Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Life on the Moon

The Big Empty
by Henry Colterman

If I ventured into the Big Empty,
a smaller movement between hard
and fast stars,
if I ventured to the moon, and the
dust of the moon,
and to those smooth ceramic halls,
those lustrous and benign
spaces, or to the evaporated surface,
the empty mineral stretch and score,
would I find you?
Are you still in the valence
between spaces?
I would kiss the
fall of your hair; I would lie
beside you in the silence,
and trace with my fingertip your lips’
surge and fall.
I would pull you gently from
the undermass,
the crystal and stone, like a spiderweb
from foliage, like
breath from a sleeper.
If I ventured to the Big Empty,
I would never stop looking for
you, Nell

• • • •

Nell was skinny and wan. Her hair was brown, darkening to black, and her eyes were brown and sad. Henry did not understand why he loved her, for he had always considered himself a shallow man when it came down to it, with a head turned by shallow beauty and flashy teeth and eyes. Nell was a calm, dark pool. She was also probably the greatest artist of her generation, though, and when one had the extraordinary luck to claim such a woman’s regard, one made exceptions.

They met at a faculty mixer in St. Louis. Henry was a visiting poet at Washington University’s graduate writing program. Nell, already quite famous in her professional circles, had given a lecture that day at the architecture school — a lecture that Henry had studiously avoided. Nell had not read any of Henry’s poetry, for that matter, but then few people had. If anything, twenty-first-century poets were more obscure and unknown than their predecessors had been.

But both knew the other by reputation, and being the only people at the mixer who were not involved in the intricacies of academic policy skirmishes, the two of them ended up in a corner, talking about corners.

“Why do they have to be ninety degrees?” Henry asked. He leaned against one wall, trying to appear nonchalant, and felt his drink slosh over his wrist. For the first time, Henry regretted that he was not a man brought up to be comfortable on the insides of buildings.

“They don’t,” Nell replied. “But there are good reasons they mostly are.” At first glance, Nell’s face seemed lacking in some way, as if the muscles and tendons were strung out and defined, but weren’t really supporting anything of importance. Odd.

“Structural reasons?”

“Why are there laps, when we sit down?”

Henry knew then that he was going to like her, despite her peculiar face.

“So we have something to do with our legs, I suppose,” he said.

“And to hold cats and children on, too. Function and beauty.” Nell smiled, and suddenly Henry understood why her face seemed curious and incomplete. It was a superstructure waiting for that smile.

They did not, of course, return to Henry’s place and fuck like minks, although by the end of the mixer that was all Henry had on his mind. Instead, Henry asked her to coffee the following afternoon. Nell actually had a scramjet to Berlin scheduled for the early morning, Henry later discovered, but she canceled the flight for the date. Nell understood which situations called for spontaneity, and being a careful, thoughtful woman, she always made the right moves.

Those first moments were so abstract, urban, and — formed, as Henry later recalled them. Like a dance, personifying the blind calls and pediments of nature. That was what it felt like to be alive in the houses of people you didn’t really know, of living hazy days in parks and coffee shops and the chambers of the university. Nell and he met the next day for espresso like two ballet dancers executing a maneuver. Touch lightly, exchange, touch, pass, pass, pass.

But something sparked then and there because, of course, he had asked her to drive out to the Ozarks to see the flaming maples, and Nell had accepted. And in the Ozarks, Henry could become himself, his best self.

Nell had found one of his books, and when they stopped to look at a particularly fine farmhouse amid crimson and vermilion foliage, she quoted, from memory, his poem about growing up in the country.

They kissed with a careful passion.

• • • •

From: Living on the Moon
An Essay Concerning Lunar Architectural Possibilities
by Nell Branigan

Lunar architecture will offer many new frontiers for artists, but the old truths must still apply if the edifices of the moon are to be places where people will want to live and work. Lunar architecture must take account of space and form above all. Art is the outward, objective expression of inner, subjective experience. It is the symbol of what it is like to be human.

Consider architecture. What is the great element of architecture? It is not form alone, for that is the great element of sculpture. We live and work inside the architectural sculpture, as well as pondering it from outside. We inhabit its spaces. This is why I say that its greatest elements are both form and space, and the ways the two relate to one another.

