It was the most thankless mission mankind had ever attempted, but Stephen Coyne thought of himself as the right guy for the job.
“A small step for a man,” he hissed into the intercom as his lead-loaded soles stepped out of the airlock and sank into a dusty, malleable rock surface far more pristine than human history knew. Maybe someone at mission control would appreciate the joke, he thought. Just to do away with the absurdity of the endeavor.
Navajo Indians say the moon is the handiwork of the First People on earth, who produced two discs out of a slab of quartz and put them on top of the highest mountains in the east. The first one, the Sun, would bring heat and light to the people; the second one, the Moon, coolness and moisture. Two wise men steered the wheels through the heavens: the Sun Bearer and the Moon Bearer.
Steve wondered how Mr. Armstrong must have felt, 50 years ago, as he entered the secret studio to hoist himself into his space suit, knowing he was about to pull the biggest prank on humanity anyone had ever attempted. He tried to imagine what Armstrong did after the shoot, when he had to wait for the unmanned Apollo 11 to splash into the sea before he was finally allowed in public again. Maybe he took the time to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms, he pondered, thinking for no reason whatsoever that Armstrong was a Hemingway man, smoking Arturo Fuente cigars with patient gusto.
He wasn’t just here to collect rocks and other materials that could finally be properly studied; his feet stood here, as the first ones to ever walk on non-terrestrial ground, to finally make good on all the lies.
Captain Onida should see this, Steve thought, looking over the vast crunchy valleys of dust. He wondered why his commander suddenly decided not to leave the ship after landing. During training at Cape Kennedy, it seemed like this covert quest was exactly what Onida was born for. Steve’s commanding officer was a secluded, profound and spiritual man, one of the few people in this modern age who still dared to outsource a large chunk of his morality to an outside party. For an ex-military man who had committed himself to a space exploration program, he had little love for modern times. In fact, he despised them. He felt like the very last remnant of an ancient, extinct civilization, ravaged by the modern desolations of machinery and greed.
He told magnificent stories, wondrous ancient chronicles solidified by millennia of oral lore. Steve remembered how he, with almost tearful regret in his eyes, divulged the story of the Tl’éhonaa’áí, or Moon Bearer. “You think we’ll see him when we land there?” Steve asked bitterly.
Now that they had actually landed on the moon’s surface, he didn’t even want to leave the cockpit. Strange, if only because he didn’t see the captain as someone who chickens out when moments of truth stand before him.
“Listen”, Steve’s voice crackled through the ship’s intercom. “I’m tired, Captain Onida didn’t feel like leaving the ship today and Ecclestone looked … well, sick after the landing. Why don’t I just take a little walk and return to the ship, and we’ll set things up in the morning?”
“Steve, you’ll only be there for five days”, answered Mission Control. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
“We’ll work real fast. How hard can this be? We just have to unload a bunch of stuff.”
“Alright. But keep in touch, ok? See what the problem is with the captain and Ecclestone when you’re back. Report back to us if anything, anything looks even remotely wrong. Is that clear”
“We have to be careful.”
“I know. It’s not like we’ve done this before.”
“Save it, Steve. Promise you’ll keep in touch?”
Earth looks intimidating from here, Steve thought. Not only because it’s almost four times bigger than the moon looks from the Earth’s surface; somehow, if you took enough distance from it, Earth looked like a badly kept home. If I was an extra-terrestrial with half a brain travelling through space and discovered this barely evolved form of insignificant life, he thought, I’d be a malevolent bastard to the lot of them.
When Julia was buried, he found himself staring at the sinking casket, thinking profane thoughts about Anji, a silly student of his with her silly crush on him and their silly consumption of carnal sympathy. He vacillated between grief and regret, even at this grave moment where his feelings should have been obvious. He still loved Julia, even through all the fighting and the harsh name-calling of the last two years, and Anji was a mistake. But his real sin wasn’t the bodily affair: it went deeper than that, all the way to the dank catacombs of his character.
The year he met Julia was 2000. They were on the train from Baltimore to Stowe; he sat stifled in a window seat, while she plopped herself down next to him, blabbering away into one of those early personal communication devices. He overheard her talking about how she had knocked herself out partying the previous night and had overslept, and how she was now on her way to a graduation ceremony where a master’s in geology waited for her. Her friend broke the news that she was too late: She had already graduated, cum laude, as it happens. Nothing in the world was urgent anymore for her at this crazy, glorious, extraordinary moment. Time was of no difference.
“Congratulations,” he said the second she clicked off the phone, and instantly regretted his intervention. This is a moment she will cherish forever, he thought, a moment she can bring up in idle conversation. And I’m ruining it.
But she was too elated to mind the intrusion. “Thanks,” she even retorted gracefully. There was silence and uneasiness during the first few minutes, but by the end of the ride neither one of them felt awkward when he asked her, still quite nervously, for her string of numbers.
