I am continually amazed by my will to live even when surrounded by imbeciles and thugs with bad haircuts.
It’s a personal flaw, I know. Anyone with the tiniest capability for rational thought would have long since given in to despair. But here I am, plugging away despite the oppressive stupidity of my homeland. Maybe I’m not too bright, either. Sometimes, I hum a happy little tune. On a few rare occasions, I whistle.
And this baseless optimism is why, even when I tucked myself into a tiny ball and hid behind the bar of Bub’s Pub, I thought it might be possible to dodge my fate.
The Double A’s found me, of course. They always travel in pairs, one Armstrong and one Aldrin. Everyone clears a path for them, not just because they wear three layers of armor, but also because they have the most guns. Oh, and they’re recklessly dumb. Which makes them almost indistinguishable from every other citizen.
I’m not kidding. We are relentlessly ignorant.
Let me prove that by describing how they found me. There I was, hiding behind the bar, foolishly hoping that everyone would just keep quiet. But an amiable customer -- let’s call her Barb -- noticed her drink had run empty, so she shouted, “I need rum! Who else?” Hearing a smattering of affirmation, Barb walked behind the bar and examined the rows of spirits. Unable to find the rum, she looked under the bar, where I was hiding, as I said.
“You’re not rum,” she said.
I held a finger up to my lips, and she smiled. “Hey, this guy under the bar thinks he’s rum. He’s not rum. He’s a human!” she said to anyone listening. Several people applauded her for her use of the word “human.”
“Thanks a lot, Mom,” I say. My tone is lost on her. Did I mention that Barb is one of my moms?
The scouts follow her behind the bar and wrestle with me until I’m face-down on the ground. The Armstrong kneels on my back. And there’s the joke, right there. Most of our jokes are political jabs with cute cartoon characters, so puns are our highest form of humor. But very few get it. I do.
I think that’s because Mom Three was in the hospital for a couple of nights after she got her arm stuck in a vending machine trying to snag the last Soylent bar. And while Dad Two sat with her, I read a book, Hank the Cowdog. I was only sixteen at the time, so I was already a more experienced reader than most of my peers. From that point on, I read everything I could get my hands on: traffic signs, underwear labels, Reader’s Digest.
The Armstrong pulls my hair back, lifting my head off the ground. I hear the Aldrin’s electric clippers. Maybe they’ll just give it a nice trim. See that bad habit of mine? And no, they shave my hair down almost to the scalp. The Aldrin gives me a buzz cut. And now that makes two jokes. I chuckle, which is a terrible mistake.
The Armstrong has his hand wrapped around my throat, threatening to destroy the next national space mission before its lone astronaut can even put on a spacesuit.
They don’t even try anymore. The annual launch used to be televised, and people oohed as the devilishly handsome Chip “Thrust” Rainbow-Starlight schmoozed his way into the lottery winner’s home. The twenty-five-year-old would tremble in terror as Thrust announced his or her great honor to represent the people in their quest for aeronautical dominance.
This was absurd, of course. Most countries on Earth had already found their way into space. China had established mines around Saturn and created life stations in orbit around the Outer Four. The New European Consortium owned most of Mars, and The Russian Mob took advantage of anyone so unfortunate as to need a lunar pit stop on the way. Hell, even Tonga (Tonga!), had an interplanetary tour cruiser to explore the satellite Puck.
Not us. We wish we could make it to the moon again. But our leadership, hoo boy. It’s cargo pants and flip flops all the way down. Seriously, Margaret Atwood was an optimist.
My luckiest option would be for these two to take each other out. What? It’s happened before. A lot. It’s what we, as a country, bring to the international table: slapstick.
We used to be three hundred fifty million strong, and now we’re down to less than half that. And we didn’t lose half our citizenry the way you might expect, you know, through famine, disease, war. No, most of our losses came from more mundane causes, like staring at the sun contests, sex with enslaved robots, actually drinking the snake oil, things like that.
