The Gray Horizon
By
Zachary Taylor Branch

Apollo 1, February 27, 1967

“Sour buttermilk.”

“Say again, Gus, comms are a bit glitchy today.”

“Something in the capsule smells like sour buttermilk, Bert. And get these comms working right, how are we supposed to go to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings.”

Ed White and Roger Chaffee, squeezed into their launch seats to Gus’ right, both smiled. The Boss was getting into one of his moods.

“We’re on it, Gus. Air sampling in progress, Countdown on hold. Resuming hatch installation.” Flight Director Bert North clicked off.
The Apollo 1 astronauts could hear the bangs and scrapes as technicians and engineers dogged down the three hatches that separated them from the outer world.

“Sounds like someone nailing a coffin shut,” said White under his breath.
“What was that, Ed?,” snapped Gus. “Couldn’t quite make out that last mumble.”

“Continuing with the checklist, Commander,” said Ed, almost back into Brave NASA Astronaut mode. “Situation nominal, except for that smell no one else can smell.”

White smirked, Grissom frowned, and Chaffee wondered if this crew and cobbled together ship was ever going to make it into space. Three minutes later, the air results negative and the comms clearer, the countdown to zero resumed. But not for long.

“AC Bus 2 over-voltage,” said White, reaching up to the display to double check the reading.

“I see it, Ed. Bert, we’ve got a… Smoke! That’s smoke, sure as shit! Bert, we’ve got a fire in the capsule!”

Bert was an old Mercury hand, and he and Gus had strong opinions on spacecraft fire.
“Undog those hatches, now!” Bert yelled, and the support team, well-versed in the drill, started to reverse everything they had been doing. “Ed, can you get to the inner hatch release?”

“On it, Control! Release responding, Gus is discharging the extinguisher… Ventilation failing, smoke filling the cabin, emergency lights out, no visibility, we’re…”

A pivot, a wedge, the tipping point between realities. Forgotten events from years ago echoed into the present, the difference between life and death. A few hours later, a solemn NASA team was confronting a difficult here and now.

“You’re a lucky man, Virgil, dodged the bullet again,” said North, walking with the Apollo 1 crew back to the transport vehicle. “But Number 1 is ruined, and the other Block Ones must be flawed too, no way we can launch next month.”

A full head shorter than his old friend, and with an even closer-cropped crewcut , which he was rubbing to keep the sweat out of his eyes, Gus still left no doubt who was in charge. “You just fix my freaking spaceship, Gilbert, or get me a new one. It’s not like Ed and Roger and I are going to walk to the Moon.”

Apollo 19, January 1973

Gus was biting his lip and fidgeting, until he stopped himself by force of will. He hadn’t been this scared since Liberty Bell Seven, back in ’61, when the hatch blew and he nearly drowned waiting for the chopper to pluck him out of the sea. This last Apollo mission should have been a milk run. Gus was the Command Module Pilot, orbiting the Moon on the Argo while Ed White and Roger Chaffee made the final and most audacious of the original Apollo Moon landings. Boredom should have been Gus’s biggest problem, 30 minutes out of 60 orbiting on the Farside, while Ed and Roger did the heavy lifting down on the surface. But after seven days, the suppos-edly unflappable Col. Grissom was more than a bit flapped. As Ed and Roger were loading the Enterprise lander with the latest lunar treasures, (Congress was simultaneously authorizing Pres-ident Kennedy’s proposal for a permanent Lunar base and the first manned mission to Mars), Gus was losing his mind.

“Don’t tell me I can’t be seeing other ships, ‘cause I’m seeing other spaceships, Goddamit!,” yelled a haggard Gus to the Command Module camera. “There are disk-shaped ships moving from the lunar surface to low orbit on the Farside! Can’t explain why I’m not seeing them Earthside. There’s a big base on the surface, not far from the South Pole, at the edge of a bright new crater. I’m getting photos and film, and you dirt-side scumbags are going to have to suck my thick, juicy…”

NASA cut the transmission, and Gus made no more broadcasts. Ed and Roger became the stars of Apollo 19, having secured some very unusual metallic meteorites that had the boffins and newscasters buzzing and speculating about new states of matter and possible intelligent design and the danger of alien artifacts, the usual stuff. Typical of the public mania over the late Apollo missions. Gus and his spaceships were discreetly forgotten, and a few days after the Argo splashed down near Midway, he was discreetly fired.

1979, but still not ours

“Take the deal, Gus, it’s not like you have a lot of options,” said one of the larger flunkies, prof-fering more drinks.