• • • •

Two years later, Henry published his fifth book to sound reviews and a little more money than he’d expected. On the strength of this, he had agreed to move to Seattle for a while to be with Nell, despite the fact that he had no academic appointment there, or prospects for one. They were married in a civil ceremony in the apex of the Smith Tower, a building Nell particularly admired.

And I am a man Nell particularly admired, Henry later thought. Perhaps love is not an emotion that is possible for the developed feelings. Perhaps the artist contemplates and symbolizes feeling to such an extent that he or she can’t just have one after a certain point. Maybe that’s why I’m only a good poet, and Nell was a genius. I feel too much stuff. Too much goddamn unformed stuff.

Yet Nell had remembered his poem and by now, she had read all of his work and would quote parts of it when she was happy or animated by some idea.

In Seattle, Nell’s Earthly masterpiece was being built — the Lakebridge Edifice. “Built” was, maybe, not the word for construction these days. “Substantiated” or “Formed” seemed more correct, as the macro- and micro-machines interacted with the algorithmic plans to produce a structure utterly true to the architect’s vision — down to the molecular level.

To achieve such perfection of craft took a little over two years, during which Nell and Henry shared comfortable apartments on the Alki-Harbor Island Span, a glassy affair of a neighborhood that stretched across Elliott Bay in a flattened arch. Nell thought it crass and atrocious. Henry decided to make the best of things, and planted a garden on the thirty-foot-long catwalk that opened up from their bedroom. His new book began to take shape as a series of captured moments having to do with plants and growth and getting soil on your pants and hands.

• • • •

Production and Reproduction
by Henry Colterman

In the nucleus of our home,
my wife draws buildings
in concentrated silence, measured pace
as daylight dapples through the walls
and ceilings
of our semipermeable high-arch
living space.
While I, raised young among the
cows and maize,
garden the terrace by my hand
and hoe
and fax her concepts out to their
next phase,
she makes our living — and
your living, too.
Near twilight, I osmose from
room to room
feeling vague, enzymatic lust for her
but wait, and clean, and prepensely
consume
my supper in the leavings of our birr.
And then she stumbles, blinking,
into night
and we opaque the walls to
greenhouse light.

• • • •

I was happy, Henry recalled. I thought I was just getting by, using my garden as a substitute for living in nature, living by nature. But I was truly happy on the span. Somehow, nature came to me there.

Sex was never Nell’s strong point. She was awkward and seemed perpetually inexperienced, but she was passionate and thoughtful. Her sexuality was as well formed, balanced, and beautiful as her buildings. But it lacked something. That something was, of course, what Nell put into her work, Henry knew. Artless ardor. Novelty and insight. The secret ingredient of genius.

Yet Henry did not mind. For she loved him, he knew, and respected his work, his long silences, his gazing off into nowhere, his sometimes childish glee at what must have appeared to her to be nothing at all.

And so they lived and grew together during the making of the Lakebridge Edifice. Or perhaps I grew around Nell, Henry later considered, like wisteria around wrought iron. Nell didn’t change, but she was good support and did not mind being covered over in spots.

• • • •

From: Living on the Moon
An Essay Concerning Lunar Architectural Possibilities
by Nell Branigan

So what does this tell us about a lunar architecture? Only that space and form still apply to our constructions because humans still apply. The moon is perhaps one of the oldest constants in the making of this feeling of being alive that all art expresses. Women know this quite literally, but men know it just as well in a hundred biological rhythms that go back to our animal experience of the rise and fall of the Earth’s tide.

Yet we will no longer be down on Earth, looking up at the moon. We will be on the moon, looking up at the Earth. The old movements and spaces will not apply. Or rather, they will not apply in the same ways. I imagine that this disruption of feeling will be far more upsetting to people than the change in gravity or the physical necessities of existence on the lunar surface.

I conceive of a lunar architecture that would mitigate this disruption and yet, if it were possible, provide us with new forms and spaces to reflect our new relationship with the mother planet. Like a child who has left the nest, lunar architecture must look back with fondness, but forward with imagination and resolve.

