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Miles and Miles and Miles

Noah Stubbs eyes the large white pill pinched between his thumb and forefinger, remembering the first time he hit golf balls on the moon with Gord.

• • • •

“I wonder,” Gord says to him as Noah lines up on the tee, “just how far these suckers’ll really go?”

THWACK!

Noah swings. The little ball hurtles into the Lunar day, a pinprick of speeding light bright against the velvet sky. Long after the ball becomes invisible to the naked eye, his suit’s visor tracks its trajectory until it drops towards the ground.

They parked the hopper at the top of the Virgo Escarpment, well away from the commercial routes, to practice their drives. Gord leans against one of the jump-struts of the sturdy hopper, watching the ball sail out of sight. His laughter crackles through the comms.

“‘Miles and miles and miles,’” Gord replies.

“Huh? Suit’s visor says 2022 meters,” Noah says.

“No, I mean Alan Shepard,” Gord explains. “He was the first person to tee up on the Moon. They found some of the balls when they dug the foundations of Tranquility City. ‘Miles and miles and miles.’ That’s what he told Mission Control when they asked him how far he hit that first ball.”

“Ah,” Noah shrugs. He’s miles and miles away, himself. He’s only out here because Gord insisted.

Gord hops forward, his own club in hand. Absently, Noah spikes another plastic tee into the powdery dust for his co-pilot and places a ball on top. He hesitates before rising.

“Arkady’s gonna comm any minute, wondering where we are, Gord,” Noah warns. They co-own their hopper outright, but Gregor Arkady, the owner of MoonGo, still calls the shots.

“Screw that prick. It’s our lunch break.”

Noah doesn’t respond, still thinking about the proposition Arkady made him this morning. Gord takes his silence for grief and lays a thick-gloved hand on his shoulder. The exosuit’s haptic fibers simulate an approximation of a warm touch. Noah appreciates the sympathy, but it doesn’t help.

“We can sign out, Noah. Take the rest of the day off. Plenty of other hoppers running Lemon Crater City routes.”

“Nah,” he answers, eyes suddenly moist.

“Cancer’s not such a big deal anymore,” Gord assures him. “Mimi’s gonna be fine.”

The look on the doctor’s face yesterday as he delivered the news sure made it seem like a big deal. Mimi didn’t cry, just pressed her lips together in a hard, stoic line. His wife’s hazel eyes had shone with anger, not tears.

“The shielding, Gord. I cheaped out on the hab shielding.”

“You’ve got the same goddamn shielding everyone else’s got, my friend. Don’t blame yourself.”

Noah wants to tell Gord about the studies on cosmic ray exposure data in Type II habs, about the stuff the doctor said about mutation rates, anxiety, and memory loss. Instead he sees Mimi, shrugging off the diagnosis and heading back to her job at the hydroponic farms.

“She’s a fighter,” Noah concedes. His wife’s resilience isn’t what worries him, though. It’s their hopper’s profit margins. Mimi’s ReSource treatments are going to be expensive. Since he and Gord went independent, they’re not making as much money as they used to. Maybe he should consider the offer Arkady’s made him and make those secret runs, but he knows Gord won’t approve.

“Shepard, huh?” Noah asks, eager to change the subject back to golf.

“Yeah. Pretty neat story, yeah?” Gord says, eager to let him.

“Impossible.”

“Yeah, even with the gravity on Luna, there’s no way that—”

“No,” Noah interrupts, “I mean, it’s impossible they found those balls buried in the regolith over 200 years later.”

Gord swings. Their suits are light-years beyond what Shepard and the Apollo crew wore, and Gord’s movements are fluid as any Earthbound golf pro. His ball sails into the constant night sky.

“But they did. I’ve seen them at the museum in LC City,” Gord insists, watching the ball vanish. “Little shrunken things, baked brown in the sun. Priceless, now, I guess.”

Noah peers into the desolation of the Virgo Escarpment—as if he could see where their own balls have landed.

What would they be worth in 200 years’ time?

• • • •

Noah wakes with a start. It’s dark in his hab and there’s a chill in the air that even a hot shower can’t shake. The shampoo stings his eyes. Wrinkles crease his shaking hands. When did he get so old? Noah rinses as fast as he can and towels himself dry. His agitation grows.

There’s no coffee. Mimi usually brews a pot before she heads to the hospital for her treatments. Did she forget? There’s a meal bar waiting in the dispenser, at least. Noah eats it in three quick bites, washing it down with water straight from the tap.