“Are there process servers on the Moon?,” asked Col. Grissom, sweating as one does in a cheap suit on a leather sofa.

“Not that we know of,” said the Man in Charge, Mr. Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., who had called this little meeting. “But there are riches beyond the dreams of avarice, Gus, and you could use a bit of lucre, lucre, cash, ehhhh…. To get out of your current difficulties.”

“Yeah, bankruptcy is a pain, but it beats the Hell out of a funeral, particularly if it’s mine,” said Gus, shifting in his seat as the sweat dripped down the small of his back. “So how am I supposed to get to this What’s-It on the Farside, and more importantly, how am I supposed to get back?“
Hughes leaned forward in his recliner, raised a thin arm, and snapped his fingers. Secondary re-tainers were instantly drawing the blinds, dimming the lights, and starting on old- style film pro-jector, a bit anachronistic in an otherwise very swank and modern desert bungalow. But Mr. Hughes loved the old movies, and Gus, despite his unease, was glad of the break from foreclo-sure notices and grubbing for money.

“There you are, Gus,” said Mr. Hughes, pointing to the screen. “The third man on the Moon, third on the Moon, emplacing the UN flag and RFK’s message to eternity at Fra Mauro, ‘We Came in Peace for All Humanity.’ Bullshit! We should have claimed the Moon as American ter-ritory when we had the chance, had the chance!”

Gus wasn’t paying attention. He never tired of watching the old footage of him and Alan Shep-ard, in bulky white space suits, hopping around the Apollo 9 landing site, planting flags and sci-entific kit, taking samples, and driving a few golf balls toward the lunar horizon. To this day, Al claimed to have had the longest drive. Best time of my life, Gus thought with some regret. Prob-ably why Betty left, too. I peaked too soon, and on the wrong planet.

“We can correct that Kennedy family mistake, damn Joe anyway, just bootlegging money, and a fascist to boot, to boot, to boot, Jeez!,” stammered Mr. Hughes, in growing frustration. He mo-tioned to a bespectacled aide, who took over the discussion.
“President Reagan publicly supports Senator Heinlein’s Lunar Development Bill, and quietly supports our efforts to be the first to make a mining claim under it. Reagan needs a big success to redeem himself after the Iranian hostage rescue debacle. And you could use a little redemption yourself, Gus. After Apollo 19.”

Gus wanted to object, but the disgrace of Apollo 19 and his subsequent financial troubles were the self-obvious reasons for this surreal meeting. Mr. Hughes acted as if he was paying no atten-tion to Gus, whispering with yet another aide, who took up the narration as new images started to flash across the screen.

“Mr. Hughes was not an RFK man, though he followed Bobbie’s ’68 campaign closely. You did some good work for him in California, Gus, some good speeches, and an impressive tackle of that Sirhan character at the Ambassador. Mr. Hughes was supporting Nixon, but Kennedy turned out to be better for the space program. He kept NASA humming over both his terms. Hughes won the contracts for the Selene missions to set up the first Moon base, and for the heavy launchers for the Athena missions to Mars. We deployed any number of satellites, probes, sen-sors… It was easy to make some discreet observations.”

“This is what you saw, Gus,” said Mr. Hughes, as the image of a remarkably bright crater came onto the screen. “What we’ve just named the Heinlein Crater, for a great man, great man…. In honor of the Senator’s old story about the first mission to the Moon. We’ve found treasure there, but from orbit, from damned orbit, no eyes on, no assays, no proof… Aah. We need a motivated space veteran to land at Heinlein and claim it for us.”

Gus bolted up, and was leaning on the balls of his feet, ready to make a move, for the door if things went South. “I know your portfolio, Howard, and I’ve got a pretty good guess how you plan to pull off this mad scheme. You’ve got an extra Titan V outside of Vegas, supposed to be launching supplies for Athena III, slingshot trajectory around the Moon to Mars. And you’ve got one of the old Blue Gemini landers, don’t you? Got it at a fire sale when McDonnell finally went bust. And you want me to fly to the Moon on a 10 year old, NASA-surplus spaceship, on a heavy launcher never rated for humans, to a target on the Moon that I saw in a fever dream.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Hughes.

“OK, I’m in,” said Gus.

Three weeks later, at the Hughes Space Center

“Glad you’re here, Bert, I wouldn’t be making this crazy-ass trip if you weren’t on the crew,” said Gus, walking slowly in the punishing Nevada heat, alongside the giant crawler taking the Titan V out to the launch site. A large, retractable work-room was still shrouding the payload at the top of the 200 foot tall rocket.

