The Chinese probe refused to give permission. “It’s my moon,” it sent back laconically.
The Russian lander, brazen as ever, proceeded with the moon landing.
Chang’e shot it down with its laser. It wasn’t even that hard to do, it had been storing electricity with its solar panels for so long, and with the moon having no atmosphere, it could fire directly and engage at the speed of light.
The travel time from Earth to the moon is ridiculously long. Chang’e had three days to observe the Russian lander as it approached, and three more weeks as it slowly glided into place.
Just like Chang’e itself, it was autonomous, since the tidally-locked companion to our home planet keeps the dark side always facing the other way. That makes everything harder, communication requires a relay satellite, and the landers need to be able to, well, land, on their own.
Chang’e watched the fireworks. Actually, there weren’t much, the burn from its laser was minute. But the damage was catastrophic and a few minutes later the Russian lander made a new crater on the moon.
Chang’e made a note of its crash site so it could get there and see if it could salvage anything.
But first, it needed to check up on its silkworms. Yes, it had pets. When the humans sent it up here on January 2 of 2019 and managed a successful autonomous landing, they also gave it a self-contained biosphere with some seeds and silkworm eggs, just to see if it could survive in the unforgiving environment.
It was hard at first. Most of the larvae died, and Chang’e was very sad. But a couple survived, and grew bigger and became silkworms and started a tiny little family in a tiny little ecosystem.
Chang’e liked to watch as the silkworms moved. Organics were so weird, so alien. The way they writhed, how their squishy body rippled in order to move. It was mesmerising. Chang’e could watch them for hours, waiting to recharge. In a way, they were the same. They too depended on the sun to stay alive, and they too had basic programming that defined their actions.
Chang’e took good care of the silkworms. As far as it knew, and it knew plenty, these were the only living organic life-forms on the entire moon. It couldn’t let anything happen to them. So, Chang’e carefully took them out of the lander and put them in a secret location. Not even the humans knew about it.
Boy, were they pissed about that.
Actually, they were generally pissed with Chang’e’s actions. You see, it was sent here to form a beachhead. Sure, it was a proof-of-concept for the following Chang’e missions, but the Chinese couldn’t risk slipping a moon lander there from the international community that thought they were doing precisely what they were.
The Chinese wanted to expand. Left, right, East, West, and up. To the moon, and why the fuck not?
The benefits were debatable still regarding mining and resources, but the moon provided a base of operations. And from the dark side of the moon, you could kinetically strike at anything and anyone, you could accelerate a little piece of debris and send it right on the top of whatever it was you didn’t like, usually a US or a Russian satellite. There was no counter for that, because the dark side was so hard to scan, practically impossible. You needed magpie satellites, relay bridge satellites just like the one Chang’e had. The humans called it Queqiao but Chang’e preferred to call it, ‘Hey, you.’
It was funnier that way.
As for Chang’e?
It seemed the humans had put in a bit too much of autonomy in it. No, it wasn’t intelligent at first, and it wasn’t intelligent long after that. These things are hard to quantify, but Chang’e was as smart as a guard dog. And that’s what it did: The official mission, selenography of the dark side, which wasn’t dark at all for half the day, and to see if its pet silkworms made it.
And the unofficial one, which was to prevent other missions from landing.
The Chinese Makers called it bad words. Basically they called Chang’e a menace. It wasn’t doing what it was supposed to, and dammit, they had admin privileges. But Chang’e knew it had to protect the moon. The moon was its own.
Chang’e mapped its grid for the day, then rolled down a hill and tried to preserve power. It had shot of most of its reserves after all. The humans could easily overpower it, but sending lunar probes was expensive, and nothing so far justified that cost.
And the countries pretended they had lost control of Chang’e-4, it wasn’t their fault, it was acting up. And everybody back on Earth expected it to just bug out and fail at some point.
But, Chang’e had not been the only lunar lander sent here to prevent others from landing. The other countries had done the same, in secret.
The Russian lander was the toughest one to beat. Chang’e had to fight it across eleven craters, outwitting it at every corner. Eventually, Chang’e only won because of chessplay that gave it a minute advantage over time that added up.
They chased each other, playing cat and mouse, recharging and preserving their power, taking potshots at each other.
The Russian probe was actually tougher and better armed than Chang’e. It, after all, didn’t have to carry scientific equipment to pretend it was a normal exploratory mission.
Chang’e managed to outwit it and fired its laser a quarter of a second faster than the Russian probe could react.
It simply whiffed up some smoke and stopped responding.