What are the actualities of such an architecture? What sorts of cities ought we to build on the moon?

• • • •

When the Lakebridge Edifice was complete, it was clear that Nell was a major artist of her generation. Even Henry, who had been an intimate part of the design and construction of the structure, was stunned when he first saw it complete and revealed, one morning near sunrise.

He’d been out on his terrace, weeding the tomatoes. Even with a plethora of soil emulsifiers, regulatory agents, and hunter-killer insect robots, weeds still grew. The problem was one of recognition, for life was life, no matter how irritating the form it took. Henry had not been able to sleep the night before, while Nell had slept like a log, her labors in Seattle nearly completed. Their settled life was about to end, Henry knew, and with it the feeling of content and regularity that he hadn’t known since his days growing up on his parents’ little farm near Dalton, Georgia.

He’d gone out onto the terrace because that was the place that smelled and felt most strongly of the old farm, particularly his father’s prized tomato garden. It should. He’d worked to get just that flavor out of the thirty feet, even sacrificing yield to do it. This was the way it had been. And, once again, he was going to leave it and lose it.

Henry began to weed despondently, while dawn turned the black sky gray, as it did nearly every morning in Seattle. Except. Except that now there was something new that made the gray sky — not brighter — but lighter. The sun came up, and shone on the northeast corner of the Lakebridge Edifice.

The problem wasn’t new, Nell had told him. It was the age-old renovation problem of what to do with low ceilings. In Seattle, the clouds were often low, and the sky was frequently mean. It sometimes made you feel compressed, made your life seem squat and set. Yet there was the water of lake and ocean nearby, and when the clouds would permit, mountains on all sides.

Lakebridge was a solution to those days when the mountains didn’t come out, and the sound and lakes were dishwater dull. It did not attempt to reverse those conditions, but to provide a new experience. It was a complex of different spaces, Nell called them. They couldn’t properly be viewed as distinct buildings. Too many connections, suggested and literal. The complex partially encompassed Lake Union, on the northeast side of downtown, and seemed to be the very evaporation and condensation of lake water into the sky — the cycle of liquid, vapor, and the solid apparitions of clouds in an ascending order that spired out at three-quarter miles. And yet this was far from all that the complex suggested. There was a colorful marina, a hoverport, residential and business sections intertwining like striated muscles. The structure was organic, alive, useful, because it was art first, because the craft was part of the makeup of its living form.

Henry found himself drawing in his breath at the beauty of what his wife had conceived. Then a small hand wiped the sweat from his brow, and Nell wound her arm around him and crooked herself under his shoulder.

“Do you think it’s pretty?” she asked shyly. Henry knew that this was no put-on. Nell was, herself, constantly surprised by what her gift allowed her to do.

“You done yourself proud,” Henry whispered, and Nell hugged him tighter.

“I’m glad you like it,” she said. “That means more to me than anything.” Henry looked down into her hazel eyes and felt pure love. Like the love he felt for the Earth, for the way things grew and changed. Her eyes were the color of good fertile soil. They were the color of fine wood and thick prairie sage. He kissed her lightly on the forehead, and she drew him down to her lips. Good. Right. Beautiful.

They made love in the terrace garden, as Henry had always wanted to. If there was any artistry in sex, they caught it that day, twisting amid the tomato plants. Sex was supposedly the pattern and rhythm that the sonnet followed, but Henry was convinced theirs was itself the symbol of a sonnet, the gift that art was giving back to the world for giving it someone like Nell Branigan.

Henry made love to her with abandon. Her responding movements dug her deeper into the dirt of the terrace until she was partially buried, and Henry was lowering himself deeper than soil level with each thrust. Her hands smeared his back and sides with loam, and their kisses began to get muddy.

Before he came, Nell turned him over into the depression they had carved and, sitting on him, wiped herself clean with tomato vines. He pushed up into her. She caressed his face with hands smelling of vegetable tang, and rubbed her clit with the pith and juice of his crushed plants. Henry felt himself on the verge but held back, held back. He tried to reach up into Nell with feeling, with an understanding and admiration for her — the woman in her, the artist, the subtle combination of the two that was her soul.

