"The small room shook violently. A low rumbling accompanied the tremors. Hank grabbed the sides of the laboratory bench for support, but it was still difficult to remain upright.
"Gee, what the heck . . .?" Hank protested.
His tired eyes focused on several test tubes suspended in a frame on the far wall. They clinked together as the vibrations continued. The green contents slopped up the sides of the glass, spilling onto the metal work surface below.
"No . . . the SH33!" Hank shouted, edging his way across the room. "These moonquakes are becoming more and more frequent. Months of research, and I could lose the lot in a matter of minutes!"
He stretched out his hand in a desperate attempt to take hold of the nearest tube. His fingers clasped a rubber stopper, which had rolled into the sink. He shoved it firmly into the neck of the slender container and grabbed for a second tube.
Another heavy rumble sent plaster showering down from the ceiling. Dust hung in the air, visible in the bands of light from the spots directed down at Hankís workstation. Hank coughed and spluttered in the suffocating environment.
The laboratory door swung open, banging back against the wall. The deafening sound of hooting sirens blared from the corridor into the room. Hankís instinct was to protect his eardrums, but he needed to use his hands elsewhere.
"Lydia, thank goodness! You took your time arriving," Hank yelled above the background noise.
"Sorry, but you want to try walking in these conditions!"
"Give me a hand to secure the test tubes. Whatís with the emergency sirens? Weíve had quakes before."
"Itís not another quake," Lydia replied, choking in the thick air. "Weíre under attack!"
The blood quickly drained from Hankís face. He turned a ghostly shade of white and momentarily stopped what he was doing.
Lydia continued to shout above the blasting tones. "Fourth Quadrant has located the Research Facility. Hopper Patrol reported seeing at least four Strike Craft." She eased her way toward Hank.
"Itís finally happened then. Havenít we learned from the mistakes our ancestors made on Earth? As usual, history repeats itself. Iíve got to get back to Darok 9 immediately," said Hank, still fighting with tubes and stoppers. "Try and reach the insulabag and give me a hand, will you?"
Lydia staggered to a large silver cooler in the corner, grabbed the huge handles and struggled to open the door. She pulled out a deep blue nylon pack, which she unfolded into a rectangular carrier.
There was a pause in the ground movement and then an eerie silence. Hank stuck his finger down his ear canal and wiggled it around furiously. "Thank goodness for that!" he remarked.
"I think itís over. Perhaps weíre okay?" Lydia suggested.
"For now. But theyíll be back," responded Hank. "Fourth Quadrant are certain to evaluate the damage and realize weíre still functioning. If the Generalís instincts are right, theyíll continue until the lab is destroyed. General Andorf gave me strict instructions that I had to protect the SH33 project at all costs."
"And thatís what youíll do, right?" Lydia taunted. "Hank, the ever faithful, ever courageous!"
"Donít mock, Lydia. You know this project is highly classified. Until the governments of the Four Quadrants decide to work together to save the Lunar population, Iíll do what I have to do."
"Okay, youíve made your point, so letís get a move on. Itís freezing in here! At least youíre wearing your thermals." Lydia rubbed her hands vigorously together in an effort to warm her fingers.
"Start by securing the rack in the carrier," instructed Hank, inserting stoppers into each of the remaining tubes. "Also, Iíll need all of the extra SH33 samples from the cooler. Iíve got to transfer all the data onto memory cards and delete my work from the central system."
"Thatíll take time, Hank."
"I know, but it has to be done. Canít risk this material falling into the wrong hands."
Hank began to slot the tubes furiously into the sections. "Who on Earth, at the turn of the millenium, would ever have dreamed of this life a century later? Humans forced to live in transparent bubbles on the moon," he muttered. "Now, even that lifestyleís under threat."
"But this time thereís no where else to run to," added Lydia, removing the first of the extra samples from the top shelf of the cooler. "Sorry, people, but weíre all out of habitable planets!"
Hank acknowledged her attempt at humor with a grunt that indicated he understood the deeper irony. When Earth was destroyed, the survivors pledged it would never happen again. Would man continue to destroy his habitat until he was extinct? He opened up the SH33 computer program and inserted a small plastic card underneath the screen. Pages of technical data began to download.
"Come on, come on," he said impatiently, watching the reams of equations flick through. "If Fourth Quadrant gets hold of my research, there could be serious consequences."
