Monday, September 5, 2011

Wildlife - Part 2 of 2

© 2006 by Henry Melton

"This is Greg Hammersmith.  Stop right where you are!  You're messing up an important photo.  Answer me."
Short range radio was line-of-sight only–it had to be with no atmosphere–but the idiot was in the line-of-sight.  That was the problem!
With no answer, and with the line growing across the scene hour by hour, Greg kept looking over at the airlock.
Camera-8's frame is ruined already.  If I don't take action soon, he may take out Camera-10 as well.
He kept one eye on the map as he wove the golf-cart across the rough landscape.  The computer had sketched areas on the map that were hidden from all of the other cameras.  It was zigzag at best, and seemed designed to cross the worst boulder fields in the area.
Greg was grinning, or maybe just clenching his teeth.  It was good to get out of the house, but his schedule was wrecked for days.  He rehearsed his greeting.
Do you have any idea what you've done?  Taking nature photographs isn't anything like it was when I was young.  Back then I'd think nothing of dropping an image into Photoshop and erasing an offending line, but photo ethics has changed.  IPAG and all its brothers would blacklist anyone who faked any details in a nature photo.  Even color balance has to be spelled out in detail.
These lunar landscapes are unique.  Day by day more footprints are scarring up the dust–footprints that never fade.
Your tracks are destroying the only true record humanity will ever have of the primeval lunar landscape!
Greg caught himself weaving back and forth across his 'safe zone'.  He grinned.  Not likely I'll be able to sustain the righteous indignation while leaving my own tracks across the dust.
It was true he had to stop his unwanted guest.  It was also true he was looking forward to meeting anyone with warm breath and a pulse.
The hunt was exciting too.  It's like the time Lisa spotted the grizzly from Mt. Washburn, and we raced down the old dirt road to be in place when the bear crossed near the highway.  He had gotten excellent photos of it by being in exactly the right place and the right time, but that was long before he had gone professional.
There had been so many good hunts, living on the road, or living in the field–on assignment, or to complete a book.  And after her death, as painful as it was to live alone, the hunt for a reportedly-extinct finch across five states had been the only thing that kept him going.
Wildlife keeps me alive.
Every fresh encounter was a thrill, every cautious approach a refresher in humility, and every crisp image a triumph.  Eye to eye with a non-human intelligence put a face on the universe for him.
Luna was a stretch.  Yes, his "Canadian Rockies" had made his reputation, and his "Great Mountains of the World" book series gave him the freedom to travel anywhere.  But for him, the centerpiece of the mountain pictures had been the cover of the Rockies book, a morning light image with a bull elk atop a sheer cliff, surveying his world.  The theme was repeated throughout the photos–great animals living in great surroundings.  Often the animal was imperceptibly small, and only he or a perceptive critics could see them, but the stamp of life put soul in the scenery for him.
But there was no life in these lands.  It was a mistake for an artist to forget his own passions.  Mastery of the craft can only take you so far.
Greg shook off the feeling that he was stuck in a doomed, high-profile project.  He could master the lighting and capture the sterile splinters of these peaks, but without life, there was no soul.
Deedee dum, dedum.  The chime sounded in his helmet.  "Approaching your destination."
The cart crested the rise and there was the track.  Camera in hand, he stopped and snapped several shots.  It's not a wheeled vehicle.
He stepped closer.  There was a single continuous track in the lunar dust.  It's not footsteps either.
Greg had expected a man, in a vehicle, or possibly on foot.  This was neither.
The shutter click was inaudible and it bothered him.  Even when cameras no longer had any moving parts that made noise, he always turned on the shutter sound.  Without the feedback it threw him off.
He zoomed in for a closer shot of the tread marks.  Either a huge unicycle, or the grandfather of all pythons came through here.  The ridges across the direction of the track looked familiar.
Braced with the camera body against his helmet, he could hear the shutter faintly.
And the memory clicked.
Those are tripod tracks!
Everyone called them tripods, although they came with five to eight legs depending on how much weight they had to carry.  The mobile robots with long legs were perfect for the dusty lunar surface.  They had no moving parts, at least in the old gears and bearing sense.  Legs moved by electrostriction.  Dust could cling, at least until the tripod reversed its static charge, but there were no hinges or groves where grit could be trapped.