And he must have touched it, set it to pulsing, for she came all over him, more than ever before, dampening his stomach and thighs with a thin sheen of herself. His climax was just as hard and complete, and they collapsed in the garden. Henry spoke on some nearby heating elements, and fell fast asleep, his love in his arms.

• • • •

Two weeks later, Henry was offered a visiting professorship at Stanford that would not involve teaching, but only a bit of consulting work with graduate students in writing. It was a dream slot, lucrative and freeing. Henry suspected the offer was partly due to the reflected glamour of his association with Nell, for Nell and the Lakebridge Edifice had made the opening screen of the general newsource Virtual with the heading Architectural Renaissance Woman. Nell was, of course, receiving project proposals from right and left.

“It appears I can live practically anywhere and do my work,” she said. When Henry told her about the Stanford opportunity, she encouraged him to accept. They prepared to move to San Francisco in the autumn.

• • • •

From: Living on the Moon
An Essay Concerning Lunar Architectural Possibilities
by Nell Branigan

I conceive of structures that create a human space within themselves, and yet are not closed off from the grandeur of the setting — the wonder of where the people are and what they are doing. This is the moon, and we have come to this new world to live! We must take into account Earth-rise and moon mountain vistas. I imagine an architecture that moves and accommodates itself to take advantage of the best synergies and juxtapositions of the landscape.

And yet the forms that we conceive to give us the spaces that will move us must, themselves, be beautiful.

What follows is merely my idea of such an architecture. It is intended as an acorn, and not as the oak-tree entire. Space is broad and empty, and where there are humans, there will be places humans live. And where there are places to live, there will be architects.

• • • •

Henry was writing a poem about briar patches when Nell came in to tell him about the moon. He knew it must be important, otherwise she would never have interrupted him at his work. In those days, his hair was closely cropped, and Nell had enjoyed running her fingers through its crispness. She did so this time, but halfheartedly — more of a swat — and then sat down across the table from him.

“Dobrovnik interfaxed in yesterday, full virtual,” she said.

Dobrovnik was a partner in Nell’s firm. He had given up his own design work to serve as principal agent and negotiator for the other partners — most importantly, Nell.

“That must have been incredibly expensive,” Henry replied, still a little blank from having been yanked out of the poem. “It must have been important?”

“Yes. I’ve been offered a wonderful project.”

“Really?”

“Really wonderful.”

“That’s great.”

Nell slumped, and looked around the room. Henry was not used to such odd body language from her. He forced thoughts of thorns and briars from his mind, and concentrated.

“So,” he said. “You aren’t going to be able to go to San Francisco? Is that it?”

“That’s part of it.”

Something else, but Nell was being very quiet. “Nell, you know I support you completely.”

“I know, Henry.” She sobbed. Nell sobbed. “My Henry.”

“Nell, what is it?”

“The Subcommittee on Exploration has approved my proposal for a lunar colony.”

“The United Nations General Assembly?” Nell nodded. “Nell, that’s amazing news!”

And she was crying. Henry was entirely nonplussed.

“I have to go,” Nell said. “I have to go to the moon for five years. Maybe longer.”

Henry stood up, sat down. San Francisco. He pictured San Francisco’s gardens and fogs, its graceful spans and temperate clime. But fog. And more fog, like dead vines. Undead vines. Covering, obscuring, eating the city away, fog, until there was nothing, nothing but depthless gray.

“You can come, Henry. That would all be part of the arrangement. They’ll pay your way, and more.”

“To the moon?”

“Yes.”

All he could picture was a blank. A blank expanse.

“But there’s nothing there.”

“There will be. We are going to build it.”

“No, there’s no . . . air. No manure. No briar patches.”

“I know. I understood that from the moment Dobrovnik told me about the offer, and I truly began to consider what it would involve to actually do it.”

Henry felt a trickle of sweat down his forehead. Where had that come from? Nell was too far away to wipe it. He pawed it off, continued down his face with his hand, and kneaded his own shoulder.

“Are you going to accept?”

