Tom dropped his empty beer can at his feet, letting it loudly clang amongst the others as he cracked open a new one, taking a sip before setting it down on the tattered armrest. Can’t hear a thing, where’s the damn remote? He plunged his hands into the crevice on either side of the armchair’s fat cushion until his fingertips brushed against hard plastic.With considerable effort he gripped it between two outstretched fingers and was able to drag it up from the depths below. His head spun a little, and he was unsure whether it came from the exertion or the booze. He wasn’t particularly accustomed to either. On an ordinary day, after work he would have curled up on the couch with a new book, or watched that documentary on underground farming he’d been meaning to watch. But of course, today was no ordinary day. Today was the summer equinox, which meant that the AstroLottery was today, which meant that Tom was racked with anxious jitters and needed a drink or three to take the edge off. It wasn’t working, so now he was just anxious and tipsy. He pointed the remote at the screen and held the Volume Up button until the man on the television was shouting into the room.
“THANKS AGAIN FOR JOINING US, THOSE IN THE STUDIO AND THOSE WATCHING FROM HOME. I KNOW THE SOLAR FLARES HAVE PUT A DAMPER ON SOME OF TODAY’S PLANNED ACTIVITIES, BUT I HOPE YOU’RE STILL FINDING WAYS TO KEEP THE CELEBRATION ALIVE.”
Tom’s ears were beginning to ring, so he turned the volume back down, drinking more of his beer. Surely they must make the announcement soon?
“We remind everyone how important this annual event is to the health and safety of our world, and everyone living on it,” the TV man continued, smiling towards his female co-host. “Every year, from time immemorial, we’ve sent brave warriors off this Earth to celebrate our devotion to the Astral Gods, and this year is no different.”
“Well we haven’t had rockets since time immemorial, so that seems unlikely,” Tom muttered at the screen, punctuating the end of his sentence with a noise somewhere between a hiccup and a burp.
“I think we’ve waited long enough. I’m excited, aren’t you Charlene?” The host didn’t wait for Charlene to respond before turning back to the camera as he was handed a large envelope from someone off-screen. “Now is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. This year’s Solar Champion is… Emily Garbrandt!”
Her name flashed on the screen, emblazoned on a picture of the burning sun.
“Wow, a lady Sun Sacrifice? It’s been a while since we’ve had one of those, hasn’t it Charlene? When was the last one, ‘39? Congratulations Emily! Environmental Protection Services will be contacting you shortly about your prize. Once again, thank you Emily. Your sacrifice ensures another year in which our homes will not burn, and out seas will not boil.”
Tom threw his now-empty beer can at the man’s stupid, empty grin. There were sharks with fewer teeth, and more sense, than that idiot. The camera panned over to the female host, now holding an envelope of her own.
Just one more name.
“As for our Lunar Champion, we’re looking for someone extra special this year, given the unprecedented flooding we’ve witnessed over these past 12 months. Let’s hope that this year’s champion is better able to appease the Moon God better than last year’s Champion.” She cracked the envelope, pausing for dramatic effect.
“This year, our Lunar Champion, who will be sent to the moon to make the rain go away and keep the monsoons at bay is… Tom Thompson!”
Tom sat slack jawed, as his stupid name flashed across the stupid screen, placed upon a picture of the moon so stupid, they’d given it eyes and a mouth. Every year he’d dreaded the possibility that he’d be chosen for this inane superstition. A testament to mankind’s delusions. And here it finally was. He was to be the Man on the Moon.
He hated this world.
A knock at the door interrupted his panic, and a man called out.
“Congratulations, Lunar Champion! We are here to escort you to our facilities in Florida, where we will prepare you for your journey!”
Well that was quick.
“He’s not here!” Tom called out in a panicked falsetto as he stumbled up from his seat, sending empty cans clattering across the room. “This is Mrs. Thompson. Tom’s just stepped out to get some milk, you might be able to catch him if you go hurry!”
“Tom, we know you’re not married, why don’t you just open the door and talk with us”
What an immensely stupid plan that was, Tom thought as he searched the room for an alternate exit, knowing that living in an apartment meant there was only one: the window.
Something heavy thudded against the door as Tom ran to the window and struggled to take out the screen.
“Tom, we know how nervous some people get when declared champion…”
“So we’re just going to help open the door for you to get you ready for the celebration…”
“You won’t be needing this door anymore, anyway.”
With a final crash, the door burst open and two men in suits stepped in as Tom finally pried the screen off and stuck one leg out the window. The wind outside whipped, and the intense heat was already beginning to burn Tom’s exposed skin. His stomach fell as he looked at the drop he faced to the street below. Smog billowed out of unseen pipes, rising to sting his eyes and nose.
“Now don’t do anything crazy, Champ,” one of the men said as he crept towards Tom. “You don’t want to go out like that, do you? Out in that mess? Come on back inside, and we’ll make sure you go out like a true champion.”