"Hank, you canít worry about that. Youíre working for the benefit of mankind."
"Yeah, but this attack just makes it all so real," said Hank. "Any research by First Quadrant is viewed as a threat. Iíve been expecting attempts to steal data from this Research Facility for months, but not outright undertakings to destroy our labs. Say, howís the SH33 coming along?"
"The tubes are packed. They should be fairly secure, as long as you donít drop the carrier."
"Right, Iím done too," said Hank, closing the program. He removed the two small memory cards from the computer and placed them deep in his back pocket. "Say, Lydia, youíve forgotten two samples. Iím taking them all." Hank hurriedly reached into the back of the cooler for the remaining two tubes.
"Oh, right, sorry. How long will the solutions keep cold in the insulabag?"
"About twelve hours," Hank replied, flicking the dust out of his thick crop of blonde hair.
"Will that be long enough? I presume youíll be taking the Underground Bullet to Darok 9?"
"I donít think thereís an option. If the Fourth Quadrant attacks again, I donít want to be transporting this lot across the Moonís surface," said Hank. "Any visible movement spotted by their Strike Craft will be attacked instantly. Besides, it would take longer than twelve hours to reach Darok 9 by Hopper. That would put the SH33 at risk."
"Itís been nice working here with you, Hank."
"Youíre not coming?"
"I think Iíll stay a while longer. The immediate risk seems to have passed. Iíve got some files I need to save onto memory card and bring with me."
"I canít wait for you, seeing as I have time constraints with the solutions."
"You go ahead, Iíll catch up in a few hours," reassured Lydia.
Hank hung the insulabag round his neck and tightened the strap securely. "I wonít be sorry to leave this ĎHell Hole.í Six weeks here has been far too long. It will be nice to get back to some form of civilization!" Hank raised his eyebrows and smiled wryly in a way that conveyed his mixed emotions. Darok 9 was better than the Research Facility but still left a lot to be desired.
A thunderous boom rocked the room, sending them both flying towards the lab bench. Hank instinctively protected the insulabag, allowing his body to make contact with the metal surface first. He winced in pain as his hip caught the pointed corner. The lights flickered for a moment. Lydia gasped with horror. Violent vibrations rattled the permanent fixtures. The deafening sirens recommenced howling their warning with monotonous regularity.
"Not again! This is serious stuff," Hank hollered.
A dozen small windowpanes, allowing in light from the corridor, shattered one after the other. Fragments of glass splintered to the floor. Hank watched with alarm as hundreds of cracks quickly wove their way along the plain white walls.
"You can forget your files!" shouted Hank, grabbing Lydiaís wrist tightly. "Youíre coming with me! I donít think weíve long to get to the Bullet Station. These subterranean shocks are too close for comfort!"
Lydia struggled. "Hank, let go, youíre hurting me! I must get some files first!"
"Youíve got to be joking!" said Hank, pulling her roughly through the door. "Youíve got nothing thatís worth dying for!"
* * * * *
The corridor was jammed with screaming laboratory technicians, computer analysts and scientists. People ran in every direction, pushing and shoving, many showing signs of injury. Hank kept hold of Lydiaís hand. She quit objecting about an early departure when the seriousness of the attack became evident. The insulabag hung by Hankís side. With his arm, he protected the outside of the carrier from being bumped by passers-by. Squeezing through gaps in the crowd, Hank was hot in the heavy thermal coat. The temperature of the lab was kept at a constant 40 degrees, but elsewhere in the complex, 70 degree temperatures made for a pleasant working environment. The corridor had curved ceilings resembling a tunnel, with small powerful lights set into the tiled surface. They approached the elevator shaft, which would take them down to the Bullet platform. A sea of bobbing heads blocked their view of the double doors ahead.
"Thereís no way weíll be getting down below any time soon via the elevator," said Hank. "Fancy the emergency stairs? Itís a long way down, but I think weíll beat the mob."
"Great idea. Weíre no safer here than we were in the lab," said Lydia.
"Letís go then," said Hank, turning round and heading in the opposite direction. He clasped Lydiaís hand tightly for fear of losing her in the melange of workers.
Another explosion shook the walls, sending ceiling tiles crashing down. People screamed and ducked, protecting their heads with their hands as they fell to the floor. The overhead lighting flickered for several seconds until finally all went dark. Screams resounded again.