“I don’t know. To build a city, practically from scratch — it’s the chance of the century for an architect.” Nell wiped her tears, sat up straight. “I want you with me, Henry.”

Did she? Or was she just doing the right thing? What was he, after all, when compared with her art? Had Nell ever really cared for him at all, except in the abstract? Jesus, he felt like Rick at the end of Casablanca, letting Ilsa go off with Victor Laszlo. What in God’s name had gotten into him? Why was he thinking like this? Was he that jealous of her gift? Of her fucking acclaim? He loved Nell. He loved Nell, and he wanted to be with her, too.

But didn’t she know what it would do to him? To his work? The moon. The bone-dead moon.

“I have to think. I don’t know if I can go with you. I have to think.”

And, as always, Nell knew that it was time to leave him alone and let him do so. She had perfect instincts about such things. Or perhaps it was art. Henry could never tell the difference as far as Nell was concerned.

• • • •

She Hangs Mute and Bright
by Henry Colterman

Blank hole, like a fresh
cigarette scar.
I like the stars better; they don’t
care or not care, but the moon
doesn’t care and makes you think
she does. It is the light, I think,
the queered shadows, as subtle
as lips,
the tease of incomplete revelation.

I have climbed up to small
branches
on full moon nights and pressed
my face to the dark
while the wind chapped my
eyes open.
I was without tears,
as empty as an orbit,
but she did not fill me.
She moved on.

She never lived.
She cannot die.
She hangs mute and bright.
I do not understand the moon.

• • • •

Henry did not decide that day, or the next. He rented a car the following morning and went for a drive into the Cascade Mountains. There was a chilly rain above four thousand feet, and the drying elements in the roads steamed in long, thin lines up, up toward the passes.

Henry stopped at a waterfall, and stood a long time in the mist. There was no thought in his head for several minutes, and then he became aware that he had been tessellating the fall between being a single stationary entity and a torrential intermingling of chaotic patterns.

I ought to make a poem about this, he thought. But no words came. Just the blank stare of nature, incomprehensible. One or many, it didn’t matter. Henry had almost turned to go when the sun broke out from behind the clouds, and shattered the falls, and the surrounding mist, into prismatic hues.

This is as loud as the water, Henry thought. This is what the water is saying. It is talking about the sun. The possibility of sunlight.

The light stayed only for a moment, and then was gone, but Henry had his poem. In an instant, I can have a poem, Henry thought, but I look at the moon, and I think about living there — and nothing comes. Nothing. I need movement and life. I cannot work with only dust. I am a poet of nature, of life. My work will die on the moon. There isn’t any life there.

He must stay.

But Nell.

What would the Earth be like without Nell? Their love had not been born in flames, but it had grown warmer and warmer, like coals finding new wood and slowly bringing it to the flash point. Were they burning yet? Yes.

“I have to have life for my work,” he told her when he returned. “I can’t work up there.”

“Henry, I’ll stay —”

“No.”

“There must be a way,” she whispered. Her words sounded like the falling of distant rain.

“No.”

He must stay, and Nell must go. To the moon.

The preparations were enormous, and Nell did not leave for five more months. They lived in Seattle, but Henry saw very little of her during that time. He was lucky to spend one night a week with her.

Nell tried to make their time together meaningful; Henry could tell she was working hard at it. But now there was The Project — The Project, always hulking over her mind like an eclipse. During their last week together, Henry called up the plans, the drawings and algorithms that had won the commission, for the first time, to see what was taking his love away.

As usual, the blueprints communicated little to him, despite the time Nell had spent teaching him the rudiments of envisioning structures from them. The three-dimensional CAD perspectives were better, but, whether there was some mental block operating in his head, or the fact that the perspectives were idealized and ultimately out of their otherworldly context, Henry could not see what the fuss was over. Just buildings. Only another city. Why not just build it in Arizona or something and pretend it was the moon? Why not —

Stop kidding yourself. Nell was going. He was staying here.

Nell spent her last four days on Earth with Henry. At this time, a little of the passion returned to their love. It was ragged and hurried, but the immediacy of their predicament added a fury to their sex, so that it blazed like blown coals.

