Constantine von Hoffman
Writer, Editor, Researcher, Reporter, Analyst

The Fading Moon

THE FADING MOON

 (Originally published in AtomJack Magazine, 2005) 

“Told you so!” Cholly shouted with a seven-year-old’s self-righteous glee. “I saw it. I saw the pictures.”

“I’d have known about it,” Isaac said with a 10-year-old’s unshakable certainty.

          “I’ll show you,” she said, trying to make it sound like a threat.

          But she saw she wasn’t getting anywhere and she ran to find Da. Isaac followed behind, wanting to know. Da was in the kitchen, where Ma was cleaning up before going to work. The room and all the fixtures in it were light blue like every other room and building in the complex.

          “Da, tell Isaac it’s true.”

“Cholly,” Ma had said, the one word warning her against running into the room so fast, talking so loud. She waved her hand at the video screen floating over the dinner table to lower the volume and lessen the din in the room.

“What’s true?” Da asked.

          “About the men. On the moon.”

          “You mean the man on the moon? He’s a big old guy.” Da always talked slowly, with funny voices and a lot of smiling. All the kids in their building liked him, but he scared Isaac sometimes. He worried about how Da never talked like other grownups. Cholly didn’t remember when Da didn’t talk like this. Isaac did. It was years ago, before he went away to war and they moved here.

          “No, no, nooo. About the people walked on the moon.”

          “Oh, that,” he said,  giving Ma that wink he thought the kids never saw.

          “I’m serious, Da.”

“Where’d you hear something like that?” Ma asked with a hard tone.

          “Mim Jenkins showed me.”

“Showed you what?” She asked sharply.

          “A book. A permanent one. With pictures. People walking on the moon.”

          “How old was this book?” Da asked, stretching the word old like it was something funny.

          “Real old. And the pictures were even older. Maybe hundred years.”

“That’s a long time ago, all right. How did people look then?” Da asked in a voice that swung from high to low mid-word, making Cholly smile.

“Different, they all have this nice shiny skin. And everything’s bigger, the machines and they wear these huge suits when they go outside.”

          “I wonder what they saw up there?” Da asked, distracted by the thought.

          “They saw the earth!” Cholly shouted.

          “You don’t think anybody really went there, do you Da?” Isaac asked, afraid he was losing ground in the fight to be the one who was right.

          “Well, Cholly wouldn’t lie,” Da said.

          “No, but the book might not be true. It might be friction.” Everyone else laughed while Isaac just felt stupid.

          “You’re just mad because I’ve seen it and you haven’t.”

          “Am not,” Isaac said, his voice a little louder.

          “It’s time for you two to go to bed before you start fighting,” said Ma, cutting off the dispute before it really got going. She looked at Da, a little worried. Sometimes, if there was too much noise, he would shiver and stare at his feet, humming loudly until whatever upset him went away. But not tonight. Now, he just sat there, blowing on his soup.

            “I don’t even know why we have that library,” she said. “We’ve got no control over what’s in those permanent books.”

            “Oh, what’s the harm?”

                “At least with normal books you can shut out the stuff you don’t want. You’d think Lucy Jenkins would know better than to let the kids just look at them. She should have to get permission from us or a Council.” She took a deep breath like she did when she was trying to calm down. “The moon. Please.”

          “You think anyone ever went there?” Da asked, getting more and more lost in the idea.

“Maybe, but I doubt it. Why would anyone go? There’s so much to do here,” Ma always talked about what there was to do. “If they did go how come nobody knows about it anymore?”

          “Maybe we just forgot.”

          “Can you imagine wasting all that money?” Ma asked, shaking her head. “How much would it have cost, send someone to the moon?”

“More’n we got,” said Isaac. As soon as the words were out he wanted them back.

          “I thought I sent you to bed,” Ma’s voice cracked across the kitchen.

          “Oh, he didn’t mean anything by it, did you ...”

          “I know what he meant. I heard him say it,” these words came out in a low, almost silent hiss. Ma got angry fast these days.

          “Don’t get upset,” Da said in voice like the kids would give to one of their stuffed toys.