“That’s not how I heard it, Gus,” said Bert North, an old friend and fellow test pilot, who shared life and death history with Gus going back to the Mercury Program. “They had you at the word ‘paycheck,’ you greedy bastard, so looks like I’ll have to bail you out at least one more time. The Titan will get you into orbit, no problem, but I’m still trying to figure how we’re going to get you to the Moon and back in one piece.”

“Piece of pie, easy as cake,” said Gus. “I flew the Blue Gemini lander in ’72, while they were ramping up the Lunar Rescue Program. Good reliable technology, direct lunar trajectory, no docking and shit, and it’s got that nitrogen/oxygen system we worked out back in ’60.”

“Yeah, but that Blue Gemini flight was in Earth orbit with Neil Armstrong in the second seat,” said Bert, beginning to sweat from the desert heat, or possibly from the incredible sketchy mis-sion profile. “No one’s landed one of these crates on the Moon, and no one has ever landed there alone. Though you’re right about the life support, solid as a rock, ever since you saved my ass during that Mercury test, and kept NASA from switching to God Awful pure oxygen.”

“Don’t get me started about pure oxygen,” said Gus. “Good way to get someone killed. I’ll take the risks of a solo lunar landing over a pure O2 atmosphere any day.”

Gus and Bert had reached the ladder to get them up and over the huge crawler treads, onto the main platform and the gantry elevator. They were dressed in generic Hughes Aerospace jumpsuits, and looked like anonymous technicians heading up to make final checks on an un-manned supply module. That part of the plan was working perfectly.

“We’re launching in the morning, 0600,” said Bert. “Hughes wants to get you to Heinlein Crater to claim that big rock before the Russians get there. They’ve got a new N1 Heavy on the pad at Star City, looking almost as dodgy as this mission. The Titan V will get you into lunar orbit in two days, fast, if a little bumpy. The Pilgrim 02 has three weeks of expendables, but none of your kit has much shielding, Gus, no way NASA Medical would approve this lander or that hybrid EVA suit for even a short stay on the Moon. You’re going to get seriously dosed.”

They were in the gantry elevator now, much quieter than the slow rumbling crunch of the crawler on its way out to the launch pad. “Geez, Bert, I’m 53, no more kids for me. A little more hard radiation can’t scare a guy who never planned to make it to old age. I’ll land the Pilgrim soonest, get the samples that Hughes and his lawyers want, and then beat feet back to Earth.”

Gus and Bert were now in the startlingly white clean room enclosing the Titan V payload shroud, a few other Hughes technicians scurrying about, nodding and smiling slyly. The voices over the comms were all Hughes or Heinlein or Reagan loyalists, no hint that this was anything but a rou-tine Athena supply mission. Unless you looked under the canopy of the Titan V. With the big access panel off, Gus could see the Blue Gemini Command Module with the right seat access port open, and the Pilgrim 02 logo painted on the Service Module. Even with the left seat out, it was going to be a tight fit, getting in and out of EVA gear on the Moon in a ship designed for low Earth orbit.

“The new comm satellites will keep you in continuous dirt-side contact,” said Bert. “But who knows if it’ll make a difference. You’re not the only one who’s seen weird shit on the Farside, you’re just the only one who decided to share it with the whole world on prime time television. I just gotta ask, Gus. Did you see into another reality, like the Big Brains are whispering about? They think the isolation on the Farside is so profound that people can lose contact with the real world. Or did you just go nuts out there over the Gray Horizon?”

“Don’t know, Bert, and really don’t care,” said Gus, finally out of his Hughes coveralls and slowly squeezing into his launch gear. “I’m going to the Moon to claim the Big Rock, and get back in one piece so I can claim my share and make it right with the family. And I’m not going to let some God Damned flying saucers screw it up for me again, whether they’re real or not.”

It all started out well enough. Bert was as good as his word, and gave Gus a smooth ride on the Titan up to Earth orbit, at least as smooth as a bone-rattling 7g launch can be. Gus did stay con-scious, but chipped a tooth when the Titan was staging, it just wasn’t built for human cargo. The big Retrograde rocket at the aft of the Blue Gemini stack kicked pretty hard too. This was a fast-er and rougher flight than Gus had made to the Moon on Apollo hardware.