"You okay?" Hank asked.
"Yeah, fine. Just glad you convinced me to come. How much further?"
"Canít be more than twenty yards. Hold my hand tightly, and Iíll feel along the walls. Iíve walked this corridor enough times in the last few months that I know I can do it in the dark. There should be lighting in the stairwell, seeing as itís an emergency exit."
Hank pulled Lydia to her feet and shuffled slowly along the wall, occasionally stepping on people still lying on the floor. Finally he touched a set of hinges and knew that he had reached his destination. Hank felt for the metal handle and pulled open the door. A faint stream of light shone through the gap. Several of his co-workers gasped with delight and scrambled to their feet when they realized there was a way out.
"Quick Lydia, before the whole corridor is on top of us!"
"Iím right behind you, Hank."
The emergency lighting in the stairwell emitted a faint yellow glow, just enough to see the edges of the black iron stairs slowly circling downward. Hank hurriedly grasped the handrail and started the descent. He nimbly ran down flight after flight, pausing at each landing to check that Lydia was close behind. Breathlessly they reached the end and another door, which led onto the Bullet platform. The hollow sound of the underground seemed eerie on this occasion, even though there were more people waiting for the monorail than usual. He prayed that the Bullet would still be operable and that the cold fusion units below hadnít been affected by the last blast.
Hank shoved his way through the crowd. Lydia clung to his hand tightly as he wove his way in and out of the gaps between people. He felt guilty about pushing when everyone was in the same desperate need to leave the Research Facility. But he also felt justified, knowing that he carried with him one of First Quadrantís closely-guarded secrets.
A Bullet approached. The whistling through the tunnel and the rush of wind indicated that it would arrive within a minute. The crowd shoved and pushed precariously near the edge of the platform, vying for a place on the monorail. Hank feared that fights would ensue. Each Bullet could only carry two hundred, and there were over one thousand people who needed to leave the Research Facility. Monorails only departed four times an hour, not fast enough in a crisis situation such as this.
"Lydia, when I say push, you push. Do you hear?"
"Iíll try Hank."
"Iíll head for the last section of the Bullet. That end of the platform is the least crowded," he said still working his way through the mass.
The monorail lights were visible down the tunnel.
"Now, Lydia! Come on, it will be here in seconds, and then there will be an almighty crush!"
Hank barged his way forward. His hands were sweating with nervousness. He had to get on the Bullet. The monorail slowed to a stop. People yelled and shrieked as the crowd surged forward and the electronic doors opened. Hank pulled Lydia with him. He felt his grip loosening as he moved toward the doors. The pressure of people pushing and shoving was suffocating. Lydiaís fingers slid away from Hankís grasp. She screamed. He called her name in panic and watched helplessly as she disappeared behind the dancing heads. Then she was gone, lost in the mass of bodies surging forward. He couldnít even see Lydiaís dark hair in the crowd. She was too short.
Hank struggled briefly with his emotions. Should he wait and see if she followed? No, it was hopeless. His priority was the SH33 project. He had to reach the monorail.
The doors closed, trapping the arms and legs of those who hadnít managed to jump aboard. Hank tottered on the edge of the platform, his fingers trying to pry the doors apart. The electronic system re-opened the exits long enough for the offending body parts to be pulled back. Hank squeezed through the narrow gap, and then the doors slid closed once more. The Bullet wound up to speed, flashing down the tunnels at over one hundred miles per hour and away from the Research Facility.
Hank sighed with relief at his good fortune. He scoured the long compartment, but he could not see Lydia. He felt guilty that he hadnít managed to get her on board with him, but the safety of SH33 was his primary concern.
He welcomed the silence in the monorail car after the overpowering sound of continuous sirens and the screaming panic of everyone trying to leave the Research Facility. Each person seemed immersed in their own thoughts, probably reviewing their good fortune at catching the first Bullet back.
It was a squash in the corner. Hank found himself sandwiched between two other workers and an upright metal handrail. He clasped the insulabag tightly in his hands. It would be a long journey standing, but it was a small price to pay for the safety of his research. He unzipped the corner of the carrier in an effort to check his valuable cargo, elbowing the person next to him in the process. Hank smiled with satisfaction. The Fourth Quadrant hadnít succeeded in their goal. A dozen test tubes of SH33 hung safely in the protective frame.
The next stop was Darok 9.