August 21, 2017
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‘A View of the Moon from the Moon’ by Matthew L. Kabik was first published in Structo 10, September 2013. Estimated reading time: 11 minutes.
- Author interview
- Editor’s commentary
A View of the Moon from the Moon
Matthew L. Kabik
The weirdest thing was the humming.
Everywhere he went—no matter if it was to the power grid just behind the living quarters or to the bathroom—there it was, somewhere between a small engine and a woman clearing her throat.
The company was concerned at first about how much the humming would bother them. They ran some tests—pointless, considering that they were already on site—but found the hum became familiar and wanted. Now the company was concerned about what it would be like when they came back to Earth. Three years of humming and then nothing. Nevin imagined it’d be the same agitation as when he had to give up cigarettes. Maybe a little worse, as he’d need to listen to a recording of the hum to go to sleep, probably.
The mission itself was routine: travel to the Moon, run a series of simple, repeatable tests for a few universities, and come home. Nevin got the job because of who he knew in the company. It paid well, and it wasn’t like he could spend anything until the end—which worked out wonderfully.
The tests involved two things: how simple welding and jointing was done and held up when performed in microgravity, and the long-term effects of exposure to alternate environments on people. They said humans but Nevin preferred saying people. It made the tests seem friendlier. The first tests on material generally took four or five hours a day, and the human tests occurred once every two weeks. The majority of Nevin’s days remained open.
They did make it a point to test Nevin’s ability to entertain himself. For six months before the trip scientists from the company locked him in with the other two employees to go up. The room was in a warehouse they could also venture into, but doing so required them to put on spacesuits.
They had to share two spacesuits between the three of them, and someone in the group had a habit of spitting in the helmet, which was irritating. Nevin tried to talk to the other two about it, but neither wanted to admit the habit and it led to no-one wanting to go out for imaginary space walks unless the company scientists called on the telecom and told them they had to.
Four months into the test, one of the three lost it. Nevin watched him throw open the hatch door to the room and scream about killing everyone “on board”.
They had to replace that person with a younger man from Kentucky. The company scientists did a few months’ study on whether his drawl would frustrate Nevin and the other employee. Turns out, it decreased blood pressure—like the humming.
The launch and trip to the Moon seemed horrifically boring. Nevin guessed it was supposed to be boring, that was the whole point of training. He and the other two employees were treated like stock: put in place, latched in, and checked on during the trip up. While Nevin didn’t see it, one of the other two employees said the astronauts controlling the ship were assholes.
Alexander told the other two how this wasn’t his first trip up. He’d been on the space station for six months a few years ago. He said the astronauts always treated research teams badly. Instead of just dealing with central command the astronauts had to deal with whatever group the researchers came from, too. Most times, Alexander explained, the groups made everything difficult.
Immediately after they landed and were unloaded, the astronauts left and the tests began. The three spent the first 24 hours on the Moon talking, which made the company, the universities, and the employees very excited to see what would come of three years.
Jonathan was the team lead in the experiment concerning microgravity, with Nevin recording the data and Alexander assisting Jonathan. It was obvious Nevin was there because someone got him the job—but nobody mentioned it. Instead he helped where he could and tried to take meticulous notes.
“You ever think you’d be welding on the Moon?” Nevin asked Jonathan.
“Well I’ll tell you—my cousin did a lot of work near Marinara Trench—”
“Mariana,” Alexander corrected.
“Right, Mariana Trench—that’s 14.3 Nevin—so he did a lot of work welding in that research station they build next to that. Pretty much the same thing as this, right?”
Nevin marked 14.3 on the research documentation and nodded at the comparison. This was like being in the ocean.
“That’s interesting. You notice how the heat of that weld-gun moved itself around the brace there,” Alexander said, “make a note of that would you, Nevin?”
Nevin smiled and wrote down the observation. When they finished the test they walked back silently to the main base, the humming from their helmet speakers accompanying them.
Nevin watched as the other two employees began developing cabin fever. The scientists called it “space fatigue” but he didn’t like the way that sounded. For the most part the tics they had were harmless: Jonathan saw things when he went out for tests, Alexander spent hours staring at the surface hatch. Nevin had begun, 250 days into the experiment, talking in his sleep. Full conversations—complete thoughts and monologues.
It was enough to bring another department from another university in on the experiment. Alexander—the medical technician of the group—performed some tests they wanted on Nevin. That meant more take-home money for the three employees. That made Nevin very popular with Jonathan and Alexander for a few weeks.
He wanted to know what he was saying, but the university students didn’t want to tell him—knowing might change what he said. They asked the other two employees to not tell Nevin either, but they did anyway. It was mostly about Earth things. About the way leaves felt crunching under car tires, and fresh milk. About how the Halloween parade in Hummelstown was better than any other in Pennsylvania.
One night he talked for thirty minutes about the right way of mowing a lawn.
The other two employees admitted it was like TV, which wasn’t allowed. They’d then tell Nevin what he said, and then it was more like radio, which was also not allowed. It made Nevin feel good about what he was providing to the group.
On day 730, they started noticing how used-up everything looked. Every floor panel was scuffed and every glass had fingerprints.
The gray walls seemed to be getting dusty, which was more or less impossible. The brightly colored kitchen table and hatch handles lost color every day. Everything looked the same. The three looked into the recessed lights just to have bursts of color when they looked away.
