Help fund illustrations for the Shapers of Worlds Volume IV anthology via Crowdfundr! CLICK HERE

Saturday Special from the Vaults: Janitor Work

This was one of the first, if not the very first, science fiction short stories I ever sold. It appeared in the 1984 Canadian Children’s Annual, the year I turned 25.

The photo of the lunar surface is from Apollo 17.

Darryl Norton looked glumly at the dust-covered object before him.  It seemed to him he had seen an inordinate number of dust-covered objects in his short life.

Yet he had been very pleased when his father had given him this job in the Lunar Survey and Exploration Corps.  Although Apollo City offered many kinds of entertainment, it was still a very small community, isolated by the void of space and the desolate lunar surface.  The Corps had seemed like the place to find some adventure.

Some adventure, Darryl thought.  He reached for the vacuum nozzle.  It was his job to clean dust from equipment that had been used on the surface, like this seismic charge.

Of course, it hadn’t actually been used.  Someone had just set it on the surface and brought it back.  But any equipment like that had to be cleaned—by Darryl.

At least it was the last item.  Darryl finished going over it once and was starting to pry into some of the harder-to-reach places when his wristwatch alarm went off.  He looked at it, startled.  1800 already?  In just thirty minutes the Apollo City spinball team would be playing the L-5s for the off-Earth championship.

He quickly examined the charge.  Any dust left on it wasn’t visible; no one would notice.  He grabbed it and spun away from the table.

As he turned, the charge slipped out of his hand.  He had given it enough momentum to send it crashing hard against the metal floor, but when he picked it up, he could see no damage.  He placed it with the rest of the clean equipment, logged “work completed” into the computer and left, whistling.

The next day Darryl’s father, Philip Norton, surprised him by taking him to the crawler bay, where he and a geologist, Andy Davis, were getting ready for a two-day trip to set out seismographic equipment.  Then his father surprised him even more by telling him he was going to be the third crewmember.

As Darryl climbed in through the crawler’s airlock he hoped he was done with janitor work for good.

A few hours later he stood at the bottom of a deep crater.  The crawler, his father and Davis were all out of sight beyond the crater wall.  Darryl had finished setting up his segment of the instrument package, and was simply enjoying the solitude, solitude as complete as though he were alone on an alien planet in another solar system.  The voices crackling in his helmet, after all, could be coming from the orbiting starship, where the captain awaited his report…

Abruptly the voices ceased.  A cloud of dust spurted over the crater wall and rapidly settled.  Frightened, Darryl scrambled out of the crater—and froze when he saw the crawler.

Something had torn a gaping hole in its side.

“Dad!” Darryl screamed, and ran toward the vehicle, awkward in his suit.  If the hole was in the crew room, everyone inside without a suit was dead—and he could see no one outside.  He called his father again, but only static answered.

He reached the crawler, slipping and falling as he tried to stop.  He got clumsily to his feet and hammered the airlock control with his fist.  Nothing happened.

He grabbed the wheel to open the lock manually and turned it.  The door slid slowly open, and he scrambled through, closed the door behind him, and opened the valve that would fill the lock with air from inside the crawler—if any air remained.

With relief he felt a blast of wind against his glove, and the moment the pressures had equalized he swung open the inside door and burst throught.

Smoke from shorting electrical equipment filled the room.  A shattered suit life-support pack lay against one wall.  Davis crouched on the floor, bent over…

“Dad!”  Darryl tore off his helmet and crashed to his knees beside his father.

“I’ll take care of him,” Davis snapped.  “You get a fire extinguisher and put out those electrical fires.”



Heartsick, Darryl did as he was told.  As soon as possible he was back.  “How is he?”

“Not good.”  Davis injected something into the injured man.  “He was recharging that life support pack when the explosion happened.  All the electrical systems shorted out, and the suit’s oxygen tank blew up.  He took a heavy shock and he’s cut up, too.”  He looked up at Darryl.  “I won’t lie to you, kid…if he doesn’t get help, he’ll die.”