          Ma’s eyes were bright and now she stood up extra straight. “Don’t ... tell ... me ... what ... to ... do,” she took a deep breath between each word.

          Da got up and did a waddle towards her, his arms outstretched for a hug.

          “I don’t want to be cheered up,” she said slowly, through clenched teeth.

          At that, Cholly and Isaac ran out of the kitchen and into their room, not even getting out of their clothes when they slid into bed.

*             *             *

Isaac woke up when Cholly punched him in the shoulder and the first thing he thought of was hating the moon and all this trouble.

 It was early. Ma wasn’t up yet and Da wasn’t home.

They dressed silently, slipping on AllTime jumps. Six months ago, when they were new, the jumps had changed color to reflect or absorb light and the kids could change the insulation density by rolling the dial on the cuffs, just like the ones most other kids had. But Cholly’s and Isaac’s were just cheap Afghani versions and stopped really working after a while. Now they were always an indeterminate hue, his tending toward green and hers a dirty yellow. In winter they needed a couple of layers underneath and were useless in summer, but they were perfect for fall days like today, sunny but getting cold quickly.

          Isaac left a note saying they were going to the library before services, which wasn’t exactly a lie but felt a little like because he really hoped they’d miss church.

                Cholly was so excited she wouldn’t stop talking but Isaac wanted some quiet. So when they got outside he went to the railing and looked as far away as he could and tried to shut out the noise. If he looked left and right he knew he would just see other buildings exactly like theirs: half of a light-blue bee-hive, 40 stories tall. There were eight of them, all sitting in a circle, surrounding a yard covered by a lawn of rubber-based grass, bred to keep itself at just the right height.

Looking straight out from the balcony he saw a lot of committed communities like theirs -- groups of apartment buildings kept together by fences and what everyone in them believed. Ma always told them people in all those other buildings didn’t have Newjeru, didn’t have people they could trust, who would look out for them. Sometimes when she said this, Isaac thought Ma hated those others; other times he thought she was afraid of them.

Cholly tried pulling on Isaac to get him to move but he just ignored her so she tried a question instead.

“What ya looking for?”

“Where we used to live.”

“Can you see it from here?” She asked, suddenly interested and looking in the same direction as her brother.

“I don’t know,” he said. It had been five years ago when they moved here and all he could really recall was that it was smaller.

“What was it like?” Cholly was always curious about it because she didn’t remember it at all.

 “It was just a place,” he said, first a little annoyed but then really trying to say what he knew about it. “It was just a building by itself, not connected to any others. Anyone could live there if they wanted. The neighbors weren’t as nice as here.”

Ma told them nearly every week that they had been lucky to get in here. They could barely afford the rent but had got in because of Da being a vet and because while he’d been gone at war Ma had joined the Newjeru, even though Isaac didn’t think she really believed. Everyone who lived here was Newjeru. That meant going to service every day, having to say “Jeru will be soon,” if someone told you something you didn’t know, wearing the symbol of a black cross and a shooting star and, for the kids, going to the Newjeru school.

          Ma always smiled a lot when they went to services, Da liked the singing and people saying hi to him. Even Isaac could see it was the right place for Da. People talked slow to him and were careful to be quiet when he was around. Respectful, that’s what Ma called it. And everyone looked out for Cholly and Isaac, just like they did for all the kids that lived there. And it wasn’t just when they were going to church or to tell them to keep out of trouble. People would stop and talk to them if they were in the yard and looked sad or play a game with them if they were bored. Newjeru was good that way.

Still, there were a lot of things you had to do that he didn’t think they did where they used to live. Kids went to services before and after school. Hair wasn’t allowed to grow past the top of your ears, boys or girls. The only Vee they got was the Church’s two channels, Devotion and Life, so there was never anything good, just stories from Bible or warning what not to do. He’d heard that sometimes you even got a message calling someone to a Council meeting, but only if something bad had happened. There was a lot of stuff on the grid that you had to get permission to look at.

Everyone seemed to know everyone else here and they were always talking about each other. At least that’s what the Elders must have thought because at least one sermon every week would be on what’s gossiping and what’s helping your neighbor along. Ma warned them about what they said because it would get back to the pastor and get them all in trouble.

