The Astronauts

October 3, 2012
By Anonymous

Rocks line the path, creating a straight line as far as the eye can see. Dust has coated everything thickly, creating an invariably gray landscape. A lone speck of color, one man in a blue suit, walks this path. He walks as if in a dream, almost floating above the ground. Occasionally he stumbles on a stray stone, and those immediately roll apologetically away, as if realizing they are on the wrong side of the track.

Upon reaching a certain section of path, the man stops walking. He legs keep turning over and over, and his arms swing slightly as if he were striding briskly along, but something holds him back. It’s almost an odd little dance. He doesn’t seem to notice that he isn’t moving, though, and continues to swing his arms and take crisp steps.

Restraining this oblivious man is a tube. It protrudes like an enormous funnel from the stony ground, supported by a wooden beam. Air is sucked through the larger opening and sent to unknown depths by the other end.

Struggling against the force pulling him back, the man begins to breathe heavily, sweat beading on his papery forehead. He still doesn’t break stride, though, marching along, staring into the distance like he can sense a beautiful destination just beyond the mist which hangs, drooping and heavy, along the horizon.

The roaring of a motor breaks the silence, growling and snarling. Then a vehicle bursts out of the mist, scattering the seemingly impenetrable white clouds. The blaring snarls grow louder and, bouncing over rocks, two men can be seen inside a car. Matching haircuts, matching faces, matching coloring. Two guns rest in the lap of the passenger. Their mouths move, forming inaudible words. A conversation.

Although the pedestrian failed to see the funnel holding him back, he notices the vehicle bounding through the wasteland. Panic displayed clearly on his previously neutral face, he tries to run. When he is unable to escape the oncoming car he detects the funnel and turns to face it. The panic is gone, in its place a look of knowing, of dread, and of acceptance. He stops struggling, allowing himself to be still finally.

Silence once again fills the space as the engine cuts and the two men jump out of the car in unison, each holding a rifle. Two footsteps crunch through the gravel until the pair are standing directly in front of the man and funnel. They stare at him, but through him, seeing only the mist floating in the distance.

“Code seventeen,” announces the man who had been driving, although it’s difficult to distinguish as their faces are eerily alike.

“Command: exterminate.” Two barrels point at the serene, accepting face. Two shots ring out, sounding almost exactly as one. The man slumps, staring at the horizon.

The funnel’s air flow increases and his lifeless body is sucked in and sent away with the others. A pop like suction breaking sounds and the funnel is gone, no trace remaining. Footsteps crunch through the gravel and then a motor roars away, vanishing on the horizon. The mist seeps closer and closer, eventually obscuring the entire landscape. A hint of golden shimmer appears in the mist and then disappears just as soon.

A faint pop rings through the air sounding very distant. Was that a footstep? An eager young boy presses his face against the glass, searching for any sign of life. He can’t see very far in the oppressive mist that surrounds the city he lives in, but Mama told him that Uncle Greg would be visiting later and he would bring presents.

“Is he really coming, Mama?” questions the small boy after a long time. He peels his face from the glass reluctantly and turns to her, half his face red and half white.

His mother looks worried but she does a good job of covering up her unease. The only signs are a tightening around the mouth as she tries to smile at her restless offspring. “He said he would be,” is her vague reply. The boy accepts it as definite confirmation and returns to the window. The woman sighs quietly, anxious for the safety of her brother. He’d insisted on visiting her son after years of being unable to do so. The desert wasn’t safe, what with those funnels popping up all over the place, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she was secretly delighted to finally have a chance to see Greg again.

Now, however, she’s getting worried. He’d phoned early this morning to tell her he was leaving the hotel and should be to her house around three. Three arrived hours ago, and it’s rapidly approaching seven o’clock. At each tick of the clock her stomach tightens even more.

He got lost, she reasons with herself. We’re at the heart of the city, and the apartment is rather hard to find. Perhaps he was a little late crossing the desert and has stopped for supper. Satisfied with the explanation, she focuses her attentions on the book in her lap.

“Henry, darling,” she calls after a while of blindly turning pages, deciding she needs a distraction.

“Yes dear?”

“Come in here, will you?” A tall man in a formal suit appears at the door. He smiles at her affectionately.

“What did you need, Lina?”

She beckons for him to come closer and when he is within arms length, she yanks him so that he sits abruptly on the chair beside hers. “A distraction. Tell me a story, Henry!” Lina props her chin on her hands and waits expectantly with an almost childlike fascination.

“Which sort, dear?” Henry asks, humoring his wife.

She seems to ponder this for a long while, then, “The one with the astronaut. Oh, I do like that one.”

By now her son has joined them, sitting on a cushion at their feet with his knees drawn up to his chin, Uncle Greg long forgotten.

“Well, let me see,” teases Henry. “I can’t seem to remember how that story goes. Do you, Geoffrey?” He looks at the boy on the floor.

“No, I don’t,” replies Geoffrey, playing along. “How about you, Mama?”

