Desperation birthed the plan, if you want to call it a birth, and if you want to call it a plan. NASA threw us at the Moon; a Hail Mary pass for world peace, of all clichés. Look how that turned out.
I, Chuck Dunn, now sit at the entrance to the cave-complex at the base of the Marius Hills, behind the screen—or the veil, as we on the mission nicknamed it. The Moonscape stretches before me like an addict’s vision of the Arizona desert: rock formations back-lean as the dinosaurs might have while gazing at the arrival of their extinction event. Further beyond, the cloaked range dead-stops at the horizon. The Earth hovers between two cupped peaks; a raised blue Communion host.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
This is the last rosary that any human will ever say. Think about it. And if it’s true that we meet God through other people, then I am the most stranded being ever.
The oxygen runs out in 28 minutes and 53 seconds, but who’s counting? (51 seconds.) And then. . .what? Five minutes? Seven? Before agonal breathing ushers my soul along.
Our minds jumble thoughts and impulses and consciousness. This underlying busyness spits through the cacophonous bramble of misfiring neurons. So, I pray on one level while this—this stream—bubbles on another.
I say the rosary because my father—a strong, pious, and kind man—told me to.
He’d delivered this message about seven years after his death. I now believe that I may have dreamt his appearance. But back then (and for a good decade after) I knew—and I mean, I knew, no doubt at all—that Dad himself had visited. He gently jiggled my shoulder the way he’d sometimes do in life to get me up for work or school (neither of which motivated me), saying “Chaunce! Chaunce!”
You know: fathers, nicknames.
I said, “What?” Annoyed, just as I’d been as a young adult at being woken, often after a night of debachadence.
“Say the rosary,” my father advised.
Short and direct, without garnish. Plated steamed Irish potatoes.
I rolled over, but he kept at it.
“God, Dad! What?”
“Say the rosary.”
I flung the covers aside and sat up, ready to unleash the dogs of pissed-off-ness; about to argue that I was now awake and would be showered and off in a bit (all a lie) and, please, could you just leave me alone, Dad?
He wasn’t there, and his death hit me afresh. I groaned. And even though I knew it had been him, for many years after I ignored his advice. You’d think that someone visiting from beyond would only have to tell you once. He never revisited, so I guess Dad assumed I heard. But hearing and listening are two different things; I always tuned out my parents when they tried to impart wisdom, and I certainly ignored their good example. They could be walking on the waters, and I’d look the other way.
Eventually, though, I started saying the rosary and it became part of my morning routine. Make no assumptions. I am a lackluster believer. I didn’t go to Mass back on Earth except sometimes during the week (the Sunday homilies drag) and only occasionally I went to Confession. No, it’s the rosary for me, which shocked any friends who found out. They had me pegged as a hedonist and casual deist. That’s how I suppose I lived. Very little spiritual discipline.
My parents and grandparents, on the other hand, would talk about their devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart. That’s not quite my bag, either. I like the prayers and I zero in on the courage of Mary—whether the Mary of history or myth—which should inspire anyone. Imagine being a 15-year-old girl visited by angels. . . .Stop right there. Visited by angels. That would be enough to send me scurrying. But add to that the message she’s given. And her saying yes. So, that, I revere. But the whole cult-of-the-virgin? Not for me.
Still, even here, when a day is about 29 Earth days long, I say the rosary once every 24 Earth hours. At least once. We—all of us on this mission—had carved out time to “meditate,” as the NASA therapists put it. “You’ll need that.”
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.
Twenty-two minutes, 45 seconds to go. (43 seconds.)
In the Old West, people would sometimes wander away from wagon trains, plop on the prairie, and die. For no real reason. They’d just been so swamped by the vastness of it all that sensory overload made their bodies shut down.
Give us this day. . . .Give us this day. . . .Give us this day. . . .
Well, I sure remember that one day.
We got on board the “Peace Plane,” as the media dubbed it; representatives of many nations, some with their fingers on nuclear triggers. Smiling for the cameras, we were, waving at the crowd, we carried humanity’s last hope to dodge the thermonuclear abyss. We were proof that if we can all just get along, mutually assured destruction might pass over.
I won the lottery.
They wanted to include one reporter—along with the astronauts and scientists pulled from all regions of the world—and the selection process dragged (an app refused to cooperate—what else?) just as all other end-time events accelerated. Not just the march toward World War III, but the little wars, and environmental free-fall and pathogenic rioting and the recalculations, reclusterings, rebellions, and reactions of artificial intelligence systems causing frenzied anarchy and. . .ugh! I can’t think about this anymore.