Trouble was a word Ma used a lot, as if trouble was a thing waiting to get her. It seemed to follow her everywhere. Trouble waited at the hospital where she worked and worried about keeping her job because of new techs she didn’t have. Never knew when a new program would come along and replace her, she’d say to explain why she was signing up for another class. So she was always studying, saving money for a training to give her one more skill. She said she needed the new skills just to keep the job she had, never mind get ahead. Trouble at home was Da. She was always happier when Da was off at work. He worked nights and they only had one day off in common. It wasn’t much of a job, watching over some cleaning bots, but everybody said it was perfect for Da. Da got to be alone and in the quiet. One time Isaac heard Ma talking to Mem Webster who lived upstairs, saying that a bigger company, one with smarter bots, wouldn’t even have had a job like this. Ma said she was afraid he talked to the bots.

* * *

So Isaac had come to the library, to find out Cholly was wrong. He didn’t like it at all. They were let into the room by Mim Jenkins, who seemed older than anyone he’d ever met. She had very little hair and wrinkles everywhere and smiled at Cholly, but only lowered her eyelids and snorted when she met Isaac. The room was just as scary, huge and dark despite the light blue walls. It had aisles and aisles of shelves reaching to the ceiling where the light bulbs gave off a dim, green light.

Worse yet was finding out Cholly was right. There was the moon and the men on the moon in permanent books. That was scary, too. Almost every book he’d ever seen was printed out then cycled when you were done with it. His parents only had one permanent at home. It was very old. Bible, they called it. Which was the story of God. Isaac wasn’t sure who God was, but knew God was big and dangerous. As much as possible he avoided being alone in the room with Bible. 

But there was the book and there were the pictures. Old, old funny pictures of people with giant suits walking on the moon. Even when they had the helmets off of their suits, they’d looked like nobody he had ever seen. Their faces were white and shiny, like the land they stood on.

“That’s in a desert,” he said, not really believing his own words.

          “Uh uh. It says right here: Lunar landing. That means moon. Besides the name of the book is Voyage To The Moon.”

          “Why don’t they have vids? Something like that they’d have vids.”

          She sighed. “Vid moon, Armstrong 1969.” Saying each word slowly so the grid would understand.

          The lights dimmed and the images flickered in mid-air. Sitting on a cratered landscape washed in white and black, was a strange, spider-like craft that looked like it was made from foil. A man emerged from it, came down a small ladder and bounced across the surface in short, jerky hops. It was unlike anything Isaac had ever seen before.

“There’s a longer one, that shows ‘em getting in the rocket and taking off and all. You wanta see it?”

          They watched for the next hour, until they were late for services. Soon he knew what she meant about their skin. It was brighter than the slightly gray shade that everyone he knew had. He noticed their teeth, too. They were more crooked back then. He could tell because they smiled so much.

          * * *

“Elder, can I ask you about something?” Isaac asked Elder Kerkallis before class began.

“Certainly, Isaac,” said Elder in his whispery voice. The lead teacher and minister for Isaac’s group was tall and thin and younger than Isaac’s parents. Like all ministers he always wore gray robes and a light blue skullcap. Whenever Isaac spoke to him he felt like he was going to get blamed, but then again he pretty much felt that way all the time.

          “What do you know about men going to the moon?”

          The teacher paused and Isaac shuddered, sure he had done something wrong.

          “What a wonderful question,” he finally said. “Have a seat and we’ll all talk about it.”

This only made Isaac feel worse.

“Group,” Elder said loudly, getting the class’s attention, “Mem Chen has asked a very interesting question and I want you to tell me what you know about it. Isaac, would you repeat the question?”

          “Well, we, my sister and I ... we’re looking at this book ... a permanent one see ... and it showed people walking on the moon.” At this the class, as one, snickered, but Elder shot them a look and everyone was quiet again.  “No, really, they had space suits on. And there was vid ... only they called it movie ... about them going up in a rocket from someplace.”

“Florida,” Elder said, which was so reassuring to Isaac that he practically felt his heart start to beat again. “And Mim Ramsey, where is Florida now?”