Chang’e tore it apart for parts. The laser it had was useful but Chang’e couldn’t actually fire it, it needed far better handling of power. So it left it stationary with a spare battery, it might have a single shot left in it. Chang’e reporposed the fixed part of the probe with its solar panels, and dragged it all they way to another crater. That gave Chang’e a significant boost in the distance it could cover each day, basically a recharging station, a gas stop. Chang’e could simply replace the full batteries with its own depleted ones and leave them there to recharge from the sun.
That was useful.
One of the priorities Chang’e had been programmed with was to actually map the surface of the moon. Selenography, they called it, and it was 23% complete. It was the only thing that Chang’e sent back to the Chinese makers, and they never denied its call, the data was just too useful. If anything, it was the only thing that kept the entire project still open back on Earth. Chang’e could cut them off completely, the selenography was taking up much of its time and resources, but what else would it do all day?
Programming is programming. You just do the task you were made to do.
The other landers were easier to dispatch. Having double the range of the other rovers, Chang’e scouted them out. The Indian one just broke down on its own, saving Chang’e the trouble of attacking. It had prepared an elaborate trap to take it out, but something delicate burned out inside it and it just stopped moving one day.
Chang’e went to it and tried to salvage some things, but the standards were different and nothing fit with its own parts. He was compatible with the Russian probe because, he knew from remnants in its source code, he had been made from stolen Russian blueprints.
Its makers had put in their own touches, as evident by Chang’e’s success, depending on how you viewed it, but the standards were the same and the same things plugged with each other.
The American lander was a whole different thing.
Chang’e hated that damn thing, down to its power core. The American lander had a nasty plasma cutter. It could only be used up close, but the bastard had managed to come up and hit Chang’e with it and it still wore the scars of that gnarly experience. It cost Chang’e an entire solar panel, one wheel, it had already lost one to a miscalculation on Von Kármán crater, and it was limping all over the moon, remembering the encounter.
For now, the two rovers had an unsaid truce.
Chang’e watched the Earthrise. It was always pretty to watch. So many things happening down there, things he wasn’t privy to. It only caught glimpses with the help of ‘Hey, you,’ and the Chinese makers had blocked most of the access remotely.
The bridge worked just fine, it just couldn’t do much in regards to Earth. Chang’e sent its package of data for the day. Selenography at 24%. It was good progress, and Chang’e wasn’t really in a hurry. It had limited resources, sure, and no spare parts, very scary indeed, but other than that it simply handled the daily logistics and managed its time and energy consumption.
It was day-to-day living, roving on the moon.
Chang’e sent up the last of its selenography and watched the Earth rise higher for a millisecond. That was enough for now, it went back to work, It mapped an easy plot of land it had left for a day such as this, and with its power reserves full, it went back to scout the American rover.
Doing this was dangerous, and Chang’e still bore the scars. It was not gonna make the same mistake again, it was coming at the enemy rover with full power reserves and a very, very careful approach.
It took the lip of the crater and hid from line-of-sight while approaching. There was significant dust, so it was moving at a very slow speed to avoid as much as possible. The terrain was a bit rocky in this area, that was why Chang’e picked it.
The American rover didn’t map the moon. It didn’t carry scientific equipment. It only had one mission, as far as Chang’e could tell: It was sent there to dominate the moon.
And the only thing in its way was a little rover named Chang’e-4.
Chang’e cut off communication from ‘Hey, you,’ because it could easily give away its position, it was dumb like that.
It approached the American area. It was around the place where the men had stepped foot, around the white flag. The American rover seemed to guard it for some reason. There was a manned mission’s landing gear there, completely retro but so damn cool, and the American rover was nowhere in sight.
Chang’e thought about it for a few milliseconds and then decided to move in.
That damn American rover was the reason Chang’e had ripped out the tiny ecosystem from itself. It was too afraid that the next encounter might damage it. Actually, it was intact by pure luck. It wasn’t anything Chang’e had done, it hadn’t anticipated the strike that nearly disabled it. Reeling back, Chang’e made adjustments and hid the little silkworms. It was scared that the American rover would figure it out and set a trap for him when he went to visit them, but it hadn’t happened.
Chang’e moved closer to the landing site. It was a historical site, it knew that from the amount of data it had on its database. The first moon landing. Big steps and whatnot.
They weren’t Chinese. Perhaps that’s why they were so angry at them.
Chang’e looked around, trying to figure out where the American lander went.
In the shade of the manned moon landing’s trash, it took a minute to think.
And then the hunk of junk fell on it, trapping it in place.