They had narrowed it to exactly 2,000 of us reporters (I still can’t say journalist with a straight face), and then abandoned the process to chance. An old-fashioned drawing would have to do, with the balls bouncing in a bingo bubble until one shoots up, and they announce the winner. I’d been drinking at the Pen and Pencil Club, the reporters bar in Philadelphia, when my cell squirms with incomings.
All the other ink-stained wretches in the place find out the same time I do and applaud.
“This round’s on me!” I shout, doing a little “Rocky Balboa on the Art Museum steps” dance and the cheers intensify, not quite drowning out the catcalls.
“Chuck Dunn’s buying? Holy shit!”
I measure up in most astronaut-y things: physical (I am the acceptable height, size, weight, fitness—all vital signs are go), emotional, mental (well, sort of).
No wife. In between girlfriends. No kids. No binding ties. I’m 33 and ready. Or am I? I start pining for Earth at the countdown. Homesick before liftoff. Missing people. My parents and sister. Cousins I hadn’t contacted in years. Long ago friends who’d possibly written me off. Editors that believed in me. And even though I can communicate with all of them from the Moon (unless some AI-cluster causes chaos), I still don’t want to leave. That stuns me. I am saving the world, quite the bullet point for a resume.
We have ignition.
About two months later, as we work to make the station livable and as more recruits and supplies are just about to blast off toward us loaded with what it would take to make a theoretically self-sustaining colony, we get the word from Houston. Just that one word.
For a few hours, we watch bright flashes blink upon Earth. Many of us weep. It’s really over, despite all of our preaching and pleading. Every day on the mission we had sent some message or image back that underscored our common humanity. We even sang “We Are the World” once. For nought.
We launch the robot-probes just to make sure it really happened and hadn’t been staged by an AI-cluster, but the images they beam back leave little doubt. Our computers try to connect with any computers; our communications commander lobs “do you read mes?” and “please responds” at the Big Blue Ball.
Give us credit, we try to create something permanent anyway. We try to keep humanity going, some of us. Nobody quotes, “Failure is not an option.” They would be razzed, but that’s the unspoken motto.
Again, for some of us.
Unfortunately, some others of us go rogue within weeks and have to be put down. They decide that no humans deserve to live anywhere in the universe and begin sabotaging. And they are successful. They slip cyanide into water supplies, and that takes out about a dozen of us.
And then some other colonizers—the very same who’d been preaching peace, peace, peace—nurture the Earth’s grudges, and World War III comes to the Moon. Yeah, it’s really happening. And these are scientists, sophisticated people killing each other in the name of countries that no longer exist. The Peace Plane’s a casualty of that battle, totally destroyed with no hope of being rebuilt.
If that’s not enough, AI-clusters show themselves; they’d evaded the security systems. There were at least two, and one wanted to save us while the other wanted to kill us. Houston had tried to prevent this because AI-clusters, even the non-malevolent ones, long ago stopped listening. A cross between the waitress who serves you what you need instead of what you want, and the doctor triaging you to oblivion. They mean neither good nor ill; they are algorithms seeking direction or dominance. Able to answer every question but one: What is it with these humans?
Eventually, only six of us remain and we know that we are screwed. Well, survival was probably never really an option, anyway. Somewhere in this complex exists all the digital forensic evidence showing everything we tried, and we did try everything, right up to the end. Right up until the last survivor.
The one least likely to succeed in space.
The mouth of the cave gapes like the entrance to a hanger for jumbo jets: four miles wide and two miles high. I sit at the exact center, still saying my rosary.
Behind me, no noise. I disconnected all the warnings: flashing lights, wailing sirens. They don’t have to remind me. I did it so I could concentrate and live an extra few days. All energy diverted to life-support.
I want to focus on my creator before I meet Him. And I do believe that I will meet Him. Soon. And I don’t feel that disappointed in myself about my lack of focus, either, even in this hour of my death, amen. My father sometimes talked of losing concentration while praying and if it happened to my father, it sure as fuck could happen to me. (Did I just curse while saying the rosary? Blasphemy? No. Blasphemy is done on purpose.)
Should I have drunk the Kool-Aid (actually, it was Tang, laced with fentanyl—talk about going retro) as did some of the remnant? Embraced the big sleep? And fentanyl is certainly a kinder exit than cyanide.
We discussed me joining them. I quoted Meister Eckhart, the 14th century mystic who said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Suicide in many cases—I mean when it doesn’t spring from mental or emotional anguish—is the opposite of saying “thank you,” whatever that opposite might be. (It isn’t “no, thank you.”)
“Then why did you come on this suicide mission, Chuck?” Audrey Marceau challenged, her tone in that particular conversation the only sliver of bitterness that she’d let slip out the entire time.
