Fiction

The First Expedition

Life on the Moon is perfect — until it isn’t

Nina Benkowitz White stepped out into the bright Moon air. The Moon, the good old Moon! The journey had felt longer than she’d expected, but what had she expected, really, and why? They had made it through the nothingness and into now. The travelers had all been put into stasis, not that the moon flight took that long, but just, as the guide explained, so that they would arrive at Moon Colony EM1 well-rested and pre-equilibrated, their fluid levels and gravity adjustments taken care of mechanically. Now she felt fresh, better-rested than ever, as if her cells had each been individually massaged, plumped, given tiny face masks full of perfect dollops of snail mucin. Her limbs felt loose and free, her back released from its usual Earth-bound cramp. She stretched and laughed, that’s how good she felt, as if she didn’t have a body anymore at all.

Her fellow travelers followed her out onto the grass. They were scientists, astronauts, wealthy investors who had helped to bankroll the hugely expensive undertaking, along with a pair of determined retirees who had saved up for passage. Nina had been the only one — Nina, who had never won a thing in her life, not a dollar in the lottery or a gift basket in a raffle — had been the one ordinary civilian to win a spot on the expedition. She knew it was all PR for the Moon Shuttle Agency, but who cared. Here she was, the sweet Moon breeze flicking her hair.

They’d kept images of Moon Colony EM1 under wraps since announcing its construction five years earlier. She supposed it was to build the hype. There would be teasers now and then — an advertisement full of dreamy music and sexy Moon-from-Earth shots — but really, despite the feverish media attention to the project, no one knew what to expect. Earth hadn’t been in such hot shape since the Wars, and Nina was sure she wasn’t the only Earthling to have been living in her online world more often than venturing out lately. Anyway, whatever Nina had expected was now erased from her mind, leaving only the thought: It certainly hadn’t been this. This was no bubble full of trapped atmosphere, no sterile space station. It was more like, well, a beautiful sculpture park.

Nina wandered off, dazed by the sun on her face and the springy give of the meadow beneath her feet. She heard a voice and her attention snapped back to the guide, who, on the Earth side of the journey, seemed humorless, grim, brimming with rules and orders. The guide now smiled and waved a hand. “Go on! Explore!” Nina padded off, only vaguely registering the rest of what the guide said, something about when they should meet up again for their first meal. The fellow travelers wandered off in different directions. Nina forgot about her luggage on the shuttle, and her promise to video-chat with Rich as soon as she arrived. Here she was, on the Moon. One of a handful of humans to ever be there. The enormity of it prickled her skin like hives.

The grass spread out ahead of her, an electric shade of green carpeted over the rolling hills. Abstract sculptures dotted the landscape: a giant red arachnid; a series of steel stripes. But who had — ? Nina couldn’t even articulate in her own mind what her questions were. Past the meadow, a footbridge crossed a bubbling stream. Nina traversed the wooden planks.

Now she found herself on a charming Main Street. How in the world they had managed to build this entire town? She couldn’t comprehend. And it was all so well done — sparked in her chest the exact joy she’d always felt visiting the Door County town where they’d summered when she was small. Cherry blossoms bloomed pinkly on the trees. A bee buzzed lazily past Nina’s ear. A breeze released a rain of pale petals — the kind of spring petal shower that always reminded Nina of the birthday picnic they’d had when she turned 20, and the way her best friend Maddy had appeared with a perfect pie in a basket, a tote bag clinking with chilled wine bottles. Someone she could no longer remember had found a four-leaf clover and had given it to Nina to keep.

Storefronts, awnings unfurled coquettishly, lined the road. There was a coffee shop with a chalkboard out front offering matcha lattes and a witty, vaguely life-affirming slogan. There was a souvenir store full of snow globes. She could see through the window rows of mason jars full of cherry preserves and stacks of Door County cherry pies. In the distance, somehow, someone sang a song she hadn’t heard in ages: “I can feel the magic floating in the air…” Nina thought she might weep. Back home on Earth — but it already seemed so distant, in both time and space, who even wanted to think about it? Familiar smells invaded her nose: fudge cooking at a candy shop; the watery, fishy scent of Lake Michigan; sunscreen smeared on the arms of children. Down there was an alley with strings of umbrellas strung across, creating rainbow-dappled shade. Down here was a painted wall, its friendly mural blaring a message of goodwill and peace. Her fingers itched for her phone — she had to post about this! — but she found her pocket empty. Of course, her devices were all still locked in her luggage in the belly of the shuttle. Oh well. She’d wander for a minute, and then come back to record it all.

Nina was amazed. It was as if they had taken everything great about Earth from just before the Wars and recreated it there in the tepid Moon gravity. No wonder they hadn’t shared any pictures! Nothing compared with the experience of being there.

And then, incredibly, she heard a familiar voice. “Nina! You’re here!”

She spun around in the middle of the road — no vehicles yet, of course — and stood in stunned silence. “This can’t be,” she breathed.

Maddy stood on the hillock by the movie theatre, waving her hand.