He’d better hurry. Gord gripes when he’s late, and the morning orbitals will be arriving with passengers eager to catch a hopper to LC City. Plus, he wants to squeeze in one of Arkady’s side-jobs before he picks up Gord. A simple delivery, this time. His partner would gripe worse if he knew about Noah’s secret runs, but he’s almost made enough this month for Mimi’s ReSource treatments.

Noah sits on a bed too narrow for him and Mimi to share. Where the hell is she? He pulls on his work boots, eyes stinging with an angry flush of tears. He can’t say why he’s crying, precisely, but it has to do with Mimi, he’s sure.

The clock by the bed says 0300. That can’t be right. Maybe he’d better wait for Mimi to get back before he leaves for work.

He wrings his hands and hopes Gord will forgive him for being late.

• • • •

Oh God, she’s been dead for years and I’m sitting here alone in the dark in a stranger’s hab.

No, his own hab. He lives here now. Gabi rented it for him after he retired. She wanted him to live on his own as long as possible.

Didn’t she?

• • • •

On another day, Noah boards his hopper and switches on the batteries. Thruster tanks are full, but he taps the readout and frowns. Not much capacity in these tanks. Gord must have swapped the old ones out. Noah activates the autopilot and punches coordinates into the navcomp. Still enough fuel to get Virgo Escarpment. These hoppers can fly themselves if you let them.

He’s taking a risk. Noah’s suit isn’t rated for all the time he’s spending outside, burying things he hopes aren’t bodies, for Arkady in the regolith wastes. Just one more time, he tells himself. He’ll look for some of their golf balls, too, sell them to that off-worlder Thornton as moon relics. Little brown nuggets might as well be made of gold far as that rich bastard’s concerned.

ReSource isn’t working well for Mimi, but with extra cash from Thornton and Arkady, he can afford the experimental meds now.

He’s bouncing over Armstrong Crater when the comm starts buzzing. He answers, expecting a tirade from Gord. It’s Mimi. Noah’s chest aches. She’s supposed to be checked into the hospital for treatment. She looks different on the comm screen, too. Plump, healthy, face framed by ink-black curls. Mimi usually wears her hair straight.

“Thank God!” she cries.

Noah’s so confused by Mimi’s appearance, he can’t even look at her, so he studies the navcomp instead, angry again. Virgo Escarpment is twenty-five kilometers south. Hell, he overshot. The controls on this new hopper are too damn sensitive. He’ll have to get Gord to show him.

“Dad! How did you get out of the center?” the face on the screen yells. “Look, I need you to release the autopilot to me. We’ll bring you back home, okay?”

Dad? Home?

No, if he doesn’t finish this job for Arkady, there’ll be hell to pay.

“Christ, I’ve got customers waiting!” he snaps, though his reservation board is clear. At least he thinks it is. He can’t seem to find that screen. An amber light flashes in three-burst patterns on the autopilot panel. A pop-up box asks for thumbprint authorization.

He scowls at the woman on the screen. “Why aren’t you in the hospital, Mimi?”

The woman’s hand flies up to her face in shock. Tears shine in her eyes.

“Dad, this is your daughter Gabi. Mom died thirty years ago.”

• • • •

Gregor Arkady is a son of a bitch, smirking across that big fat desk of his. He insists Noah and Gord buy fuel and insurance through the office. Through him.

“Mr. Stubbs, do you know why you’re here?”

Of course he does. Arkady always presses. Upsells.

They already buy the fuel, but not the insurance. Anyway, Noah does the side jobs so Arkady still makes a fortune off him. Deliveries to shadowy figures. Disposals in the lunar regolith. Why’s he being such a prick this morning?

Noah rolls his eyes and shoots a look to Gord. Except it’s not Gord in the chair next to him, it’s Mimi. Her face is red and puffy from crying. Noah guesses it’s because she just found out about her cancer. Rage comes on like a thruster blast, and it’s all he can do not to hurl himself across the desk at the pompous bastard.

“Fuck you, Arkady,” he fumes. “Of all the days to drag me in here to sell your horseshit fuel.”

Mimi gasps, but Arkady is unphased. He sets down his datatab and folds his hands. Calm. Unlike Arkady at all, actually.

“The dementia is rather advanced,” Arkady says to Mimi, tapping his datatab. “All those years on the surface, I’m afraid.”

Noah scowls as Arkady turns back to him.

“Mr. Stubbs,” he says, almost gently, “I know it’s hard to see this right now, but your daughter’s doing the right thing. You’ll be well taken care of here. We have the best memory care center—”

“Listen, you fucker,” Noah snarls, releasing years of pent-up anger at the smug gangster. He jumps to his feet, stabbing his finger like it was a dagger in Arkady’s heart.