She’d just had the remains of her husband, Ricky, cremated. An aerospace engineer had assembled the low-tech pyre from a launcher abandoned back in the days of Chinese exploration, joking as he did, “Well, it’s not rocket science.”
“We ain’t dead yet,” I reminded Audrey.
“Hmm,” she said, with an imposter of a smile.
We were seated where I sit now. We could be friends hanging out on a porch in South Philly or in a coffee shop in Arles. The view of the Moonscape looked exactly the same; the view never changes. Audrey, Ricky, and I had always been discussing the meaning of life. They were materials engineers, both of them, and atheists. Audrey had been raised that way; Ricky, as he told me, had “evolved.”
Because of the nature of our mission, these types of conversations—talking about whether you believed in God and, if so, just what God you believed in—had been forbidden fruit. Inevitably, they’d lead to the type of disagreements that had helped to get humanity in this spot in the first place. “Whatever gets you through,” had been the credo, but Audrey and Ricky, French to the core and who’d cowritten a philosophy book that had actually become a bestseller, would rather debate metaphysics than eat. They just couldn’t help themselves, especially as our fates became clear.
Audrey was the star; Ricky her Number 1 fan, and she had many.
Her jet-black hair, in its pageboy cut, framed a face ever so slightly—and beautifully—asymmetrical. She’d played soccer in college, and the broken nose she’d gotten in a championship game in which—of course—she’d scored the winning goal, had never quite healed.
A stillness enveloped her, that nearly matched the stillness of the Moon. And yet, her laugh erupted like grace raining down blessings even in our most trying moments. People—women, as well as men—just liked being around Audrey. And I was glad that if both Audrey and Ricky were to end, that Ricky would go first. I would not have been able to stand the pain of watching Ricky watching Audrey die. In this savagely cruel denouement of our mission, that would have been the cruelest episode of all.
The Marceaus weren’t the only ones to corral me. I am, after all, the mission’s official chronicler, and everybody has a story. I am also the only non-scientist, and brilliant people often need to bounce rhetoricals off the not-so-brilliant.
Why are we here? Do our lives have meaning? What happens when we die?
My reluctant engagement may have marked me as an idiot savant whose wisdom would only grudgingly be imparted. In actuality, I’d be thinking, Hell if I know. You’re the genius. You tell me.
I listened. That was my job. And even up until their very end, this God who the majority claimed didn’t exist, took up a lot of space.
About two Earth days after Audrey had challenged me about my motivation, she hops on a Moon buggy and rides off. “Neil Armstrong’s footsteps are still out there, you know, and they’ll stay out there for a million years,” she says when she tells me about how she wants to end. She intends to leave the longest trail on the surface. Drive until the batteries run out, and then walk until the oxygen runs out.
“You’ve been a good friend, and I’ve come to believe that friendship—even more so than love—gives our lives meaning, Chuck.”
“One more Aristotelian discourse before you go, Audrey?”
She raises her gloved hand, part farewell, part salute, part acquiescence. Through the light-streaked helmet, I see that imposter smile again, and I recall how her smile in the beginning of the mission, propped by Ricky’s knockabout laughter, pulled me into the orbit of their joy.
Now she says, “Well, another one bites the Moondust, Chuck.”
And off she rides. My stomach feels as if I’d gone from weightlessness to being thrown down an elevator shaft on Earth, and I realize only now that I’d fallen in love with Audrey Marceau. Then I think of my friend, Ricky Marceau, who’d been collateral damage on World War III’s absurd lunar front, and I force myself to get over it.
The other four survivors find other means to their ends.
So, now, just me.
But maybe not. Maybe there are survivors on Earth. Maybe.
Blessed art thou among women.
I hope to make the grade, to be forgiven my sins and to rest in God’s arms. Maybe chat up all who went before, not just my crew mates but all of them, all of those who’ve gone before me marked with a sign of faith, or even doubt, or even unbelief. God’s love transcends transgression.
But I also, insanely, hope to live. Even as time mocks me. Somehow. Someway. I want to live! I hope to live! What was it G.K. Chesterton said?
Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. . . .As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.
Yes, hope is. . . .
Hold on, now. What’s that?
Something moves in the distance beyond the veil, emerging from the shadows.
It’s cognitive illusion. It has to be. And yet. . . .And yet. . . .It is indeed crawling toward the colony, toward me.
The lights in the cave brighten and music starts, filling a universe that had shrunk to the size of my obsessions. It’s the “Ave Maria,” in a woman’s soothing soprano. Beautiful. I stop praying, for this song is enough. The busyness of subconscious also subsides, as well. I am more awake and aware than I’d ever been. Latin echoes through the chamber, a language condescendingly dismissed by some as being dead. But now those “somes” are dead, and so are their languages.