The outside started blending with the surface, which made Nevin panic when he turned away from an experiment and couldn’t immediately find the familiar, squat structure. He’d panic and see only rocks and mountain ranges and nothing else.
Their clothing smelled oily, which was nice somehow, but didn’t feel comfortable on the skin and made the cloth seem darker and heavier.
It was immediate between the three of them—they needed something new.
It didn’t matter what. It could be a new shirt or a new pair of space boots—a new flavor for the three years’ worth of dinner. It was the first time they felt like something might be wrong.
Alexander told the company about it, and the company told the psychologists. They talked to each of the employees individually and then as a group. The talking made them want something new even more, which frustrated Nevin and excited the psychologists.
The psychologists explained that a marketing firm wanted to utilize their findings on human desire for new things, and that meant the three would be getting a little more on their paychecks at the end of the experiment. But the thought of money made them think of buying, and that made them angry. The psychologists wrote it all down.
The three employees searched the small building for something new—something they hadn’t touched. Alexander looked under each floor panel, Jonathan opened every container. Nevin went through the supply room.
They found a pack of toothbrushes. Alexander decided to put it in the middle of the dining-room table. It was beautiful, and they felt perfectly fine after that.
On day 787, Jonathan lost his Tennessee accent. When he said goodnight to the other two employees it was there, thick and comforting. In the morning it was gone.
The company checked to make sure it wasn’t something wrong in his brain, which it wasn’t. After two days of refusing to talk and one week of trying to fake the accent, he decided to live with it. Nevin and Alexander were just as upset as he was—now all they had was the humming to calm them down.
The employees became so quick at doing the physics experiments they had almost 20 hours each day to themselves. They knew what tools to grab, what measurements to pronounce through the walkie-talkie sounding microphones.
Somebody said the company might make them do more experiments to fill up the day, but that never happened. The employees tried to fill the extra time by playing cards, but they all knew when the others were bluffing, or when they wanted to fold. They knew when the others needed a card or what cards they already had. None of them told the psychologists about that.
Space makes bones go funny. The company and the universities already knew that, but when people live on the Moon their bones go even funnier. The three were supposed to work out for three hours each day to keep their muscles aware they were there, but it was hard to convince themselves to work out when they weren’t really going anywhere.
Nevin—while taking a spectrometer out of its case and handing it to Jonathan—broke his wrist. He heard the small pop echo through his suit, travelling from his wrist up his arm into his ears. It was such a foreign sound that he was scared his suit had torn, because he didn’t feel anything. He took the medicine Alexander gave him and let the wrist stay wrapped until healed, but he felt nothing other than the inconvenience of having a bandage on.
On day 1004, the employees were checking on a test concerning the oxidation of welded material in the Moon’s environment. Alexander said he needed to step away from the experiment to stretch his legs.
When he was far enough away that he looked like a toy, Alexander waved to the other two. They waved back. Jonathan clicked on his microphone and told Alexander that he’d better come back to finish the experiment. Alexander didn’t respond, he just waved again and continued hopping away from Jonathan and Nevin.
They thought about calling out to him, but as Alexander hopped away his microphone began humming into their helmet speakers. It was loud and surrounding and perfect, so they finished the test and went back to base. It was comforting to them—like the other humming but better.
On day 1005 the company’s psychologists and the universities called the employees for the tests on exposure of long-term environments on people. The employees took their places for the beginning test: overall feelings, concerns, and observations.
When the camera clicked on and the employees saw the two miniature images that the company psychologists and universities were seeing, Nevin realized something was wrong.
“Where is Alexander?”
“He went for a walk,” they said.
“He went for a walk, but he came back.”
“Who came back?”
“Well, where is Alexander then? We don’t see him on any of the cameras.”
“Oh,” Jonathan said.
“I guess he didn’t come back,” Nevin said.
“You left Alexander out there? When? How long ago?”
“Yesterday before we went to bed.”
A company psychologist covered their camera and the university’s camera turned off completely. When the company’s camera was uncovered the employees’ managers and managers’ manager were there. The manager’s manager asked Nevin to explain what happened.
So Nevin explained what happened, and after another pause the employees were told the experiments were over, and that they were going to be picked up and brought back to Earth within a week.
The employees were excited about this, and Nevin stood up to go organize his things. Jonathan asked if he should let Alexander know, but the company didn’t answer him. Instead they said they’d be in touch in a few days to let them know final arrangements.
When Nevin packed his jeans into the single backpack of personal items they were each allowed to bring, he realized Alexander was dead. He repeated Alexander’s broad wave in his mind, his hopping away, and the humming static of the microphone. Nevin wondered if Jonathan was realizing the same thing—or if he should tell him that Alexander was dead somewhere on the surface of the Moon. He decided it best to wait until they were on the ship with the astronauts.
On day 1010 Jonathan asked Nevin if they should open up the package of toothbrushes.
Jonathan handed Nevin one, and held two more in his hand.
“Oh God,” he said, his hand beginning to shake, “Oh God.”
Jonathan and Nevin sat in the dining room looking at the outside hatch. Jonathan said something about getting a cheeseburger as soon as he landed on Earth, and when he said it, Nevin heard the long drawl of a man from Nashville. It made them both very happy.