Nell left on the Tuesday shuttle from SeaTac. Henry had thought that he would not see it off, but found himself getting up and getting ready long before Nell had to go. They drove to the airport in silence. Nell would take an orbital scramjet to Stevenson Station, geosynchronous over North America, then depart on the weekly moon run on Thursday.

Their final kiss was passionate and complete. The desperation of the previous week was gone, and in its place was a timeless togetherness, as if they always had and always would be sharing that kiss. And Henry understood, in the throes of that kiss, that this timelessness totally encompassed his desire, past and future. I mate for life, Henry thought, and I have found my mate.

And then the scramjet carried Henry’s love away.

• • • •

From: Living on the Moon
An Essay Concerning Lunar Architectural Possibilities
by Nell Branigan

My artistic model for this city is the living cell.

I envision smooth, warm walls curving to low-arched ceilings, whose opacity will change with the changing light and landscape. I imagine the environmental support systems and operating machinery of the cell showing bluntly here and there, but incorporated — literally — into the function and form of the whole, just as mitochondria and chloroplasts are in living cells.

I imagine a city of light and subtle colors, stretching out and up in graceful curves, runners, and points, stretching like a neuron, with neurotransmitters sparking off the end of dendrites and axons, sparking back to the Earth — or outward, into the greater emptiness beyond.

• • • •

Mornings were not so bad. Henry had not taken the Stanford position after all, but had moved back to Georgia, to a log cabin that had once been his grandfather’s hobby project. He scratched out poems and within six months had another book ready. He was mildly famous now — or so he supposed, for he had stopped paying attention to such things — and the book brought an unprecedented advance. For the first time in his career, Henry would not need to teach or live off of one grant or another. And Nell regularly sent home an enormous sum from her paycheck, since she had very little to spend it on and wanted him to use whatever he might need of it.

The Project would provide him a trip to the moon and back once a year. Henry counted the days until the trip with alternating hope and trepidation. It wouldn’t be the same as being together with Nell. It might be worse than not being with her at all. He couldn’t say when, but after a while he realized that he had decided not to go.

Nights were terrible. Nell would call often and once a week use the full-virtual interfax. Henry imagined his grandfather coming back to life and entering the cabin — only to find the cabin haunted by a ghost. Nell’s form moved and spoke with Henry on these weekly visitations, and then was gone. But the short transmission delay was enough to tell him it was not Nell, there, on Earth, Georgia. He could not smell her hair or kiss her face. They could only stare into one another’s eyes over 384,000 kilometers.

Henry prided himself on not breaking down in front of Nell, but some nights he stayed awake, crying until morning. Especially during the full moon. It hung oppressively in the dark, shone as if it had reason, as if it had passion. But all of its brightness was just a reflection. The moon was distant and dead, only a virtual world, an apparition of meaning, tricking the eye. Henry tried to be brave, to not pull the curtains on it, but many times he could not stand the light, and yanked them closed.

But he forced himself to watch the news reports, and follow the more accessible architectural journals. Progress on the moon was quick, but there was an enormous amount of work to be done in transforming the pre-existing colony into a real city, with the attendant support structures and contingencies for change. It soon became obvious that the Project was going to run into delays, perhaps lengthy ones.

But the city was going to be built. Lower-cost trips up and down Earth’s gravity well, and the new micro construction techniques had made the economics of low gravity manufacturing feasible, and the communications and transportation base the moon was already providing meant the colony had long been breaking even financially. The moon had begun to turn a profit. And soon, skilled and semiskilled workers would be needed, by the thousands. The moon was going to become many an emigrant’s destination.

So they were building a city, both for those already there and for those who would come. Sophisticated systems had to grow, and grow together precisely. Changes must be made to accommodate small miscalculations or the random aberrations of molecules. Myriad design problems must be met and mastered, and Nell had to be out on the surface, constantly consulting with contractors and crafters as to changes and adaptations, or inside watching command and control simulations in virtual. Yet enclosures of unprecedented physical security were being built, for paper-thin walls could shield against vacuum and meteor strike. And, with one-sixth the gravity, there were long arches, massive lintels, never possible on Earth. A city of cathedrals, it seemed to Henry.