“We pay our goddamn fees and I made you a pretty pile this month, so f—”

A hand on his shoulder. Mimi. Now Noah reddens, ashamed at the outburst. Mimi shouldn’t have to see him like that, especially not today.

“Dad. Doctor Kavanian is trying to help us. Help you.”

Noah jerks his arm away from Mimi’s hand, confused. Dad? Kavanian? How can she be so goddamn calm? ReSource is expensive and she’s terminal without it. And without Mimi, he’s all alone. His daughter Gabi is just too busy with her kids and wife on Earth. She doesn’t have time for him anymore.

Shame ices over the last of the fight in him, and Noah slumps back into the chair.

“Just take me back to Gord. We’re expecting a full load from the Mars shuttles this afternoon. Founder’s Day. We’ll make three times the usual rates.”

Mimi gives a strangled cry.

“Gord—y-you don’t remember the accident, Dad? No, of course you don’t. He’s been gone five years.”

Noah scowls. Gone? Where? They were supposed to hit some golf balls off Virgo again tonight.

• • • •

Noah paces through his darkened hab, clutching a golf ball tightly in his fist. Careful. It’s an artifact, a “precious piece of history.” Thornton offered him thousands of luna for just one, and Noah’s got a whole drawer full.

He’ll be rich as long as Thornton doesn’t find out they’re all fake. No, not fake, exactly. He and Gord hit these balls. Not ancient, but brown and sun-baked. Plastic flakes from his hand, dusting the floor like dandruff.

• • • •

Noah met Thornton on a fare out to Temperance Crater. He’s a big shot vice-prexy of some mining Venture on Mars. Old pal of Arkady’s. Connected.

Made.

All the way out to the big mass drivers installed at Temp Crater, Thornton raved about his collection of space age antiques, especially the Soviet pennants from the first lunar explorations. Noah told him about Shepard’s golf balls—turns out a lot of astronauts teed off in those early days. Thornton knew about the balls, obsessed over adding some to his collection. Said he tried to buy the pair in the Apollo museum once, but they wouldn’t sell.

That’s when Noah got his idea.

He’d dug up some of the balls he and Gord shot off Virgo Escarpment while he was burying things for Arkady. There were dozens more lying around out there, too. Arkady had connections with a few fences who’d “confirm” their age and authenticity. Shepherd’s. Armstrong’s.

Noah puts his flaking ball back in the drawer with the others before it crumbles any further. Five of them. He found them right where his visor said they’d be and picked them out of the gray regolith. The extremes of the lunar day had completely baked out the dimples and he could hardly read the brand names on the surface. They looked identical to the ones in the museum. Would it be enough to fool Thornton, though? Arkady was sure of it.

All Noah knows is that Mimi is counting on it.

• • • •

The holocomm in the waiting room blares an old soap, the sappy music swells and penetrates Noah’s eardrums. He squirms in his chair, fresh anger rising at the noise. The padding in the chair is worn as thin as his jumpsuit bottom. Where’s his goddamn suit, anyway?

The stale perfume of cut flowers permeates the air. Mimi’s hospital seems populated by old people, most of them well north of a hundred. He catches the eye of one woman and she grins and shows him a little leg. Noah rolls his eyes and the woman laughs. Christ, they’re in a cancer ward, not some dive bar in LC City.

An orderly appears before Noah, a big man thick about the shoulders and bald as a dick. Looks less like a nurse than one of Arkady’s goons. Or Thornton’s. Oh shit. Had Thorton’s people finally figured out what happened to him?

With a tight smile, the orderly hands Noah a mug of water, followed by a small paper cup full of candy-bright pills.

For Mimi.

Noah nods to the orderly. He’ll make sure she gets them when she comes back out of treatment. He turns his attention back to the soap, but the orderly remains firmly planted in the way.

“The pills will ease your symptoms, Mr. Stubbs,” the big man insists, a scowl twitching his brow.

“Fuck off back to Arkady. He already got his cut,” Noah growls.

“Do you need help, sir?” The orderly places a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” Noah snarls. He shoots a look to Leg-lady, hoping she’ll notice the way he’s standing up to the goon. She’s forgotten him, though, and stares unfocused at the holocomm.

Noah flings the pills at the goon’s anvil face and dumps the water on the floor.

“Tell Arkady I’m done with his jobs!”

He jumps to his feet, screaming.

“I told him Thornton was the last one I’d bury!”