“I don’t believe I do,” she laughs, having completely forgotten about her lost brother as well.

Henry retrieves a leather-bound book from the side table and settles himself comfortably back in his chair. “The astronaut, you said?” Without waiting for a reply he flips the cover open and finds the correct page. Mirth gone from the trio, everyone calms down and listens as Henry begins to read in a deep, expressive voice.

“The ship rattles and clanks, small pieces of metal machinery and plastic trinkets shaking as the rocket trembles. Out the single small window in the control room a glimpse of the starry sky is visible, always velvety black, and always night. One man sits in this room, watching the sky. The others are all asleep; he can hear their snores in the adjacent room. He can’t sleep. The unending darkness unnerves him too much. A heavy sigh escapes his lips. He turns to go back to his bunk to at least try to sleep. After all, they’ll be landing on the moon tomorrow. The bunk bed tries to rock this man to sleep but the silence outside keeps him awake. He’s always lived in a big city where the bustling traffic honks all night long. In space there’s no sound but for the ship. Instead of sleeping he stares at the ceiling until the alarm goes off, rousing the other astronauts. They all wake, stretch, scratch, and yawn. Then one gives a surprising shout.

“We’re landing today! The moon!” he cries. The others yell excitedly, too, dancing happily around the cramped quarters. “We’re going to visit the moon, today! We’ll walk on the moon!”

The group waltzes out of the sleeping room and into the kitchen, leaving the insomniac alone. One halts on his way out. “Aren’t you coming, Neil?” Neil shakes his head.

“Not hungry.” The other shrugs and then a smile splits his face.

“You will be after a good romp on the moon!” Then he too goes to the kitchen to celebrate some more and eat.

Hours later all eight of the astronauts are huddled in the control room, looking out the window, watching as the moon grows closer agonizingly slowly. It’s been hours since the cheerful breakfast and now they’re all just waiting impatiently for an excuse to put on the whole space suit, radios and everything. Neil stands at the back of the room, staring at nothing in particular. He’s dreaming, almost asleep. For hours he stand like this, nearly asleep while the others murmur amongst themselves.

Then an alarm rings. Lights flash momentarily and a robotic voice echoes through the ship. “All passengers please prepare for landing. Approximately fifteen minutes remaining.” Neil is shocked awake as a herd of astronauts head for the door where he stands. Swept up in the wave, Neil simply allows himself to be floated along. He pulls on his assigned airtight suit in a sort of daze. The rocket begins to shake.

“All passengers to the landing platform,” announces the automated voice and again Neil is carried along with the rest of the bunch and finds himself sitting in a secured chair. Violent shivers wrack the ship and then… nothing.

“Opening doors.” Air pressure being released sounds as the door opens. The astronauts detach themselves from their chairs and tentatively cluster around the opening. Neil remains in his, however, watching blankly as the others murmur nervously. With a sigh, the unemotional man heaves himself out of his chair and makes his way over to the group. They part for him and he strides out onto the moon. As he takes his first step, one of the other astronauts quickly retrieves a camera from a small compartment next to the rows of chairs.

Before turning it on, he whispers, “Remember: ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’”

Dutifully, Neil nods and, as the red light flashes at him, he takes a step and says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The rest of the group suddenly tumble out of the ship, bounding around with huge, weightless steps. An american flag is brought out and planted securely in the ground, some tests are performed, and soon it’s time to go back to Earth.

Everyone crowds back into the ship and, after some tinkering, it leaves the moon behind, heading for home.”

Closing the book with a thud, Henry beams at the woman and child. They stare back with wide, excited eyes.

“Is it true, Papa?” asks Geoffrey as he always does.

Henry laughs, the sound booming around the room. “Of course not. There’s no way anyone could land on the moon. How on Earth could that be possible? No, no, my boy. It’s a wonderful fairy tale.”

“I so wish it wasn’t, don’t you Geoffrey? It would be brilliant! But I know it’s just a fantastic dream,” Lina says. “Now,” she adds, standing and dusting off her dress, “I do believe it’s time for someone to go to bed.”

“Oh, but it’s so early, Mama!” Geoffrey whines, but stands up. She smiles gently and ushers him out the door.

“You have an early appointment tomorrow, though. We were going to walk to Lacey’s house, remember?” Geoffrey pouts but brightens at the mention of Lacey’s name. He runs up the stairs, skipping some. His mother follows much more slowly. Something is on her mind, or rather, tickling at the edges of it. She can’t quite grasp what it is.

With a shrug, Lina lets the thought go. If it was truly important I wouldn’t have forgotten, now would I? She reasons. But still, I feel as if I have lost something crucial. Oh well. I suppose I’ll remember eventually.

“Are you coming, Mama?” calls her darling little boy.

“Yes, Geoffrey. Please be patient, dear. You know my legs have been sorely misused. I had to walk all the way to Lance’s the other day because your father was using the carriage!”

The author's comments:
This is a sort of Ray Bradbury piece, I suppose. I tried to incorporate my own ideas into the sort of work he would write. How did I do?

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