          “Underwater?”

          “Very good. Continue, Mem Chen.”

          “Well I was just wondering about it, that’s all.”

          “All right then. Have a seat. Can anyone else tell me about these men on the moon?” Elder said the last phrase very sarcastically and Isaac’s spirits dropped to where they usually were.

          “No using your sets,” he added, locking them all out of the grid. “Yes, Mem Borgnan?” He said to the class bully who, as always, was trying to avoid being called on.

          “It didn’t happen.”

          “No? Why not?”

          “I mean why would they? We’d just send bots and they could tell us everything.”

          “Yes, Mim Aust?” He asked to the girl who always had her hand up.

“Besides there’s nothing there, right? It’s just rocks and dust, right?” Her response got extra attention from everyone in the room because she pretty much always went out of her way to attack anything Borgnan said.

          “Oh those were pretty strange times. Maybe they did it for fun. Back then people would sit on top of flag poles for days just for something to do.” The tone in Elder’s voice made Isaac wonder whether or not he was being serious.

          “But why?” she asked.

          “Could be any reason. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that doctors would cut people and spill blood out of them to treat an illness.” At the description the class groaned.

          “They didn’t go,” Mim Aust said, forcing her case.

          “They didn’t?” and the tone in the elder’s voice actually made Isaac feel a little sorry for her. “So you’re saying that on July 20, 1969, after four days in a spacecraft probably smaller than the bathroom in any of our homes, two men didn’t get out and place a flag on the surface of the moon? Is that what you’re saying?”

Silence.

          “I didn’t think so. Because then you, Mim Aust, would be wrong and we all know how you feel about being wrong.” A giggle skittered around the room. “As to why they went ... well Mem Chen will tell us that in his report next week, which will contain all the pictures and vids he told us about.” Isaac’s relief at not being laughed at ended after Kerkallis paused, gave Isaac a long look and added, “And those books, too.”

*     *    *

“What did he say? What did he say,” were Cholly’s first word’s to Isaac when they met up after afternoon services.

          “Not much.”

          “Isaaaaac.”

          “Well, first he made me repeat my question in front of the whole class. And a bunch of people laughed and said I was stupid to say that.”

          “Did you tell them ‘bout the books?”

          “Yes,” Isaac made the single syllable a response to every stupid question he’d ever heard. “Elder Kerkallis knew about it.”

          “Did he say why they went?”

          “No. He said once upon a time people used to sit on top of flagpoles and before that they used to leak blood out of themselves whenever they got sick. And now I have to do a report.”

          “I told my teacher too.” No matter what Isaac said Cholly seemed to think he shared her enthusiasm. “Elder Plotnick said she’d never heard of any such thing, but I told her about the permanent book and she wanted to know all about it. She asked if we’d gotten permission to see it and I told her that Mim Jenkins’ said no one ever looked at them anyhow.”

          Isaac didn’t feel any rush to go home since it was Da’s night to work and he didn’t want to tell Ma about the report. Even though no one had said so, he felt like he had done something wrong. So they went back to Mim Jenkins’ to get the books that Elder wanted, but no one answered the door. Then they went and played in the yard until the sun went down.

          When they got home Isaac spoke his name to the door and it let them in. They immediately heard both their parent’s voices, which meant they were both home, which meant something was wrong.

          “How could you, Justin!” Ma was saying but it wasn’t a question at all.

          “Oh, now Doreeeen,” Da said in one of his comic voices, stretching out the words.

          Isaac knew whatever it was was bad because his parents were using their first names. Cholly had started to walk toward her parents in the kitchen, but Isaac grabbed her and put his hands around her mouth.

          “Justin ... you’ve been fired.”

          “I didn’t get fired ... I got outgraded. The company got bought a few months ago and now the new company is putting in new bots. Say they don’t need me anymore, but they’re giving me a good package.”

          “Why didn’t you tell me?”

          “I just did.”

          “Not that. About the company.”

          “Didn’t want to worry you.”