He throws a swing, but the goon’s got him on the floor already. Noah feels a cold panic as the man’s body presses up against him. Noah’s not a small guy, himself, but he’s powerless against the orderly. The big man holds him down with one rough hand, gathers the pills up with the other.

“You goddamn piece of shit, leave me alone!” Noah raves.

Spit flies. Pills scatter. Leg-lady screams. Other nurses scramble into the waiting room. The big orderly gives up on the pills and steps back as the newcomers lift Noah back into his chair. Their hands are softer than the big man’s.

“How’s Mimi? Did they get it all out? When can I talk to the doctor?”

Noah asks these questions again and again but the answers are all the same.

“Soon, Mr. Stubbs, soon.”

• • • •

Gord—isn’t he dead?—parks the hopper on the edge of the Virgo Escarpment and sighs.

“Wanna hit a few?” Noah asks, casual, but Gord’s having none of it. His partner reddens.

“I know about Arkady’s side jobs, Noah,” he says, sounding more resigned than angry.

Noah plays stupid, stalling for time.

“What?”

“I read the hopper’s logs, man. It’s my job. There’s lots of kilometers that aren’t officially logged. Wear on the struts I didn’t put there. I found holos and saw you picking through the regolith for our balls. I—saw what you buried in the dust, too. Christ, man. You think you’re the only one Arkady leaned on for help disposing his ‘problems’? At least I had the good sense to tell him no.”

Noah shakes his head, suddenly relieved he can be honest with Gord now.

“ReSource wasn’t working. I couldn’t afford the experimental meds, Gord. You know what our profits look like. I couldn’t afford to tell Arkady no. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“It’s a fucking betrayal, Noah!” Gord says. Sadness etches itself onto Gord’s dark face, despite the harsh words.

“I’m going to buy you out,” he says, “a generous offer, too. But we’re done as business partners. Retire, Noah. Lie low. Get clear of Arkady’s network. Mimi’s gone, rest her, and with Gabrielle married—”

“When did Gabi get married?” Noah explodes. Of course, she didn’t even fucking invite him!

Gabi thinks he doesn’t like her fiancé. Noah loves her. She’s smart, funny. Kind. A centering calm to Gabi’s wildness. He’d have given anything to be at the wedding. Why the hell had she excluded him?

Gord flinches, startled.

“You were at the wedding, Noah,” he explains in a patient tone. “Damn. But you don’t remember, do you? When’s the last time you saw Doctor Kavanian? I thought those pills were helping? Look, take Gabi with you this time.”

Gord snapped his mouth shut.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Noah waves off his apology, seeing the frayed memory of Gabi’s wedding as if through a foggy lens. He knows all that digging in the lunar dust had done a number on his brain. Suit’s not rated for so many hours outside. Should’ve gotten a better one, but he could barely keep up the hopper payments after Mimi’s treatments. Might have been even better to tell Arkady to shove it.

Cancer. Dementia. Arkady. One or the other was bound to catch up with you eventually.

• • • •

In the hopper. Full burn towards Virgo Escarpment. Noah sits at the controls, but the autopilot’s switched on. He’s alone. Gord’s in the back with the cargo, still mad about Arkady’s jobs.

Isn’t he?

Two blips flash on his scanner, other hoppers closing in at speed.

Shit! Thornton!

The big shot isn’t as stupid as Noah hoped. He’d caught on to the fake golf balls, Arkady warned him. Thornton’s back on Luna and knows about the other jobs, too.

Lie low, be careful is Arkady’s advice.

Noah checks the fuel gauge, he’s got plenty to make it to the escarpment, of course, but not a lot for extended maneuvers. The old BLOK-89 hopper is not much good for that. In a panic, he slaps his leg, feels the reassuring, hard knot of the last golf ball in his pocket. Mimi’s salvation.

His downfall.

“Gord, get strapped in, we got company!”

But Gord doesn’t come back up to the cockpit. Something bangs around in the cargo hold.

He hit his head, Noah remembers. That’s how it happened.

He twists the control yokes and sends the hopper into a deep dive towards the shallow dunes that surround the Virgo Escarpment like ripples in a pond. Toward where the golf balls lie. The hopper groans with the acceleration and the whole cockpit shudders.

Autopilot klaxons blare, ripping the yoke from his hands, attempting to set the hopper on a saner course. Dammit, he’d forgot to disable the damn thing.

The autopilot is too late, though, and one of the hopper’s leg-struts thumps against a boulder twice the size of their first dome hab, the one where he’d built the tree house for Gabi.

The displays scream. The boulder impact plucks the leg strut clear away from the fuselage. Noah tries to grab the controls back, but the hopper flips on its back, plowing upside down into the regolith.