“But what happened?”

“A seismic charge must have exploded in storage and ruptured one of the big, high-pressure oxygen tanks.  That blew out the side of the crawler and took the electrical systems with it.  But there’s no reason a charge should just…What’s the matter?”

Darryl had gone white, and he felt sick.  He could imagine only too well what might have set off a seismic charge prematurely—if the outer casing was cracked, and dust got into the mechanism.

Davis helped him to a chair.  “Are you hurt, too?”

Darryl looked up at him with eyes that didn’t see.  “I caused the explosion,” he whispered.


“I caused it!” Darryl cried.  “I was cleaning a seismic charge yesterday—I was in a hurry—it slipped and hit the floor—and I didn’t report it, or even check it closely.  It must have been damaged.”

Davis, who had been bent over him in concern, straightened.  “You little fool!” he exploded.  Darryl cringed, certain the geologist would strike him.  He didn’t, quite.  “I should toss you out the airlock.  But I guess there’s no point, is there?  You’ve killed yourself as well as your father and me!”

“Can’t you radio for help?” Darryl said faintly.

“The radio’s ruined.  And since we just made our daily report, we won’t even be missed for 24 hours.  Your father won’t last that long, and neither will we.  We have exactly 15 hours before the emergency life support gives out.” ¯Davis turned away from Darryl and slumped in another chair, his eyes closed.

Only 15 hours… “There must be something we can do,” Darryl said desperately.  Then he saw his helmet where he had dropped it.  He got to his feet.

Davis opened his eyes.  “What are you doing?” he demanded sharply.

Darryl fastened his suit and picked up the helmet.  “I’m walking back to Apollo for help.”

“You’re crazy.  We’re four hours out by crawler; that’s close to twelve, walking.”

“My life support pack is less than an hour used and we’ve got one full one.  Each one is good for six hours.”

“That’s not enough.”

“That’s just enough.”

Davis jumped up and grabbed the helmet.  “I won’t let you!  You’ll just be killing yourself!”

With more strength than he knew he possessed, Darryl tore the helmet away.  “I caused the explosion,” he said grimly.  “I’m responsible for Dad being hurt.  I have to do something, and I’m the only one who =can= do anything.  My suit is too small for you, and yours is damaged.  If I don’t try, we’re all dead, so if I try and fail…it doesn’t make any difference.”  But his heart pounded as he said it, and his palms were wet.

Davis looked at him, then down at Philip Norton.  “I can’t stop you, short of tying you up,” he said at last.  “So go ahead.”  He lay a heavy hand on Darryl’s shoulder.  “Forget what I said before.  Those charges shouldn’t damage that easily.  It’s not your fault.”

“It’s my fault for not doing my job,” said Darryl, and clamped the helmet down.

At first he found the going easy, since the crawler had had to stick to level terrain.  But as foot followed foot for mile after mile and the hours passed, the pace began to tell.  His legs ached after the first hour; he had never walked more than a mile at a time in his life.

He rested briefly when he felt he had to, but after several hours there came a time when he felt he could walk no longer.  The pain in his legs was too much, and he couldn’t get his breath¯.¯.¯. couldn’t get¯.¯.¯.

His air supply was running out!  He fumbled with the pack, hit the cutoff and felt the flow of air cease.  He would have to breathe the air in his suit while he made the change.

If only he hadn’t waited so long!  His hands were clumsy and his eyelids heavy.  The new pack was almost too heavy to lift, despite the low gravity, and his tingling fingers fumbled the connections.

But finally cool, fresh air flooded his suit and lungs, and with it came new energy.  He wondered how much of his fatigue had been due to his lack of oxygen.  With renewed hope, he pressed on.

Now, though, he knew the feel of the death that awaited his father and Davis if he failed—and if his father lived even that long.

Tears blinded him, and he blinked them away angrily.  Crying would do no good.  He had only one way to make up for his stupidity:  make it to Apollo and get help.