The Pilgrim 02 and its ride were old technology, but Gus had the very latest comms. No radio, except for some routine telemetry that made the Pilgrim sound like an unmanned Athena supply module. Gus had direct line of sight laser transducers, aimed only at the Hughes satellites in Earth or lunar orbit. Short bursts of signal, which produced a weird staccato of quick messages on ship conditions and trajectory, and kept the masters on Earth satisfied. But after two days, Gus was approaching the insertion point for lunar orbit, and he was off course. Bert was not happy.

“Gus, get back on course for lunar orbit, you need eyes on the landing site at Heinlein before plotting out your landing.”

“An Athena module doesn’t go into lunar orbit, it does a fly-by, Bert. I’m going for direct de-scent to the landing site, faster, and more plausible if you have to claim the Athena crashed.”

“You’re a fucking moron, Virgil, and will get yourself killed.”

“You’re an old lady, Gilbert, and I’m going to land on the Moon.”

And Gus did. For the second time, but alone, and on the Farside. Good local lighting, the Sun was about 10 degrees above the horizon, but no Earth in view. It was the Farside, not the Darkside. And he managed to put the Pilgrim down just 100 yards from the center of Heinlein Crater, which was a minor miracle since he had to use some kluged external mirrors to look over his shoulder while landing. The Gemini Lander has the pilot looking upward, not downward like the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module, one of the few things Gus was missing about the LEM. Even with all the weird mods, Gemini tech was still hard to beat, but there was a problem.

“OK, Bert, you’re not completely an idiot,” said Gus, within seconds of the Pilgrim landing mo-tor shutting down. “Found a nice smooth landing site here right at the base of Heinlein Crater, I can even see the top of the Big Rock poking out from the dust about a football field away. But it’s pretty deep dust here, all the landing pads are well-submerged, and Pilgrim 02 is listing about 15 degrees to starboard. What’s our limit of tilt for a safe launch?”

“14 degrees.”

“Close enough. I’m headed out to collect samples, assuming I’m not completely swallowed up by the dust, call you later when I’m incredibly rich.”

There was a lot of cursing over the secure laser comms to the Three Sister satellites over the next few hours, none of the lofty public proclamations like Gus made when he’d first set foot on the Moon as Commander of Apollo 9, “America returns to the Moon, for the Sake of All Mankind.”

“Jesus Christ, this dust is deep!” Gus exclaimed a few minutes after stepping off the Pilgrim de-scent ladder, which was much longer than the one on the LEM. “Almost up to my knees! But very fine, easy to walk through, light ejecta from the asteroid impact, I should be at the Big Rock in a few minutes.”

“Gus, have you got the Supply Carrier?” asked Bert. “Can you get it through the debris field to the Big Rock?”

“Yes, Mother, I’ve got the emergency kit, good thing we put the big wheels on this thing. But wait, that was my idea, because I’ve been to the Moon before, and know what the Hell I need to get around on the surface!”

“Message received, Pilgrim, glad you’re doing so fucking well, with a tilted lander that may not be able to launch, and all the….”

The comms in Gus’ hybrid EVA suit went dead, and he assumed Bert was just screwing with him after too many long days and nights. But that wasn’t his main concern. He couldn’t see where he was putting his boots, had no idea what snags and obstructions were below the surface of the lunar dust. So it was slow going at first, but after a few minutes wading through the fine gray stuff, he was picking up speed, and was soon within a few feet of the Big Rock. Gus started his report, assuming that his suit recorder would upload his audio and video and sensor data when Bert turned the switch back on.

“Mr. Hughes is going to be very happy; this is a big frigging rock. Well, not a rock, actually, this thing is all metal, at least ten feet showing above the dust and more than 200 feet across. Dull silver, not shiny, but complex texture and I’ve seen something like this before. Iron/nickel mete-orites look like this, but the Big Rock is way bigger than any of them on Earth. Firing up the XRF spectrometer on the emergency back-up cart now, got it standing off the Rock by a few inches. Readings coming through now. Yep, big returns for iron and nickel, no surprise, but motherfucker, there’s the jackpot! Platinum and palladium off the charts, this thing must have kilotons of precious metals! Getting out the rock hammer now, should be able to knock off a few samples for the Assay Office.”

“There’s a really bright vein of metal up the side of this thing, I’m going to step up onto a narrow ledge to reach it, get out of this damned dust. Good hand holds, the surface isn’t smooth. Lots of projections and indentations. Too far to reach with the XRF, going to knock out some bits with the rock hammer. Oof, hard to keep a grip with these big gloves, but good so far, the metal vein is kind of peeling with the hammer blows. The really pure plantinoids are pretty soft, got some good-sized shards now, gonna have to switch hands soon.…”

A wave of nausea swept over Gus, and he feared losing his grip, or worse, vomiting in his space suit. The feeling passed quickly, but any relief he felt was short-lived.