Tom looked again out the window. He supposed it didn’t matter at this point. He was done for anyway. He had no family, little in the way of friends. No one who’d really miss him. At least this way he’d get to see the moon up close. Cautiously, Tom started to lean himself back into the apartment.
“That’s it,” the man said. “One small step…”
“Don’t you dare,” Tom interrupted.
The journey to the Florida launch pad where the rockets were housed was not what Tom thought befitted a Lunar Champion. From his home they’d taken a taxi, and then two flights - economy class - to the airport in Melbourne, Florida, all the way squished between the shoulders of his two EPS chauffeurs who seemed determined to never let him out of their sight. Even at the airport bathroom, they’d sidled up to urinals next to his when he went to take a pee.
“What exactly do you think I could do in here?” he’d asked, and they’d had the audacity to look at him as if he was the odd one.
Once they arrived in Florida, Tom was shocked at how hot it was, and was grateful that he wasn’t the one being sent into the sun. Intellectually, he knew the whole world was getting hotter every year, but knowing wasn’t the same as feeling the heat in a godforsaken place like Florida. Outside, the pavement bubbled underfoot, and passers-by wore thick rubberized suits to protect against the radiation. Occasionally Tom could glimpse their faces through the little window in the front, all red and sweaty. Tom was not a thin man himself, and felt as though he had sweat several years of weight away.
Soon they arrived at the NASA centre, and his escorts parked in a large, empty parking garage. EPS had bought out NASA a few years ago, when the country had stopped caring about science enough to properly fund it. EPS had kept the name though, and had simply changed what it stood for. Now it was the National Astronomical Sacrifice Association. It coordinated exactly two launches each year.
The three of them walked through the internal maze of the NASA building. Inside, the air-conditioning was on full blast, causing Tom’s skin to prickle and his hair to stand on end. The halls were empty, although all the lights and computers were on.
“You know, this is half the problem,” Tom said, gesturing as they turned down yet another empty hallway. “The energy it must take to keep this place cool, not to mention all the lights. We should try shutting some of this off, maybe don’t waste so much, see if that fixes the problem.”
The two men shared a glance over Tom’s head before looking down at him, laughing.
“I’m sure the Sun God will just accept that.” One of the men said. He pulled his shoulders up to his ears, and deepened his voice. “Go ahead, turn off the light’s. I don’t need a sacrifice this year.”
“Well, that’s an argument,” Tom replied, their laughter echoing through the corridor.
Eventually they came upon a larger room, where already there stood a pretty young woman, flanked by her own pair of EPS henchmen. Evidently it was customary to have the two Champions meet, talk, and share some last minute wisdom. Tom walked towards where she stood, clutching both her elbows and looking down at the floor.
“You’re Emily, right? The Sun Champion.”
She gave a terse nod.
“Name’s Tom.” He thumbed his chest. “Moon Champ.”
Silence. Tom teetered back and forth from heel to toe, trying to find something to comfort this young woman with which he only had one, unavoidable thing in common. As was often the case in such uncomfortable circumstances, he reached for humor.
“Makes sense that you’re the Sun Champion and not me.” He said. “You’re much hotter than I am.” He gestured to his thinning hair and considerable girth.
“We’re going to die,” she cried, as she looked up at him, her face wet with tears.
Really bungled that one, didn’t you Tom.
Mercifully, the henchman must have realized there was nothing more to be gained from this meeting, as they were shuffled apart down two separate corridors. At the end of the hallway they stopped at a set of double doors. Tom’s two guards opened a pair of lockers nearby, and each began donning sets of radiation jumpsuits. Apparently they were going outside.
“Where’s mine?” Tom asked.
“Do you really need one?”
Once fully suited, the two men opened the doors and escorted Tom out onto the tarmac. Finally now there was the faintest element of fanfare. Just off to the right of the tarmac sat a big, wide tent, with a bright yellow roof and thick, clear plastic walls. Tom could see a number of people mingling inside. It looked as though there was a buffet table, and some of the people appeared to be wearing party hats. Idiots come to revel in this madness. Tom raised a hand to give them what he hoped was a condescending wave, but brought it down quickly when his exposed palm began burning in the sun. He quickened his pace towards what he knew was his destination: the rocket.
The rocket was smaller than he had expected. He supposed it didn’t need to be anything fancy. There wasn’t going to be a return trip. Next to the rocket was one of those rolling staircases, like the kind they used to get people on and off airplanes. On the side of his ship he saw they had painted that ridiculous face of the moon. The one from the television, with eyes and a mouth. Its eyes followed him until he stood directly beneath the rocket, thankful for its shade. If he wanted he could reach up and touch its stupid mouth.
Something about the face made Tom suddenly very angry at the absurdity of this whole thing. Why should he go quietly along with this charade? Did going along with this nonsense make him somehow complicit? Had he also abandoned reason?
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said, crossing his arms. “You know that this is ridiculous right? There is no Moon God. No Sun God. How many years has this blasted tradition existed, sending people off into space? And yet the world keeps getting hotter, and the storms keep getting more frequent. Could hardly say it's been working, can you? Don’t you see? It isn’t about a Sun God or a Moon God. It is our fault that the world is this way. We are the gods we ought to be appeasing!”