Greg had used the robotic tripods on Earth several times, once he had the budget to afford them.  On Luna, they were essential.
He put the golf-cart in high gear and went bouncing across the landscape following the long patterns in the dust.
It can't be one of mine.  All of my cameras are exactly where I left them.
A flicker of motion in the distance made him put on the brakes.  His zoom lens brought his quarry into focus.
It was grayer than his tripods, shorter and wider.  Instead of a camera, a fat instrument cluster rode on its 'head'.  The gadget was plowing away in that spinning-top gait the tripods used for easy terrain.  The whole device spun around and around, the legs laying down in sequence, leaving a track like a giant snake.
Greg snapped a long sequence.  I'll have to use the golf-cart.  It's moving too fast for me to catch it on foot.
As he drove over a rise, he scanned for escape routes a startled prey might take.  If it ducks into that boulder field, it could lose me.  He angled the cart towards the rocks.  If it bolted, he wanted to force it towards open ground.
The thumbwheel on the camera let him set the shutter speed higher.  Shooting with one hand while driving demanded it.
He came up even with the whirling tripod.  It looks like a fat gray octopus.  The device appeared to ignore him.  It didn't bolt, but it didn't slow down either.
A familiar company logo was painted on it side, Mascon Mining.
But up close, he could see that it was damaged.  The stub of an antenna caught the sun's reflection every rotation.  There were other scrapes, but he couldn't see more while it was moving.
Get ahead of it.  He darted ahead a few meters and pulled the golf-cart broadside across the tripod's path.  His prey curved to one side.  He edged the cart forward and blocked it again.
The tripod dropped out of spin mode and began crab-walking to one side.  Greg hopped out and stabbed at the halt button on the top.  
The tripod leveled itself and stood there, waiting.
Deedee dum, dedum.  "Incoming call from Orin Lewis."
Greg leaned back from his desk and smiled at his publisher.  "Hello, Orin.  How have you been doing?"
There was the usual delay for the distance.
"Greetings there Greg.  I just wanted to check in with you.  Only a couple of days left before you leave Byrgius and I wanted to confirm your change of sites personally.  We spent so much time choosing the original set, it surprised me to see you putting Tycho back on the list.  You had been so adamant about staying far away from human settlement.  Why the change?"
Greg smiled.  "You know how it is, Orin.  Once you get in the field, all your carefully laid plans go out the window.  I could tell something was wrong at Riccioli but here it came into focus.  I'm here to shoot the Moon as it is, not to make some statement about human footprints."
Orin nodded as he listened, and then commented, "I could see that something had changed a week or so ago.  I forget when, sometime after that 'Three Kings' shot, your stuff started getting more lively, more like your Canada work."
"Yes.  I saw a piece of mining equipment, and a realized that life was coming to Luna, even if it is just men and men's surrogates for now.  With life the whole landscape came alive."
It had taken him hours to get the rogue tripod loaded onto the golf-cart and packed back to his habitat.  Repairing its antenna and visual sensors was a job beyond his technical capabilities, but he was a photographer–he knew his way around computers.  
Digging into its files he found that for over three years, the semi-autonomous device had struggled to follow its fallback programming:  If out of contact, return to base.
The problem had been that the rock fall which took out its radio also blinded it.  With no way radio or star fix to guide by, it had lapsed into a pattern of following the sun, which it could sense from its charging cells.  The prospector-robot slept at night and traveled by day, only able to detect obstacles in its path with a flea-power radar and its neutron-emission detector.  Cut off from its original duties it had gone wild–Lunar wildlife.
Orin accepted Greg's vague explanation.  "You're the artist.  If the rest of your stuff is up to last week's standard, we should have a best-seller when you get back.  
"Judith and I would like you to come out to the cabin with us, once you get out of low-g rehab.  There's a great trout-stream, just your style–I know you're a 'catch-and-release' kind of guy."
Greg grinned widely.  Orin had a knack for knowing what he would do.  'Catch and release' was just the kind of guy he was.  When he had reactivated the old tripod, turning it loose to find its own way across the enormous lunar surface, it had been as natural as breathing.
"It sounds great, Orin.  Although I don't look forward to rehab.  
"By the way, could you put in an order for three more tripods in the next supply run, there was a programming glitch and a couple seem to have wandered off."

No comments:

Post a Comment