“Okay,” says the Aldrin. “I’m done.”
The Armstrong pushes my head back down and digs in with his knee.
“Hey,” says the Aldrin. “Get off. Time to go. We done.”
The Armstrong, eyes behind his dark glasses unknowable, turns to his partner and says, “I no go. Church of Science says make him pay.”
“No, it does not say.”
“Yes,” says the Armstrong.
The Aldrin grunts. “You Church of Science East?”
The bar patrons stare at the proceedings, wide-eyed, thrilled. The shout-out to the Church of Science East elicits cheers from about half the room.
“Yes,” says the Armstrong.
The Aldrin pulls out his gun and shoots the Armstrong, and “I Church of Science West.”
I hear whoops and shouts, followed by chairs scraping the floor as the patrons stand up and unholster their guns.
I would run for it, but I know better. I roll back under the bar and wait until the shooting stops. I see the lifeless body of the Armstrong in front of me. I start a little when the Aldrin falls on top of him, taken out by one headshot.
I wait for the last few kernels to pop.
I roll out and tentatively peek over the bar. Everyone is either on the ground or slumped over chairs, dying, or dead. Almost everyone, I should say. Mom Six is leaning against the bar, wounded in several places, nursing a rum and cola.
“Mom,” I say. “You’re alive!”
“I wasn’t finished with my drink,” she says. “Now, who are you again?” She collapses to the floor, dead.
C’est la Vie. I always liked Mom Nine more.
Things don’t usually break easy for me, so I’m ready to take full advantage. I race to the front door and plow into the sunshine. If I can make it to the sewers, I might be able to . . .
A metal cart crashes into me, and I fall to the ground. I probably should have told you that we no longer have cars. International law forbade us from using motorized vehicles many years ago because we kept forgetting to drive them while we’re busy filming videos, making out, or pouring cocktails. The U.N. finally said enough. You get shopping carts.
The driver of the cart, a woman on rollerblades, curses me and drives away. I try to get up, but my hip screams. I army crawl toward a row of shrubs growing wild from cracks in the street. Another Armstrong and Aldrin spin around a corner and see me immediately. They lift me, and I cry in pain. They hoist me into an empty cart and dose me with a tranquilizer for the six-hour run to the launchpad at NAZUH.
Don’t try to figure it out. It doesn’t stand for anything.
When I awake, I find myself loaded with drugs and strapped inside a rocket. That’s it. I’m a Dead Man Flying. Or not flying, if recent history is any indication.
Just past my knees are two cheery buttons, green and red, labeled “Go!” and “Oops.” I try pushing them both, but they seem to be purely decorative. To my left is a window. To my right is a camera trained on my face, designed to show the ecstasy of flight. I scream at it in terror, like the dozens of doomed astronauts before me.
A voice emits from a cracked wooden box above my head. “Calm down, you! And don’t touch anything!”
I feel a wave of warm peace flood through my body. There is an IV in me somewhere, and mission control has responded to my screams with more tranks. I let it flow. Why not? No one’s watching anyway, and I’ll be gone in a few minutes. I close my eyes.
I’m still here. The escape from Earth’s atmosphere proceeded more smoothly than anyone could have expected. Outside the window is a beautiful darkness, speckled with dots of light and the shimmer of the Earth’s geocorona. I swear I do not know how I came up with that word.
The loudspeaker crackles again. Against the backdrop of cheering, the voice says, “Congratulations! You have ripped the pearly bounds of Earth. Get ready to meet God!”
I’m pretty sure that’s not right, but I allow myself a small measure of hope. That is what I do. I gaze out the window and soak in the beauty. The most beautiful thing is the silence. Blessed, blessed quiet.
There is a loud cracking sound from the front of the ship. It was all quite fun while it lasted, more than I ever considered. Oh, death is imminent, for sure. There are all kinds of alarms going off, and a massive piece of metal just flew past the window. Yeah, I am going to die.
But I’ll be damned if the view isn’t spectacular.