          “Why shouldn’t I worry? We’re losing a third of our income.” With each sentence Ma’s voice got a little louder, a little faster. Each time it did, Isaac could hear Da’s getting lower and slower. That meant Da was getting upset. And usually that was when Ma would hush whoever was bothering him.

          “But I told you, I’m getting a package. Three months and bennies.”

          “And what do we do after that? What do we do then?”

          “I’ll get something. I’ll get something. People like me. I’m reliable. And companies get vet credit when they hire me.”

          “What are they going to hire you for?” Isaac had never heard his mother scream before. “You haven’t been keeping up with your training! What are we going to do?”

          Just then Cholly wiggled free and ran into the kitchen and started screaming, too. “Ma! Da! It’s all true! It’s all true!”

          “Not now Cholly! Not now!”

          But Da turned in his seat, happy for the distraction. “What’s true, Cholly?”

          “The moon! The moon! The men went to the moon!” She was jumping up and down, flapping her arms at her side.

“Cholly, we don’t care about the moon! Isaac get her out of here!”

          “No, Cholly can stay,” said his father, trying to ignore Ma. “I want to talk to her now.”

“Justin, we’re not done talking yet,” she said and then turned toward her son. “Isaac, you take care of your sister!”

          But Isaac just tried to push himself deeper into the shadow he was standing in and Cholly kept on jumping up and down and screaming, “The moon! The moon! The men went to the moon!”

“Cholly, be quiet! We have to talk about this now, Justin! We have to figure out what we’re going to do. We won’t have enough money to stay here! Where are we going to live? Where are the kids going to go to school? I can’t do it all!”

          Just then, to Isaac’s deepening terror, a screen flashed on over the kitchen table with Elder Kerkalis’s face. “Mim and Mem Chen,” he said with a slight smile, “we will need you at a Council meeting to discuss Mim Jenkins and her library.”

          “The moon! The moon! The men went to the moon!” She was singing it now. The moon! The moon! The men went to the moon!”

          “Shut up, Cholly, shut up!” Ma screamed and threw a glass at her which broke against the wall but Cholly didn’t notice. To Isaac the whole scene moved slowly, like watching that man jump across the moon, every movement surprising for how long it took and inevitable as falling to the ground.

          Da reached across the table, his arm moving in a long, perfect arc until it crushed into Ma’s face. Ma fell onto a counter and then onto the floor, plates and glasses showering around her. Without hesitation, a bot emerged from the wall to clean it up.

          Now Da was screaming so loud Isaac thought it was exploding in his head. “Don’t do that! Don’t ever do that!” And then he knocked over the kitchen table, sending plates and spoons bouncing onto the floor and he grabbed Ma and threw her against the through the air where the Council screen still flickered and against a wall.

          With that, time went from very slow to very fast for Isaac. Tears running down his face, he ran into the room, grabbed Cholly by the arm and jerked her out of the kitchen, out of the apartment, to the hallway where people were looking out of their doors. The neighbors started to ask him something but he just pulled Cholly down flights and flights of stairs and into the big green yard.

          “Look at the moon!” Cholly shouted with a huge joy, as if she hadn’t even seen what their parents had done. It was giant and reddish orange, so big that it seemed to have eaten the sky over their heads. “I want to jump up there and bounce like those men!”

Isaac looked up and then ran again, pulling Cholly after him by the hand.

          “It’s gonna get us!” he said between breaths, only seeing the huge weight bearing down on them, threatening to wipe their world away. He wanted to hide from it. He didn’t want the moon, didn’t want to have told anyone about it, didn’t even want to know it was there. All he wanted was somewhere safe, before it all happened, before war, before Cholly found the moon, before Da hit Ma.

          “No!” Cholly shouted. “It wants to be friends.”

          She wriggled her arm free of his hand so fast he fell onto his back and rolled into the short, rubbery grass. Grabbing at the dirt as if it would cover and protect him, he looked up for Cholly, wanting to bring her to ground with him, to tell her that everything had gone wrong and there was no time for the moon. But she had turned and spread her arms out wider, trying to hold the sky and everything in it. Then she turned back to her brother with the wild look in his eyes.

          “It’s just the moon,” she said, wanting to comfort him.

          

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