He watched as a look of puzzlement crossed both their faces, as if he had spoken in an ancient and foreign language, and they struggled to translate it into their own. Finally, after a long pause, the taller of the two spoke.
“No, I don’t think so. Why would we have a rocket if there was no Moon God?”
Tom truly could not think of an argument against that, and decided that perhaps it was time for him to go. He gave one last look to the tarmac and watched as the horizon shimmered under the midday heat, before climbing the stairway leading to the top of the rocket. At the top he saw a round capsule window, about 3 feet across, was currently popped open. Peering inside, he could see just a single seat facing straight forward in the direction of the rocket’s flight. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, so he sat down, and began fashioning the multiple seatbelts.
“Wait!” A voice called from just outside the rocket.
“What is it?” Tom said, his hand hovering above the latch of his seatbelt. Have they heeded my words?
“You forgot your helmet,” the tall man said as he reached the top of the stairs, leaning into the capsule to hand Tom an astronaut’s helmet.
Once buckled in, Tom placed the helmet over his head and tightened the straps, hoping it was sufficient to keep him conscious for the full journey. The capsule window began to close with a pneumatic hiss, and the sound of the seal being made was reassuring, albeit final. Tom heard a rumble, and through the very side of the window could see a small grey streak lifting into the sky. Goodbye Emily.
He heard the stairs being wheeled away from the rocket and he waited, staring up at the open sky. He expected some kind of countdown, and so he was startled when suddenly the rocket began to shake, and a great noise began building up behind him. His whole body rattled as the rocket began to lift from the ground, slowly at first, but building speed. Faster and faster he climbed, clouds buffeting past the capsule window. As they broke through the cloud cover, climbing higher now than any plane he’d ever been on, he couldn’t help but let out an uncharacteristic ‘whoop’ of excitement.
Behind him, the rocket pressed noisily on, propelling them forward and pushing Tom deeper into his seat. Through the window the light began to dim, as if the day had decided to abruptly pack up and leave. Soon he was high enough, far enough out into the darkness, that he was certain he’d left the Earth’s atmosphere. Stars, unseen to all but the precious few who’d gone this far, blinked into view. Tom struggled to lean his head forward against the force pushing it back, wanting to take in as much of the view as he could.
They were turning now, the thrusters behind him giving syncopated bursts as they fired in strange patterns until finally he was facing it. Her. The moon. For the first time in his life, he felt that he could appreciate its size. From Earth, the moon felt like some small, inconsequential thing. An astronomical afterthought. Out here, however, it had its own magnificence. As they drew closer,and the moon filled more of Tom’s window, he studied its face, full of pockmarks and craters. Without an atmosphere like Earth’s to protect it, the moon was vulnerable to strikes by passing space rock, taking damage from whatever debris might chance upon it. Looking at the moon now, Tom felt as though he was reading its story written in braille, and wished he was able to understand it. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, and the abuse she’d taken.
Chief among the scars on the moon’s surface, Tom could see a deep, black crater. Closer now, Tom could see strange sculptures around the base of the crater. Metal. Large, gnarled sheets. He squinted, and was certain he could see the outline of the drawn moon face along a discarded piece of hull. This was the crash site. From here he could see cracks, branching out from the centre of the impact site like the branches of a spider’s web. Moon river, Audrey Hepburn sang in the back of his skull. Some of the crevices were so deep, he couldn’t see the bottom, but it was clear now that they covered the moon’s surface. After so many rocket launches, the moon was close to crumbling.
They were close now. The moon filled the entirety of the capsule window and the rocket showed no signs of slowing. Details emerged and rushed out to meet Tom. A seat. A broken window. A helmet.
It’s alright. Tom thought. It’s okay if you break. You’ve done well by us. None of this is your fault. I hope it ends for you soon.
With a final effort, Tom unbuckled his seatbelt and removed his helmet, throwing it to the ground beside him. Just before the rocket met the surface of the moon, he planted his feet on the back of his chair and pushed off, throwing himself into the impact in the hopes that he might be the last Lunar Champion.
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This story was really good! I love the path you took in describing why people were sent to the moon (and sun) and I really liked the conversation Tom had outside of his rocket. I think you nailed the prompt, well done!
I really liked this story! It was funny and original and smart, and even though it is long it felt short because it was so engaging. Your characterization of Tom was really good - I liked him so much right to the end. Well done for ending it like this with some hope - it could so easily have fallen flat. Loved "There were sharks with fewer teeth, and more sense, than that idiot."
Thank you for your comment! I really appreciate it, particularly your comment about Tom's characterization. I had just recently received some feedback on another piece of writing that my characters were all flat and one-note, so I was very consciously trying to ensure Tom had ample personality in this story. I am really happy to hear that paying attention to that aspect has caused some improvement. Thanks again!