Noah lies panting in the dark of the cabin, hanging in his chair, tasting blood. There are warning lights sparking and the faint smell of smoke. Noah wants to sleep, and behind his drooping eyes, all the lights look like blurry Yuletide decorations.

The airlock clunks and hisses, opens, revealing a box of red light. A space-suited figure looms out of the shadows. One of Thornton’s thugs, to make sure the job was done. The glare-visor dissolves, golden sheen paling to transparent glass. On the other side, Mimi is crying again.

Her voice, tinny in the suit’s speakers.

“Dad, Dad, are you okay?”

• • • •

Gord keeps insisting Mimi’s dead, but Noah knows better. Bastard Thornton kidnapped his wife. Gabi swears it’s not true. She gets so mad about it she cries herself dry. Guess she doesn’t care her Mom’s imprisoned by a Martian gangster.

Gord says a lot of strange things now, but Noah forgets most of it. It doesn’t seem important as waiting for Mimi to return from the hospital. He sits on his narrow bed, wringing his hands in the dark.

The lights come on, airlock hot, and Noah cries out, shielding his eyes.

An orderly from the hospital shuffles in with a bouquet of flowers, glaring at him. Noah’s sure he’s met him before but can’t recall his name. The big guy who’s bald as a dick.

Mimi will remember—he’ll ask her when she gets out of surgery.

“Evening, Mr. Stubbs,” the orderly says, and a prickling sensation crawls up Noah’s spine.

“You,” he sighs.

“You remember me?” the orderly asks, his eyebrows raised. It’s clearly not the response he’d expected.

“Arkady send you?”

“No,” the orderly hesitates, takes a step back like he’s expecting trouble.

“You here to give me my pills?” Noah asks. A curious relief washes over him even as the orderly’s scowl deepens.

“Yes,” the big man says, setting the flowers on the empty dresser-top. From a shirt pocket he pulls out a white, oval pill. He’s supposed to put it in a paper cup.

A cold sensation washes through Noah.

“You’re one of Thornton’s goons,” Noah says. Has to be. The polished dome gives him away.

Noah feels in his pockets. There’s a golf ball in each of them. Insurance. One for Mimi and one for Gabi. He can’t remember if he brought them from the museum or the driving range. Gord would remember. Brittle, but still hard. Still worth something. He thrusts out the golf balls to the orderly. The big man laughs.

“I said you’d have to take your medicine eventually, Mr. Stubbs.”

Noah glares at the orderly.

“All these years and you don’t remember what you did for Arkady. Makes this harder, somehow,” the orderly mutters, frowning. He fills a plastic cup with water from the carafe next to the flowers.

Noah’s damn tired of people telling him what he can’t remember. He remembers burying lots of Arkady’s mistakes. Burying what was left of Thornton in exchange for Arkady’s money. He remembers Mimi dying anyway, and Gord dead later on in that wreck. He remembers Gabi trying so damn hard to save him, same as he tried to save everyone else.

“I remember,” he tells the orderly.

Noah takes the pill from him, and he and the big man stare at each other for a long time.

• • • •

A week after they teed off that first time, Noah and Gord make an extended run to Tranquility City. With a few hours to kill before the next fare, they visit the Apollo Wing of the Lunar Heritage Museum. Gord peers into the glass case next to the reconstruction of the rover. A pair of tan spheres like the husks of chestnuts lay suspended in column of rotating aerogel.

Golf Balls (brand Illegible), thought to have been smuggled into the Apollo 12 Mission by pioneer astronaut Alan Shepherd. Ca. 1970. Gift to the museum by Anonymous Donor.

“I bet we can hit them farther than Shepard ever did,” Gord says, scratching thoughtfully at the sparse hairs growing gray on his chin.

“Miles and miles and miles,” Noah laughs. A few weeks from Mimi’s diagnosis and treatment seems more doable now, especially with Arkady’s side jobs. Noah shudders, doing his best to forget all about them.

Gord pats him on the back and he comes back to himself.

“Wanna go hit a few?” Noah asks.

Andrew Penn Romine

Andrew Penn Romine

Andrew Penn Romine is a writer and animator living in Seattle. When he’s not wrangling words, robots, superheroes, or dragons, he dabbles in craft cocktails and sequential art. A graduate of the Clarion West workshop, his fiction has appeared in LightspeedEyedolon MagazinePaizoBy Faerie LightFungi, and Help Fund My Robot ArmyHe’s hard at work on a new novel. You can find him at www.andrewpennromine.com and on Twitter @inkgorilla.