“Maddy? Is that — how are you here?” Nina wiped the wet from her face.

“We’ve all been waiting!”

Maddy hadn’t changed at all, somehow, though she was a bit more stout, her hair a more brassy shade of red now that its color was boosted. She held in the crook of her arm a bouquet of peonies. Nina thought she might faint. She ran to Maddy’s side. “How are you — Maddy, how are you here? Were you on the ship? How could I not have seen you?”

Maddy laughed. “Come here, I’ll explain in a minute.” After a brisk hug, enveloping Nina in the scent of the gardenia lotion that she had been hawking online a few years back — Nina had never bought any of the cosmetics Maddy was trying to sell, she thought guiltily, even after she sent free samples — Maddy turned and ran down the hill to a small park. A gazebo stood in the center of the park and in the center of the gazebo a band played — just like the band that had played the 4th of July parade every year back home in Wisconsin — a jolly ragtime tune. Nina blinked, pushed at her leaking eyes with trembling fingers.

Arranged on blankets in the grass were the oddest assortment of people she could imagine. There were her cousins from North Dakota, with whom Nina had lost touch after the contentious election that had them all arguing on social media. They turned and waved happily when they saw her. Beside them sat a group of kids she’d gone to high school with. Of course, they were older now, but they still wore their varsity jackets. Near the gazebo, some women were dancing to the music, and when they turned to wave Nina saw that they were the ladies she privately referred to as the mom mafia, the PTA queens who strolled the neighborhood clad in high-tech athleisure wear, touting a shifting array of wellness schemes. But the group Maddy was leading her toward... Nina was overcome. Here they were, the exact friends who had assembled on her 20th birthday, the very moment when she’d thought, this is what my adult life will always be, sunny and happy and vibrating with quiet excitement, and even — could it be true? — the same faded quilt someone had found at a thrift store in their college town. Her best friends after Maddy — Angela and Catherine — and Marco, with whom she had been maddeningly, distractingly in love, and Tobias, who everyone knew was maddeningly, distractingly in love with her. They were there, with the most beautiful spread of bread and cheese and jam and apples, and they were all so, so glad to see her. Petal rain dumped on her, nearly a squall.

Nina thought she had never been so happy in her entire life. She felt transformed into a balloon of emotion, giddy as helium, light as Earth air. How can this be? she wondered, and then she managed to say out loud, “How can this be?”

A stampede of children ran by, all dressed in stripes.

“We wanted to surprise you!” said Maddy, as if that explained anything.

“But…” said Nina. Maddy giggled and pulled her down beside her, and Nina found herself flat in the grass, the softest greenest most fragrant grass, like grass-scented perfume. How she had missed grass. Who would have thought the Moon was covered in tufts of luscious grass, juicy as pre-Wars Wisconsin?

“Wait.” Nina sat up. “Okay, wait.” They looked at her expectantly. Tobias smiled as if he already agreed with what she hadn’t yet said. “Wait, where’s — the other guy. Wasn’t there another guy? He came to the picnic and found a four-leaf clover, but we lost touch with him. He was never online.” Her friends smiled. Nina shook her head. “No, that wasn’t my point, that wasn’t what I was going to say. Okay, here’s the thing. How did you guys all get here? I thought I was on the first Moon Shuttle for civilians! I mean, I was!”

“Fake news!” shouted one of the North Dakota cousins. Nina watched Kieran lumber close, his skin ruined from the combination of ranching and disbelief in sunscreen. He was shaking his big yellow head. “That is fake news. No such thing as the Moon.”

“Sorry, Kieran, what?” Nina peered into the sky. There in the distance was the bright marble of Earth, impossibly far away. Her stomach contracted.

“It’s all photoshop and soundstages, no one ever landed on the Moon, no Moon Colony EM1 was ever built. Liberal media lies!”

“So then, where are we right now?” Nina asked slowly as if speaking to a fractious child. Maddy and Tobias snorted along with her.

But Angela put a hand on her arm. “I heard,” she said, and her voice had changed over the decades, which made sense, but still gave Nina a start. “I heard,” she said, “that it’s super bad for you to be in Moon gravity. The radiation from space and the low grav are terrible for wrinkles.”

“Oh man,” said Nina, touching her jawline self-consciously.

Angela pressed a vial of essential oil into her hand. “This helps,” she said confidentially.

The band started up again, playing the same song they had just played, Nina now realized, three or four times before. She took a last sad look at the perfect apple pie Maddy was beginning to slice, carefully, on its jadeite stand, and the cappuccino Catherine seemed to have obtained out of nowhere, a teddy bear grinning in the foam. Then Nina stood. “I’m sorry guys,” she said, “I’ll be right back. I forgot something, ah, back on the shuttle.”

She walked away quickly, her eyes hot with tears. “I get it,” she said sadly to herself as she retraced her steps down Main Street. “I’ve lost my mind. Something happened on the shuttle, or when I was in stasis or something, and I’ve gone insane. Because this is — it makes no — ” and that was when she ran directly into a woman standing in her path. Nina looked up, cried out. “Mom!”