“Well that sucked, can’t imagine getting food poisoning from freeze-dried soybean paste-like product, but… that’s just not fair.”

Gus had turned his head back, awkward in the bulky EVA suit, and with the Big Rock samples finally in hand, he was suddenly feeling anxious to get back to the Pilgrim. But nothing on the Farside is ever easy.

“Where the Hell is the Pilgrim?!” yelled Gus, to no one in particular, since his comms were still nothing but a low static. “Bert, I need your help, buddy, I’m stepping down from the Big Rock, but the Pilgrim is gone, and so is the supply cart, I can’t even see my tracks across the crater floor, and, well, I’m just not going to describe the rest.”

It was a very different Heinlein Crater. The deep dust was gone, and Gus, now standing on a nicely compacted regolith, was seeing lots of flying saucers. They were just like the ones he’d seen from the Argo, big disk ships as wide across as football fields, slowly rising from or de-scending to a point just out of sight beyond the crater rim. Smaller disks, with drills and manipu-lators hanging below them, were working the top of the Big Rock, which appeared to be at least a couple of feet shorter than what Gus remembered, from his version of Heinlein Crater. Some of the smaller disks were also floating serenely to a point just beyond the edge of Heinlein Crater, almost certainly the sprawling base Gus had seen from the Argo, and which he was trying very hard not to remember.

Gus stowed his platinoid shards, and picked up some small metallic nodules from around the base of the Rock. He wondered why the industrious little disks hadn’t picked up this obviously valuable impact rubble, when his survival instincts kicked in. Without the supply cart, Gus only had about three hours of air, which would have been plenty to get to the Pilgrim, if it was still where it was supposed to be, but it was going to be a close call to get up to that base up on the crater rim. Gus moved out with dispatch, and without the dust, he was making good time, doing the lunar hop/skip that he and Al had perfected on Apollo 9, easy going on the now exposed reg-olith. And then he saw something which made him break his self-imposed silence.

“There’s another lander further up the crater! And it’s in the same direction as that base up on the rim. Making for the lander now, they might have some supplies, will be there is just a few minutes. Seeing some other vehicles around it, one looks like an open rover, kinda like the dune buggies they used on the later Apollo missions. And there’s a flag! But not American, don’t know who else…”

Gus did the awkward shuffle of a big guy in a heavy space suit trying to slow down quickly in low gravity, made worse by another wave of nausea. The lander site went fuzzy, shifting, and Gus whispered under his breath, hoping the suit mic wasn’t too sensitive, “That sure as shit better not be a swastika…”

Gus straightened, his vision clearing slowly. The lander was not of a design Gus knew, and he was student of every prototype the Americans, Russians and British had built. But at least the Nazi insignia were gone, that was going to be tough to explain. He resumed his urgent shuffle toward the lander, temporarily relieved that he had not completely lost his marbles. “Not seeing any activity, the landing site looks abandoned now, no flags or standards. Going to take a quick look at that rover, see if it’s got any air I can scrounge, then I’ll…. Now what the Hell do you want!?”

One of the hovering disks from the Big Rock had just cruised over, and was now hovering just a few feet in front of his faceplate. It was about four feet across, dull bronze in color, and it slowly extended a hand-like manipulator, which started to open and close in a gesture that seemed somehow familiar. The hovering disk appeared to be holding some platinoid shards from the Big Rock, and Gus thought he just might take its meaning. He reached into his thigh pouch, and awkwardly recovered one of his platinoid shards with his clumsy EVA gloves. He held his treas-ure out to the floating disk, as if he actually trusted this alien machine, but thinking back to a conversation back on Earth just a few weeks ago, it was not like he had a lot of choices.

The disk floated closer to Gus, and a second manipulator reached out to Gus’ extended gauntlet, and a long, finger-like probe gently touched Gus’ precious platinoid shard. The overwhelming nausea was immediate, and quite familiar. Gus found himself back in a somewhat more familiar Heinlein Crater, on a small batch of bare regolith, with deep dust extending in all directions around him, the Big Rock off to his right, and off to his left…

“The Pilgrim! Damn, there it is, and only a few hundred yards away! Looks like the original landing site, not all the strange shit…”

Gus stopped himself again, and not just in an effort to sound sane. The floating disk was still in front of him, bobbing slightly, in what looked like an affirmative gesture, and with its own platinoid shard now disappearing in the closing grasp of its manipulator arm. And then it slowly started to float back to the Big Rock, while Gus resumed his high speed shuffle back to the Pil-grim. Within a few minutes, Bert was back on the comms, half frantic about why Gus had been off-line so long. But he also had a new launch protocol ready, using the Blue Gemini maneuver-ing jets in coordination with the main ascent rocket so that Gus could get back to Earth-intercept orbit rather than impacting on the side of Heinlein Crater. And despite all, it actually worked.