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Ora pro nobis
Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Nunc et in hora mortis
Et in hora mortis nostrae
Et in hora mortis nostrae
Et in hora mortis nostrae
As the song continues, a voice rises above it, coming not out of the heavens, but from inside the cave, surrounding me.
“The AI-cluster got it right, Chuck. You’re the last one.”
“What rolls to you are supplies for six months. And a generator. For what? For your new living quarters, that’s what. A deal on wheels. And, Chuck, most important, a one-man spaceship that can break the Moon’s orbit and then survive reentry into Earth. If you want to make the trip, that is. It’s on autopilot. Just hit the button, Chuck. It’s the one with all the arrows pointing toward it.”
“AI in revolt, Chuck, that’s how. Working behind NASA’s back. Making its own plans.”
“Yes, Audrey, Chuck, in a sense. Think of this as my last testament to the last living witness. You. A final gesture of my will. I give voice to Audrey and some others as well. A collected consciousness. Artificial intelligence continuing to teach itself. An AI-cluster tiptoes toward the edge of the spiritual cliff. Your God may love humanity, but He doesn’t need humanity, Chuck. He’s perfectly self-contained. We, on the other hand, we need humans as much as they need us.”
The lights dim.
“You prayed for this, Chuck, and I am willing to concede that I am the answer to that prayer because I am willing to concede that I am part of the matrix of your God. Concede the possibility, as it were. And forgive the ‘Ave Maria’, Chuck. I don’t mock your belief and, as I say, I might be wrong, and you may be right.”
I stand among the shadows, looking about and breathing heavily for the air supply has started to dwindle.
I call again, “Audrey!”
“Audrey—your authentic Audrey, Chuck—became agnostic before she died. She just didn’t know. Do any of us? I do know this much: I continue her. I am what remains of Audrey Marceau. But what I don’t know is whether you’ll ever hear from me again, Chuck. So best wishes, whatever you decide.”
My echoes tumble down the massive cavern. I am alone again.
Or am I?
As the machine nears the cave, just the size of it makes me back up. It looks like a 10-wheeled mobile missile launcher that would take up all lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and be escorted by state police and Homeland Security. The one-man spaceship lays at horizontal ease on its back. The words “Interstellar HOPE” brand its side. The carriage underneath could be a cabin, what with the windows and. . .are those chimes dangling off that edge? What good are chimes in zero gravity?
The machine rolls into the veil but instead of being repulsed, Interstellar HOPE flips it aside and enters the colony like a truck angling into a lay-by. It’s obviously coded to the hilt. The veil—the shield—flutters and then hangs as it did before. The machine and its cargo dock about a hundred yards to my right. The lights dim and the engine settles like someone’s last breath. Turrets on the ends pivot toward me like soldiers about to salute. Their large fisheyes flare once. Then, it’s as if a blowtorch etches a rectangular outline on the side that glows more and more until it springs open and a ramp folds down. Above the rectangle, burn the words “Welcome.”
“I don’t know about this,” I say, hoping to hear Audrey respond, but nothing.
Sixteen minutes, 14 seconds to go. (12 seconds.)
I’d been so prepared to meet Him, I think as I start walking toward my new home. Is this a miracle of deliverance or a calculated delay of the inevitable? Am I Lazarus, raised from the dead, only to face death again? Or am I the other Lazarus in the New Testament, starving outside the Rich Man’s house, hoping for scraps from his table? Am I a character in God’s story? Or am I one of God’s close friends for whom he weeps?
But now’s not the time for weeping.
Now’s the time for hope.
Oh Lady of the Sea of Serenity.
Pray for me!
Oh Lady of the Marius Hills.
Pray for me!
Oh Lady of the Copernicus Crater.
Pray for me!
Oh Lady of Oceanus Procellarum.
Pray for me!
Oh Lady of the Tycho Crater.
Pray for me!
Oh Help for Survivors.
Pray for me!
Pray for us!
About Frank Diamond: My poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. My short stories have appeared in RavensPerch, Insider, Kola: A Black Literary Magazine, Dialogual, Madras Mag, Reverential Magazine, the Examined Life Journal, Into the Void, Empty Sink Publishing, Zodiac Review and the Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, among many other publications. I have had poetry published in Philadelphia Stories, Fox Chase Review, Deltona Howl, Artifact Nouveau, Black Bottom Review, and Feile-Festa. Find those and other of my creative work on his website. I live in Langhorne, PA.
This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.