Her mother stood calmly, wearing a silvery-white tunic, a corsage on her wrist, like a prom queen in heaven. “Hi, sweetie.”

“Mom! But — I haven’t — you aren’t — ” Nina hugged her mother, afraid she would dissolve in her arms. But she didn’t, her mother was her mother, and as soft and small-boned and gentle-voiced as ever, and her mother hugged her back, and even stroked her hair. Nina curled into her, closed her eyes. Then she pulled back, her hands on her mother’s shoulders. “Mom. Listen. I think I’m going insane. I was supposed to go to the Moon, I won this contest, and then I got on the shuttle, and they put me in stasis, and when I woke up — this isn’t how I thought it would be at all. Oh god, Mom, did I — did I die? Because you — no offense Mom but — ” Nina almost choked on her words — “You’re dead, Mom. You died three years ago. You’re not — you couldn’t really be on the Moon.”

Her mother smiled and shook her head. “No, sweetie. You know, your cousin Kieran sent me a really interesting article a while back when they first announced Moon Colony EM1 and it seems like they weren’t actually building anything at all — ”

Nina broke away from her mother and ran down Main Street. Now she was sure she must be dead and in heaven or something because she ran and ran and her knees didn’t ache and her breath didn’t catch. She had to get back to the shuttle. She needed her luggage and her phone and she needed to contact Rich and find out if she was dead or what. He was right, she shouldn’t have accepted the prize.

The shuttle ticked on the landing pad like her parents’ station wagon in the driveway back home after a long road trip. The guide stood leaning against the Moon Welcome Center kiosk, sucking on an e-cigarette and squinting at her. “Yes?”

A few of the other travelers had also returned from their initial explorations and milled around uncertainly. Nina grabbed the arm of one of the retirees. “What’s going on here? Doesn’t this seem strange to you?”

The old man startled, pulled his arm away. “It seems great. It seems absolutely fantastic. How did they do it? I just found a baseball diamond exactly like the one where my grandson plays Little League.”

One of the investors, who on the shuttle had been bragging loudly about bankrolling the entire Science Center they were said to have built first, chimed in: “They’ve done beautiful work here! Outstanding! Over that way, you wouldn’t believe the landscaping, exactly like the national park where my buddies and I go fishing every summer. It’s gorgeous! And here, we’d all been thinking the Moon would be barren and dull.”

“Rocks and craters,” chimed in another of the investors, a woman whose angles were so sharp she made Nina nervous. “That’s what we all thought, right? Just gray dust everywhere. I’ll admit it, that’s what I expected.”

The retiree nodded. “But no, it’s beautiful.” He took a deep breath. “That air! It’s spectacular! I can’t believe how comfortable I feel here!” The others laughed in agreement.

“Okay,” said Nina. “But you guys. Listen. Take a step back. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd? Doesn’t it seem odd that all the construction being done on the Moon Colony in the last five years would be so specific to us? As if someone had read our minds?”

“Fake news!” the retiree chuckled. “Telepathy is a liberal plot.”

More of the travelers were returning to the shuttle landing pad now and crowded around. Nina had never been comfortable as the center of attention, but this felt urgent. She turned to the retiree. “You sound like… you sound like a social media feed. Wait. Wait a minute.” She looked over to where the trip guide had been loitering, but no one was there. “Like I feel like — I was over there, that way,” she gestured to the sculpture park, where a couple was now strolling, hand in hand, a small dog romping at their feet. A dog? “And it all felt so familiar, but like a combination of all these different parts of my life. It was — it was like — it was like exactly what someone would think my life was like if they only looked at my social media feeds. You know?” Nina appealed to one of the scientists, who just frowned at her. “Can’t you all see? We’re being tricked somehow! We can’t — we’re not on the Moon!”

Now a new guide, someone Nina hadn’t seen before, appeared at her elbow, and held it firmly. “Oh, Nina!” the guide said familiarly. “You must be exhausted!”

Nina shook her head. “You — okay, it’s like a mind control thing. Is that it? You recreated simulations of a world based on our social media feeds, hoping we’d love it so much we wouldn’t notice you hadn’t actually successfully created a colony? Is that it? Are we actually on the Moon? Are we still on the ship? Did we ever leave Earth?”

Everyone laughed. “Oh, sweetie,” said the guide. “This journey can be difficult, especially for women of your age. Come into the Visitor Center, and let’s rest a minute. We have a personalized vitamin course that will have you feeling much, much better.” Nina, at a loss, let herself be steered into the boxy visitor center, feeling the other travelers’ eyes on her as the doors automatically swooshed open. “I apologize,” continued the guide, “We should have warned you, how unsettling space travel can be, it’s very confusing, it happens to all of us, let’s just help you rest a little bit. Do you ever meditate? Listen to my voice: Breathe in, breathe out.”

On the Moon, gray dust rested in the craters, stripped bare from years of mining. Above the faded flag a satellite winked, suspended indefinitely in the sky.

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City https://bookshop.org/books/unseen-city-9781662028106/9781597

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