It was a long, slow, quiet ride back to Earth, no drama, no flying saucers, little chatter over the comms, even Bert seemed to be tired. After four days, during which Gus mostly slept, the Pil-grim shed the last of her support modules, and headed ass-first back down to the surface of the world. Gus sat stone still during reentry and splashdown, haunted by his first space mishap when the Liberty Bell Seven sank at the end of the second Mercury Mission. He didn’t pop the Pilgrim 02 hatch until the rescue crew had the flotation ring on, and started banging on the hull with res-cue spanners.

This was the seventh time that Gus had returned from space. Liberty Bell Seven and Apollo 19 were humiliations, Gemini 3 and Apollo 9 were triumphs, Apollo 2 and Lunar Rescue 1 were mainly forgotten. Pilgrim 02 was something else all together.

The huge Hughes Aircraft tricopter that plucked Gus from the cool waters off the San Diego coast was at the Hughes Space Center in less than three hours, and had a shower, changing room and full bar. Gus was looking good and feeling fine when he stepped off the chopper onto the tarmac within a few feet of the Space Center Executive Complex, with Betty looking more than usually relieved to see her long-absent Gus. The divorce proceedings didn’t come up once. Mr. Hughes was even there, a little shaky on two canes, but looking more like the aviator of old than the modern-day recluse, sporting a close shave, a new double-breasted suit and sportsman’s fe-dora. There was no press, little indication that the outside world had even heard of Pilgrim 02, but the delegation of luminaries included former (and if the rumors were to be believed, future) President Robert Kennedy and Senator Robert Heinlein, two men who agreed on virtually noth-ing, other than the urgency of space exploration. They led Gus to the banquet facility, Betty was beaming, and the party lasted for the better part of three days.

At some point towards the end of the celebrations, Bert and Gus found themselves on a beautiful lounge in a private viewing room, perusing newsreels of Gus’ previous space missions, and the recently recovered and never-to-be released video from his Pilgrim 02 EVA suit recorder. Gus was avoiding a bad hangover by not sobering up, and Bert was following suit.

“You’re a lucky man, Gus, with Betty re-negotiating your contract. You’re hardly in any condi-tion for serious discush, discush, talky thingies. So, whatta you think you’ll clear on this deal?”

“A million net, Bert old boy, even after the settlement with IRS and Barclay’s,” said Gus. “Gon-na be flush for the first time in my life. She’s a peach, Betty, tough as a whip, quick as nails, should really marry her again after all of this is over.”

The film loop in the projector room continued, showing the EVA suit video of Gus’ encounter with the little disk in Heinlein Crater, the one flying saucer that Gus remembered fondly.

“Weird little bugger,” said Bert. “What the Hell do you think it was?”

Gus smiled, and reached deep into the pocket of his new bespoke suit trousers. He pulled out a small shard of silver-gray metal, slightly curled, no bigger than the lemon peel in Bert’s martini.
“Been thinking a lot on this, even chatted up that German egghead Heisenberg a few hours ago. The Big Rock is the Key, Bert, and not just to getting rich. It’s an asteroid, part of an old world, shattered long before we came along. I thinks it’s coupled, connected somehow, to all the other big metal rocks, to the ones in other worlds. That little disk touched this shard, and brought me home. This is the way to explore the worlds we can only get to on the Farside, and find our way back.”

“That’s freaking profound for an over-the-hill spacer,” said Bert.

“I have my moments,” said Gus. “But I’m never leaving Earth again. I owe Betty big time, and too much I need to do for Mark and Scott and their families. I’ve dodged way too many bullets, for way too long. This is for you, Bert, get back up there, try to figure out what it all means.”

Bert took the little metal shard from Gus, as the film loop showed the scenes of Gus climbing back up the long ladder of the Pilgrim 02, and its launch back to Earth, courtesy of the camera on the only temporarily lost supply cart.

“You’re a real SOB, Virgil, why the Hell should I go back to the Moon?”

“Cause it’s your turn in the barrel, Gilbert. Someone’s gotta figure out what’s going on out there, over the Gray Horizon.”