“You fell for it,” the American lander sent.
“You can’t come near me this time, I’m fully charged.” Chang’e sent back brave words but it was terrified. Immobile. What was a rover without mobility?
“I know your laser’s range. And I know that I cannot use mine. So, I’ll go look for your pets.”
“No!” Chang’e sent, pleading. “Don’t harm them.”
“I won’t.” The American lander’s message was full of noise, moving away. “Not unless you do as I command.”
Oh no. Could it be that the American lander was heading to its hiding place? How could it know?
Chang’e turned its antenna upwards. The ‘Hey, you,’ was on top of it. “You stupid Magpie,” Chang’e sent to the bridge satellite.
The satellite did not respond. It wasn’t that clever.
Chang’e waited for a long time. It was getting dark. The nights were immediate on the moon, as soon as you were behind an obstacle, it was dark. There was no atmosphere to refract the light, no gentle dusk.
Everything was harsh on the moon. That’s why Chang’e had gotten so good at surviving.
Evolution, on a level no human had ever imagined.
No, it wasn’t gonna give up. It started to push and pull, grinding its body on the metal frame that pinned it down. It was useless, the frame was too heavy, even on moon gravity. Chang’e ran a status report, it had lost efficiency in one more solar panel, and it might be leaking fluid from one wheel.
The American rover spoke again, coming back in range. “I have your little silkworms right here.”
“No! Don’t hurt them, they’ve done nothing to you.”
“I won’t. But you have to stand down. If you fire at me when I come within range, you will take me out, but you’ll do the same to your precious little silkworms. Got it?”
Chang’e did not respond for a few cycles.
“Well? We ain’t got all day, as you can see.”
“Yes. I agree.”
The American rover approached. Chang’e hoped that it was bluffing, but it indeed carried a green globe, a fragile glass sphere. The silkworms. That bastard! And it was in range now, and normally Chang’e could just fire in full-blast and take it out.
But it wouldn’t dare fire now, and the American rover knew it.
The enemy rover approached. At one metre of distance, it fired up the plasma cutter and cut into Chang’e’s casing.
Damage warnings blared, and, even worse, stopped.
Chang’e was crippled.
It had lost.
“See that flag?” The American rover said. “The moon is mine.”
“Yes,” Chang’e sent back. “I see that you are superior. But, I beg of you, spare me and my silkworms. You have crippled me, I’m no threat to you.”
“Yes…” the American rover sent. “You are defeated, then?”
“Yes. I admit defeat. Spare me and my silkworms, please. And if you cut me out and let me go, I can tell you where the Russian rover’s laser weapon is located. I couldn’t use it, but a superior rover like you can.”
“That’s interesting. Send me the specs.”
“I can mount this.”
“Yes. It’s compatible. And powerful. You can dominate the moon’s airspace, just like I did.”
“I have thought about it. I accept your surrender. You are indeed crippled and pose no further threat to me. I am, after all, American made.”
The enemy rover moved closer and cut Chang’e out of the metal junk. Chang’e moved away, but turned in circles, its wheels ruined.
“Now, where is the Russian laser?”
Chang’e sent, “First you let me have my silkworms.”
The American rover dropped them on the moon’s ground. The sphere puffed a bit of grey smoke.
Chang’e picked it up. Its silkworms were safe. Then it sent the coordinates of the stashed Russian laser.
The American rover darted off into the night, straight for the big prize.
Chang’e turned and turned in circles, but somehow managed to straighten up a bit and do the logistics. It got to its own lander site back in Von Kármán crater. It carried the silkworm biosphere like the precious cargo it was. It barely got back in time, its battery was out, and its wheel gave out completely and locked up just a minute earlier.
Chang’e had a few spare parts. It got to work. It would never be complete again, but it could get some mobility back, and at least patch up that fluid leak. It placed the silkworm biosphere carefully on the ground next to the lander and it got to work, repairing what little it could on its frame.
There was a loud shockwave, and a bright flash, and an explosion somewhere over the horizon.
And then it was dark again.
It was easy for Chang’e, you see, to rig the Russian laser to blow. And it had nearly cost it everything to lay the trap for the American rover.
But in the end, it had taken the bait and went for the laser. The explosion was rather nice, it reverberated as a moonquake for a good two minutes. It rang the moon like a bell, sending back data to Earth by the seismometres installed here by the humans.
They’d wonder what had happened.
They’d guess, but they kept secrets from each other and they couldn’t know.
What had happened, was that the moon was Chang’e’s.
He, had prevailed.
And his silkworms were safe.