Time dragged on.  His footprints, sharp and clear in the harsh sunlight, stretched endlessly behind him.  The barren, blazing landscape seemed unchanging.  Darryl took to calling Apollo City constantly on his suit radio, but never got an answer.

Breathing became hard again, but this time there was no fresh air to be had.  He could only stagger on.

He tripped over a rock and discovered his eyes had been closed.  He tottered to his feet again.  Where were the crawler tracks?  He’d lost the—no, there they were.  How did they get over there? he wondered muzzily, but stumbled back to them.

Radio.  He should try the radio again.  “Apollo City—anyone!  Can you hear me?”  His voice came out in a croak.

He tripped and fell again.  His breath rasped in his ears as he struggled up.  The crawler tracks had moved again…it didn’t matter.  He had failed.  He had killed his father, and Davis, and now himself.  And I matter least of all, he thought.

He sank to his hands and knees, chest heaving, futilely trying to strain more oxygen from his nearly-exhausted air.

“…and I tell you, I heard something!”  The voice crackled in Darryl’s ears.  He found he was lying down again, and was faintly surprised at the softness of the rocky soil.

A different voice said, “You said you heard heavy breathing and someone mumbling.  I say you’re nuts.”

Darryl felt he was supposed to say something, something important.  But what?

“I know what I heard,” the first voice said stubbornly.  “Hello?  Come in, whoever you are.  Do you need help?”

Help.  That was it.  The word triggered Darryl’s sluggish brain.  “Help,” he tried saying.  His voice was ragged and hoarse, but the sound encouraged him.  “Help”!  Help me…”

“There is someone!  Close, too!”

“Over there—by those crawler tracks!”

A moment later Darryl felt himself being gently lifted.  He opened his eyes, which had somehow sagged shut, and caught a glimpse of the skeletal frame of an unpressurized lunar sled.  “Crawler…explosion…” he croaked.

“An explosion on a crawler? ¯Where?”

The metallic sheen of a spacesuit faceplate floated in front of Darryl’s eyes.  “What?” he said fuzzily.

“Where is the crawler?” the man said urgently.  The sled was underway.  A bump knocked Darryl’s head to one side, and he saw the lights of Apollo City, just over the ridge on which he had collapsed.  “Where is it?” the man said again.  “Come on, boy, you’ve got to tell us…”

Darryl made a supreme effort to make sense of the demand.  Numbers…the man wanted numbers.  The coordinates struggled to the surface of his mind and he whispered them before darkness swallowed him.

Darryl recovered quickly once air was restored to him, but for four days his father fought for life.  The shuttle from the orbiting station had rescued him and Davis barely in time.  Only when the doctors told Darryl his father was out of danger did he surrender completely to the rest they had prescribed for him.

When at last he was allowed to visit his father, he went into the room with mixed happiness and dread.  How could he face seeing his father lying in a hospital bed when he was the one who had put him there?

His father looked pale and drawn, but he smiled when Darryl came in.  “Was that enough adventure for you, son?”

Darryl couldn’t smile back.  “It was my fault,” he blurted.  “I dropped a charge, and didn’t check it or report it.  I could have killed you!”

His father quit smiling.  “You saved my life,” he said quietly.

“It wouldn’t have been in danger except for me!”

“We’ll never know that for sure, Darryl.  A lot of things could have caused that explosion.  You can’t be sure it was the charge you dropped.

“But what else—”

“It doesn’t matter,” his father said firmly.  “Come here.”

Darryl went closer, and his father clasped his hand.  “Now, listen to me.  Not doing your job properly was irresponsible and stupid.  You know that better than I do after what happened.  And it may even have caused the accident as you say.”  He squeezed Darryl’s hand hard.  “But even if it did, you more than made up for it.  I’m proud of you, son.

Darryl couldn’t speak, but he returned the squeeze: and, strangely, he felt not as if he had just ended a long, adventurous journey, but as if he were beginning one.



Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal