Molly gazed out the window at the lunar expanse as the shuttle rattled its way down to the surface. She’d seen thousands of pictures of the colony in the months leading to her exodus, but somehow none captured how grey it was. It wasn’t monotonous, certainly. The cratered face of the moon provided texture, from shadowed blacks at the crater depths, to dirt peaks which looked almost eggshell white under the harsh lights surrounding the landing pad. Even the dome ahead loomed as a dull grey protrusion, an ugly grey eyeball with just a narrow pupil window at the top. All grey. She hoped it wasn’t so drab inside. Of all the things that Molly had made sure to cherish during her final time back on Earth, colour wasn’t one of them.
The ship landed with a heavy thud and Molly heard as dozens of unseen machines began dismantling the ship, extracting the cargo and loading it onto the tram which would take her into the colony. These were only ever one-way trips. She checked her watch: 11:47 LST. Like everything else government-issue it was a ugly and never felt like it fit quite right. The band was beginning to cut the blood off from her fingertips. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“Wait until all parts have been removed before exiting the craft,” a machine voice intoned from the speakers in her helmet.
How about a “please”? Molly thought, anxious to leave her seat. She tugged at the straps which restrained her. Someone else had applied them back at launch, and she wasn’t certain if she could even unlatch them herself. Her spine itched with a desire to stretch out against this captivity. It had been a long, lonely journey, and still so much could go wrong.
Finally, a tone signalled the apparent conclusion of the ship’s disassembly and her restraints loosened. She stretched as best she could in the ship’s cramped single seated quarters before descending the ladder and opening the hatch to her new home.
Molly floated her way down to the ground and took two bounding steps towards the tram. There was a sense of weightlessness, as if she wasn’t fully tethered to the moon’s surface, and she realized another aspect of Earth she’d taken for granted: its gravity. Not that it was worse here, just different. Every cause felt like it had an exaggerated effect. Her intuitive sense of something as simple as how much force to put into a step was off, her calculations all wrong. She wondered how many fundamentals of humanity would be re-written before the day was done.
The tram looked like a cable car, or gondola. It was a squat rectangular thing with a single door that opened as she approached. Everything had an exactness here. A precision. The tram sat on a track leading a straight shot into a small entrance at the base of the dome. Another one-way trip.
Molly boarded the tram and within moments of sitting it lurched into motion, dragging a platform of the ship’s cargo behind it. The expanse of the moon’s surface rolled by the tram’s large windows, and from here Molly could see how unforgiving the landscape was. It was an unforgiving place. Unwelcoming. This truly was a frontier land, and she wasn’t certain it was one that wanted her.
As the tram approached, a small door opened in the wall of the dome. The tram slowed, entering through the door and into a small airlock before stopping in front of another set of doors. Molly heard the doors close behind her, followed by the hiss of oxygen being pumped into the chamber. She took one last breath of the air she’d brought with her. The second door opened and the tram rolled a short distance to the entry platform.
Inside, Molly was grateful to see colour in abundance. The buildings stood with uncomfortable uniformity, gridded out in a way that reminded Molly of a microchip, but they had been painted in a variety of bright, vibrant colours that brought individuality to them. The interior of the dome’s surface, once the same dull grey as the exterior, had been painted a beautiful opal blue as high as the brushes would reach. Small shrubs lined the spaces between the buildings, like stubborn moss growing up cobblestone, soaking in the light from a large ring light which circled the dome’s pupil above. It almost would have felt welcoming, were it not for the people waiting for her.
There was already a small crowd gathered at the platform. They dressed in a variety of mutely-coloured overalls, signifying their position. Many with arms crossed, standing in small groups whispering to one another. I’m not the first replacement they’ve met. Molly removed her helmet and stepped off of the tram. And this won’t be the first Walk they’ve seen.
“Hi,” she said, giving a small wave that went unreciprocated.
A man wearing red coveralls stepped forward. Like Molly: an engineer.
“We weren’t expecting anyone. We’re full. We don’t need anyone else. Can’t fit anyone.”
“Right, I’ve heard.” Molly took another few steps forward and had to throw her hands out to balance herself, betraying that even her equilibrium was different from the people here.
“If you know there’s no room, then what are you here for? I told you, we’re at max capacity.” The engineer looked nervously at the people around him. “What are you trying to say?”
There was no avoiding it any longer, she had to come out with it.
“I’ve been sent as a replacement.”
Everyone in the crowd began talking at once.
“Like hell you are!”
“What do you mean? No one’s broken any laws!”
“I’m done with the fucking Walk! They can’t keep doing this to us!”
The man in the coveralls finally spoke up, raising his voice above the crowd, silencing them.
“Who are you replacing?”
“I’m sorry,” Molly said. “Why don’t you start gathering everyone together? You know the protocol.”
It took a little over an hour for word to permeate all parts of the dome. The colony wasn’t large, 500 members precisely, so it wasn’t difficult to disseminate information quickly. Besides, everyone would be at their prescribed workstations at this time, so it's not like there would be trouble finding anyone. No children either, that wasn’t allowed in the colony. Not at this Phase at the very least. This was, after all, a colony living on the fringe of what was possible. A grand human experiment, with no margin for error. Capable of sustaining 500 people and not a soul more. Of course there was no room for children and their frivolity. Just clockwork. Just precision.
Molly was led to the large theatre, which she was told was infrequently used for movie nights, as that was the only building that could house the entire colony at once. It was a dull and brutal building, clearly intended just for large gatherings, which the colonists had done their best to make as friendly as possible. Still, under the paint, the government’s presence was felt.
She stood by the stage and waited as people slowly trickled in. Largely they avoided her, taking seats near the rear of the theatre as if not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Some tossed comments at her as they filtered in, but most spoke only to one another. A few did come speak to her, however. Mostly to ask questions. To probe if they were the one being replaced.
“Is it because I took those trips out to the darkside?” A young man asked, wringing his hands as he avoided her eyes.
“Does it have to do with my crop experiments? I’m doing my best, I think I’ve got it figured out now,” said a woman with dirt under her fingernails, her voice trembling with emotion.
“Please take a seat,” Molly said to each of them. “I have to wait until everyone’s here.”
An older man, in his seventies at least, came forward, looking wide-eyed at her through thick glasses. His nametag said Bill, and he wore physician’s white garb. He leaned against the stage beside her and looked out at the growing crowd.
“You know it’s not easy living,” he said, holding a wrinkled hand out towards the growing crowd. “People work their whole lives just to come here. School, work, everything just for a chance to come here and be a part of something bigger. To prove that humanity can make it out on the edge. Final Frontier and all that bullshit. It’s the dream they’ve sacrificed their lives for.”
He watched as an elderly woman struggled to climb the stairs to find an empty seat.
“Not realizing how much of their own humanity they’d have to give up along the way.”
Molly only nodded. Who was she if not the same?
“You know what it means, right? What you’re condemning your replacement to?” Bill said. “Of course you do, you’ve signed away your rights just the same. You know there’s no return trips. Just a walk to the dark side, and lights out.”
“I know.” Molly said, turning to face him. She hadn’t expected this to be so difficult. “And you know just as well as I do that there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Please,” Bill said, lowering his voice and casting a glance out towards the now nearly full theatre. “I’m old. If someone has to go, let me go. I’ve lived a long life.”
“You know it doesn’t work that way, Bill. Besides,” she gestured at her Bill’s white uniform, and her own red one. “It doesn’t match.”
Bill’s lips tightened, and he leaned off of the stage.
“What have we done, to reduce ourselves to this?” He said, as he walked slowly back to the crowd and searched for a seat.
As she watched him leave, and looked out onto the now full crowd, Molly felt something pulling inside of her. The faces staring at her, dimly lit but not so severely that she couldn’t see the hatred and fear lurking on them. At her, but at more than her. At who she represented. An extension of the state, a set of immutable rules. And at the core of it, Molly could imagine, they hated that they were no different from her. Rules were rules, and so were they.
Finally, when it seemed there was no one left to join, Molly took the stage and leaned into the microphone.
“You all know why you’re here, so I won’t bother wasting your time. There’s been a violation, and I’ve been sent as the replacement. Susan Marshall, are you here?”
A furious whisper ripped through the crowd and Molly tracked as the people scanned the seats around them until they began to build a quorum on a seat on the left side of the theatre, about halfway up. A young woman, no older than Molly and wearing an outfit as red as hers,, slowly stood from her seat as if in a macabre gameshow, not knowing whether she should come to the front. She held her arms folded in front of herself and the man seated beside her stood as well and put a hand on her back.
“Susan, your bio-readout,” Molly lifted her wrist and gestured at her own wrist. “It reported hormonal changes outside the normal range. Tests back on Earth have confirmed that you have become pregnant. As you know, that is against colony rules. You’ve been sentenced to walk.”
Molly could see the faces in the crowd turn from anger to something else. Some aghast horror. Sadness. Woe, at the tragedy of it all. Two lives lost instead of one. Molly was worried she might lose them. Even now, Molly could begin to see the conciliatory gestures they made to one another. Rules are rules, she could see them beginning to say. Susan remained standing, one hand over her stomach and the other covering her mouth. Molly needed to act now, if this was ever going to work.
“But,” she called out, too loudly, causing the microphone to ring and give feedback. “There are people on Earth who support you up here. Who think things don’t have to be this way.” She took her watch off and set it on the ground, where it immediately began to beep in protest.
“This is an opportunity to truly test the limits of what we can achieve. We don’t need Earth to tell us what to do here. They can’t make us Walk, because we got here by flying. We can start our own true colony. Starting with this first Lunar native.”
She held her hands forward, waiting for the colony to throw off their watches, waiting for the chorus of beeps, as Susan began to walk slowly down the stairs and towards the door.