As Nell’s city took shape, Henry began truly to see the magnitude and wonder of the work his wife had envisioned. Yet still, it was the moon, and the only life was human life — human life on a grand scale, he must admit. But no wild waterfalls. No briar patches giving life to form, bringing form to life.

• • • •

And then, one day before Nell’s weekly visit, Henry received a signal from Lunar Administration.

He immediately knew something was wrong, for this was a day that Nell expected to be too busy even to call.

He flicked his virtual fax to full interactive, expecting Nell to explain to him what the big deal was.

Instead, a chubby, professionally dressed woman appeared before him.

“Dr. Colterman?”

“Just Mister.” Henry blinked to see her. There was dust in the room, and some particles danced brightly in her image, as they might in sunlight.

“I’m Elmira Honner.”

“You’re —” Henry vaguely remembered the name.

“Supervisor of the Lunar Project.”

“Ah. Nell’s boss. Yes. What?” He realized he sounded curt. Why was this woman calling him in Georgia, reminding him of the moon?

“I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Oh, God. The vacuum. The lifeless stretches. But maybe not —

“Your wife was killed this afternoon, Mr. Colterman. Nell Branigan is dead.”

She had been killed in a construction accident while supervising the foundations for a communications center. The micromachines had thought she was debris and had — almost instantaneously — disassembled and transported Nell and two others, molecule by molecule, to be spread out over a twenty-kilometer stretch. The algorithm that had caused the harm had not been one of Nell’s, but a standard Earth program modified by one of the contractors without previous clearance. The glitch was based on the fact that the moon’s surface was lifeless. The algorithm hadn’t needed to recognize life on the lunar surface before, had done its job in directing the microconstruction elementals, and so the bug had gone undetected. Until now.

Henry said nothing. He bowed his head and let pain slosh over him, into him, like the tide. Nell, dead on the dead moon. Nell.

Honner waited a respectful moment. Henry was vaguely aware that she hadn’t signed off.

“Mr. Colterman?” she said. “Mr. Colterman, there is something else.”

Henry’s eyes began to tear, but he was not crying yet. Brief transmission delay. Three-hundred-eighty-four-thousand kilometers. Not yet. Not even grief was faster than light. “What?” he said. “What else do you want?”

“Your wife left something. Something for you. It’s on the edge of a secluded crater, some kilometers away from the colony.”

Something? Henry could not think. “What is it?”

“We’re not exactly sure. We thought you could, perhaps, tell us.”

“Yes?”

Honner seemed more uncomfortable now, unsure of herself, and not used to the feeling.

“You’ll have to come, Mr. Colterman. It isn’t something that even full virtual can really . . . encompass. Also, we’re not exactly sure what to do about this thing —”

“No.”

“Mr. Colterman, sir, respectfully, I —”

“Don’t you see that I can’t. Not now. There’s nothing —” His voice broke into a sob. He didn’t care. He was crying.

“Mr. Colterman, I’m sorry. Mr. Colterman, Nell told me she wanted you to come and see it. She said it was the only way she could ever get you to visit the moon.”

“She told you that?”

“I was her friend.”

“She wants me to come to the moon.”

“I’m very sorry, Mr. Colterman. If there’s anything we can do —”

“Nell wants me to come to the moon.”

He spent most of the scramjet ride to Stevenson Station gazing numbly at the Earth, and most of the lunar transport time working and reworking a poem. He called it “The Big Empty,” and it was done just before the transport landed.

Honner met him at the dock, and together they took a skimmer to the crater where Nell had left . . . whatever it was that remained. Henry watched the gray-black dust skirt underneath the skimmer, and thought: That is Nell. Now this dust has a name.

