what he was attempting, but they all did it at some time or another. It was a right of passage. Most were fine. Nothing happened but they came back a little cold and blue in the face. There were however the others. They were never really mentioned again, just as they were never seen again.
There was a collective murmur of apprehension as the oldest boy; he who had been nerving himself to make the dark run for the last two weeks finally finished checking all his equipment. As the younger boys moved out of his way, the hum of their life orbs could be heard when they pushed against each other. Jim, for that was his name, stood tall at the edge of the small crowd and stood on a deeply etched black line on the lunar soil, watching all their excited faces. Then he turned his back on them and stepped over the line.
Behind him, the great domed city of Lunopolis glittered in the light reflected from the Earth and stars. It was a marvel of engineering consisting of over 20 different domes that housed a million or so people. The only reason the city was even able to exist was because of the power core at the heart of the central dome. It was an artifact of some alien origin that radiated safe power about 5 miles in all directions. It gave the whole city power, as well as the life orbs on all their belts. Jim was going find out what happened if you left its field of power.
He knew what was supposed to happen. The field turned off and the atmosphere that they kept inside would dissipate and he would begin to suffocate. The game was to see who could last the longest and go the furthest. He knew that if he stepped back inside the field his life orb would reactivate and his atmosphere would replenish in a few seconds. That was only if he made it back to the field. Or it was supposed to be, but Jim was smarter than the average Lunopolin. He had brought a portable power pack with him. It would be able to power his orb for an extra couple of hours. Allowing him to break the record. Cheating, technically, but no one would know.
He walked along in silence for almost an hour. There was nothing around him to distract his wandering mind but the barren desolate wasteland that was the lunar surface. Occasionally he would walk up a gently sloping hill to reach the crest and see a vast circular impact site of an ancient chunk of space debris. Other than those few occasions there was not much to see. Gray dust rose with every footstep that took him further from the city.
He had become aware, after the first forty-five minutes that his life orb was now running on the battery. The tether that connected him to civilization had still not begun to stretch though. It was an 8-mile band of elastic polymer that would, on his command with the button on his safety harness, reel him very quickly, backwards to the city. So far he had only gone a little more than six miles, but he wanted to be very careful not to exceed the bands limit. He was, in fact, so intent on making sure he didn’t go to far, that he didn’t notice when, scrambling over a few lunar boulders, the line severed in a sharp outcropping.
Jim became aware of this fact only when he had reached the 8th mile marker of his journey and the line continued to let him go. He found, by retracing the tether that he was now only dragging 20 or so feet of it. His heart sunk when he realized this. He now had no way of getting back to the city before his battery ran out. Not only did this mean he could not rewind the tether to get back home, but because of the design of his low-grav suit and recently passed lunar preservation laws, his tracks had disappeared behind him as well. He was lost and stranded on the surface of the moon with a rapidly depleting orb of atmosphere at least 2 miles from any safety. It was a death sentence on a world without oxygen.
Though Jim had tried to retrace his path, his sense of direction was very poor and he was soon seeing landmarks he didn’t recognize. With the knowledge that his battery could die any second, he raced as quickly as he could across the moon’s surface. His leaps and bounds however only took him further from home. As Jim moved up a hill steeper than any he had previously climbed he saw his reserve battery begin to flash the warning of imminent shut down. Desperately he made one last jump that took him over the crater’s edge as the life orb around him collapsed.
The other side of the crater wasn’t just steep, it was a cliff, and Jim fell slowly, as he desperately flailed for something to slow him, even as his lungs screamed for oxygen. A mere twenty feet before the ground the cliff began to slope and he was able to grab hold of the loose granular surface to slow him down. He rolled to the bottom and out across the flat crater bed before coming to a rest in a shower of dust.
It was a few moments before he realized that he wasn’t dead. Bruised, aching, and in pain, but not dead. That realization came just briefly before he also realized that he was also breathing, breathing and heaving oxygen. His life orb had reactivated. Carefully picking himself up he checked the battery. It was dead, just as he had thought. How then was the orb working? A small light on the belt unit told him that the power core reactivated it. If that was true though, he should have been able to see the city, and all he could see, stretching forever into the distance was the endless flat expanse of the crater bed. Not a single dome in sight.
Slowly, with a little effort he began to make his way out across the crater bed. He figured that something was powering his orb, and that whatever it was would be found somewhere in the center of the crater. Ideas ran through his mind as he walked. Crazy thoughts about what he’d find when he reached the center. If a power core was keeping his orb on, then it had to be a different one from that of the city. If he could find it, he would be rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. Only after entertaining thoughts of grandeur for a while did Jim realize the other implications. The power core was of alien origin it was said. No one knew where it had come from or how old it actually was. If this was really another one, then who was to say the owners weren’t still with this one.
Treading carefully Jim advanced on a point of light in the distance. It was the power core, he knew it was and as far as he could see it was the only thing there. He didn’t even realize it was a trap until he was caught. He had been no more than twenty feet away when suddenly the light had gone out and his orb had died. The atmosphere dissipated and as he fell to the ground gasping for breath the ground before him opened and a walkway appeared leading down; or more appropriately, up, as that was the way the creature came.
To Jim it was grotesque, a monstrous form akin to the goblins of fairy tales. As it reached him it threw a net of energy it had been carrying over him and pushed a button on its belt to reactivate the power core. Jim was able to breath again, but it was only a few seconds before the creature began asking questions of him in perfect English.
A few hours later Jim watched from the window of his cell on the alien ship as it flew over Lunopolis. The aliens had told him that their study was complete of the human species and they were now leaving. They were taking him however, for exhibit in their home planets zoo. He would apparently be well taken care of and, according to the alien, be fixed up to be immortal, so that they didn’t need to come back again. All that was left apparently was to shut down their equipment. He watched as the lights of the city began to wink out, starting from the middle and moving outwards. Apparently the experiment was a failure, and the subjects were no longer needed.