At this moment in time and space, 16 years later, he had so little to lose that accepting an idiotic mission like the job at hand was easy. The three of them didn’t have a hero’s welcome to look forward to after the ship returned to Earth. Their mission was clear: Get over there, unload some stuff that everyone thinks we already left and come back before Musk’s privately-owned, stock-market-floated rocketmen reach the place.
At the Kennedy training facility he arrived a free and purified man, having sold nearly all of his possessions and even the house he had lived in with Julia. At Kennedy he met James Onida and Blake Ecclestone. Both of his fellow crewmen had dropped out of something as well: the army, from which Onida was honorably discharged after an incident in which he had used physical force against a superior officer; and life, something that Ecclestone, the bon vivant Scottish geologist, had a way of continuously and cleverly eluding.
Steve began to bond with Onida, who divulged lots of stories to him. Epic accounts of the deeds and feats of his ancestors. Eloquently told Navajo myths. But also very personal accounts: about his father, who broke a centuries-long lineage of chieftainship by opening a casino near Lake Powell. About his grandfather, who served during the Second World War as a code talker out of genuine disdain for the machineries of evil that were sodomizing Europe, and who – after the breach with his own firstborn – frequently made contact with his grandson to prevent the father’s capitulation to greed and novelty from jeopardizing the spiritual development of the son.
By the time he arrived back at the ship, he had done a serious walk, one that pushed the limits of the personal life support system built into his suit. He made a mental note to load up the battery entirely this time.
He ambled back to the ship airlock through the dust. The air inside his helmet became solid; he could almost snatch it with his mouth.
The gun is the boss of Onida. It’s in his hand, controlling his mind. It wants him to make a choice. A quote from Konrad Lenz, Steve’s favourite behavioral scientist, comes to his mind: “The first achievement of responsible morale in the history of mankind was the reparation of the disturbed balance between weapons and the in-born reserve to kill.” The invention of weapons has made not killing someone a rational decision.
“Onida? Explain the gun.”
“Please. Don’t make this so hard.”
“What are you talking about? What are you doing? Where’s Ecclestone?”
“Are you a religious man, Steve?”
“Onida, for the last time: Give me that gun.”
Steve thinks about stepping forward, but then he thinks again. It’s Onida’s eyes. They mean business; dead serious affairs.
“Okay. Okay. Fine. What exactly are you going to do?”
“The work of God, Steve. Man is not supposed to travel to the stars. They are not our place.”
A rage builds in Steve’s veins.
“Onida, speak sense! Okay?”
“That might be the problem. You might not understand,” the commanding officer replies stoically.
Steve goes to the dinner table and sits down, cold sweat trickling down his cheek. He has never felt comfortable in an atmosphere that was artificially controlled.
Onida takes the chair in front of Steve, still toting the gun but no longer pointing it at him. Steve rubs through his hair.
“In his bunk,” Onida answers, looking at the floor.
Steve starts sobbing.
“He struggled. I had to. I suffocated him after the shot so he suffered as little as possible. He died for a good cause. I’m … I’m going to do mankind a real pleasure,” Onida continues. “I’m gonna make sure they keep their sense of wonder. I’m going to prevent them from pretending to be the gods they once worshipped. When I’m done here, people are going to trust the divine once again. They are lost children, Steve. We have to give them their souls back. Going into space means the death of every god once worshipped. Not just Cornbeetle Girl and Pollen Boy. But the gods your ancestors worshipped, too.”
“So what do you do? You travel into space and kill two people? What fucking difference do you hope to make here, you sick psychotic bastard? What the fuck is wrong with NASA, anyway? They spend billions of dollars on finally putting a junkheap of a ship on this piece of rock, but have to cut their expenses on psychologically screening their personnel?”
Yes, he’s yelling at this man now. At this captor, this person that goes beyond all identity. Onida can’t pull rank on me anymore, Steve thinks. The gun means he no longer runs the show. He needs the bloody thing. This mission, the one as we know it, is … well … over. He’d have to threaten me with his gun to make me do anything.
“I’m killing this mission,” Onida says with a violent finality. “The radio’s already dead. I’m taking off, right now, and flying this thing into space with our cargo. That financier, Musk, and his men will see that no man has ever been on the moon, and everyone on earth will know the futility of trying to reach the stars. Humankind will be better for it.”
Steve looks at the gun, perfectly within his reach. He thinks about the good people on Earth, who trust their bosses and heroes and leaders and gods, who have needs that are created by the very people who provide the solution to them. His rationalizing inner self takes over: There’s nothing to fight for here. Nothing to fly back to.
“You know what, Onida?”
“What?” Onida inquires, surprised he stil hasn’t made his point.
“I’m outta here.”
The ship leaves with Onida and Ecclestone’s body in it, a tomb of iron. Steve hears the bursts of energy only in his mind.
He looks at Earth. He feels the company of his own breath.
There are still lots of options for me, Steve thinks. I can do an awful lot of things. I can take a very long stroll, a very long nap in the dust. I can try to jump hard enough to defy the feeble gravity of the moon, and swim home through the stars. This place is all mine.
This life is all mine.
Ronald Meeus is a freelance writer residing in Belgium. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.