When they got to the crater, at first Henry did not understand what he was seeing. Honner suggested they debark, and they both donned the thin-skinned surface suits that Henry had seen in virtual, and never believed would be real protection. Apparently they were. He walked to the edge of the crater, to a beacon that was flashing faintly against the black sky. The beacon was attached to a greenish stone, with one side chiseled flat. On that face was the simple inscription

For Henry

He gazed out over the crater, down its bumps and declivities, trying to discern —

“It isn’t actually a crater,” Honner said. Her voice seemed pitched for the distance she stood away from him, and it took Henry a moment to realize his headgear had some sort of sophisticated transceiver embedded in it. There was, of course, no air here.

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve begun a search of her notes, but so far we have no explanation. Nell . . . grew this, as far as we can tell.”

“Grew?”

“In a manner of speaking. There was no crater here before. Also, it changes. We don’t think it’s getting bigger, but we do have our concerns. As you’re aware, microinstantiation poses certain risks —” Honner appeared to have run out of tactful ways of expressing her misgivings. She came to stand beside Henry at the crater’s edge. “It seems to be powered by earthshine, if you can believe such a thing —”

Nell grew this. The words resonated in Henry’s mind. And then he saw it for what it was. Portions and rows. The undulations of corn and wheat, the tangle of tomatoes, the wispy irony of weeds, here and there. Not a copy, not even an imitation.

For it was made from the rocks and dust of the moon, inhabited by microconstruction machines, and animated by Nell’s algorithms. Nell’s vision. Nell. An expression. An evocation. Of course, of course. Life on the moon.

“It’s a garden.”

“What? I don’t see that.”

“It’s a sculpture. No. It’s a garden. I think people are meant to go down in there.”

“I still don’t see —”

Art is the symbol of life, and the embodiment of the life it symbolizes, Nell had said. This was not a real garden, any more than the painting of a tomato was a real tomato. But it was the way gardens felt. And if anybody knows how gardens feel, what it is like to lie down among the tomatoes, it is me and Nell, Henry thought.

Henry touched the carved letters on the green stone. “Yes, I think it’s pretty, Nell,” he said.

• • • •

Life on the Moon
by Henry Colterman

After I ventured into the Big Empty,
a smaller movement between hard
and fast stars,
after I ventured to the moon, and
the dust of the moon,
and to those smooth ceramic halls,
those lustrous and benign
spaces, and to the evaporated
surface,
the empty mineral stretch and score,
I could not find you.
You moved on.

Yet you are still there.
You are in the valence
between spaces.
I cannot kiss the fall of your hair;
I cannot lie
beside you in the silence.
Not yet.
You hang mute and bright.
You rise gently from the undermass,
the crystal and stone, like a sleeper
half-waking, then back to dreams
of the moon, subtle as lips,
now harsh and warm as breath.
Rise and fall.

Nell, for love,
you have given the moon seasons.

Tony Daniel

Tony DanielTony Daniel is an editor at Baen Books. He is the author of ten science fiction novels, the latest of which is Guardian of Night, as well as an award-winning short story collection, The Robot’s Twilight Companion. He’s the coauthor of two books with David Drake in the long-running General series, The Heretic and The Savior. He is also the author of original series Star Trek novels Devil’s Bargain and Savage Trade. Daniel was a Hugo finalist for his short story “Life on the Moon,” which also won the Asimov’s Reader’s Choice Award. Daniel’s short stories have been much anthologized and have been collected in multiple year’s best compilations.

In the 1990s, he founded and directed the Automatic Vaudeville dramatic group in New York City, with appearances doing audio drama on WBAI. He’s also co-written the screenplays for several horror movies, Flu Birds for the SyFy channel and the Larry Fessenden directed Beneath, for Chiller. During the early 2000s, Daniel was the writer and sometimes director of numerous radio plays and audio dramas with actors such as Peter Gallagher, Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci, Gina Gershon, Luke Perry, Tim Robbins, Tim Curry and Kyra Sedgewick appearing in them for SCI-FI.COM’s Seeing Ear Theatre. He is currently writing and directing a series of audio dramas for Baen Books Audio Drama. Daniel has a Masters in English from Washington University in St. Louis. He attended the USC Film School graduate program for one year before dropping out to write. Born in Alabama, Daniel has lived in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Prague, New York City, Dallas, and Raleigh, North Carolina, where he currently resides with his wife Rika, and children Cokie and Hans.