The trip to Spring Mill State Park should've been the capstone to a successful GenCon. Stephanie had made a number of new contacts in the gaming industry, while her husband and their two children had enjoyed themselves gaming, playing old favorites and discovering new delights.
However, they'd scarcely departed Indianapolis when her eldest realized he was missing one of his favorite GameCube cartridges. By the time they got to Martinsville, Reese set up an incessant wail about how they had to turn back around so he could hunt for it.
As they waited at a stoplight, her husband's patience reached its limit. "Reese, I kept telling you to keep your things together, and asked you twice to help check the room while you were packing. You wouldn't listen, so you've got no one but yourself to blame."
That pronouncement quieted Reese, but only for about twenty minutes before he started carrying on afresh about how he knew he'd been playing it right before he went to the Magic sealed-deck tournament after lunch, and if he could just zip back in and get to the right gaming table, he was sure it'd be right there waiting for him.
"Kid," Phil growled, "the con's over. By now the gaming tables are long since broken down and put away. That cartridge of your might as well be on the Moon."
Stephanie winced at that expression. There'd been a time when the Moon hadn't been unattainable -- but then America threw it all away, destroyed the Saturn V assembly lines and even the blueprints so no one could ever rebuild them.
They were just leaving US 31 for the park when her husband's patience reached its breaking point. "I hear one more word out of you about that damn game, I'm turning this car around and we're going home."
No. It came out as a stifled gasp of despair, but Stephanie knew she'd let too much show. Yet again she'd undermined Phil's authority in front of the kids. How many times had the family counselor warned that they must present a united front, support each other's disciplinary decisions 100% so the kids couldn't play them off against each other?
But to have her long-planned visit to the Grissom Memorial so close only to have it snatched away... How many times had she been in the area only to be unable to spare the time for the side trip? Even last year, when both she and Phil made sure they had all the necessary vacation days lined up to add the visit to the end of GenCon -- and then Phil's boss called and said they needed to start the new project early, so could he please be back in time to be at work on Monday. With the economy in such a precarious state, they couldn't risk his job by telling the boss no, so they'd even sacrificed the last day of GenCon to get back on time.
Although Stephanie tried to hold her expression in a stoic mask of parental duty, her misery must've shown, because Phil growled, "All right, Steph, if the trip's so damned important to you, we'll go ahead and do it."
Stephanie knew she should tell her husband that if he had decided Reese's punishment would be that the whole family forfeited the trip to the Grissom Memorial, she wouldn't argue with him. The words stuck in her throat, and she could tell that if she tried to force them out, her voice would crack and she'd sound weak, which would be worse than saying nothing at all.
Because the simple truth was, she was sick and tired of giving up her plans for this trip year after year. Her whole life had become one after another decision point in which she chose the dutiful path, the practical, the realistic, sacrificing one thing after another until it became hard to remember she'd ever aspired in the first place.
As they rounded the corner and the rocket-shaped marker came into view, all the memories came pouring back. She'd been seven years old, visiting Grandma and Grandpa West in Bloomington, and they'd made a a day trip down here. Fascinated with all the space artifacts, she'd decided she wanted to go to space some day. Her parents had smiled and nodded -- a lot of kids dreamed of being astronauts -- but she'd stayed the course, honing her math and science skills, getting up early to jog and do gymnastics when she'd rather stay in bed, even saving her money to go to Space Camp, to take flight classes, anything that might give her a leg up.
Then the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and the space program lost its way. By the time she finished her electrical engineering degree, NASA was cutting jobs rather than hiring. When a gaming company offered her a job in their console games division, she'd comforted herself with the thought that she'd work on projects that would help ignite the dream in a new generations of kids who'd actually have a chance once the country got its collective head out of its hind end and got the space program moving again.
She'd poured her heart and soul into those first two games. Fighting aliens on the Moon and Mars was the closest she was likely to come to her childhood dreams of spaceflight. Both games tanked, and the bosses decided gamers didn't want real physics messing up their fun. From then on she'd stuck with military and sports games, or straight-up fantasy that didn't grate on her nerves like the old-school dogfighting in space the marketroids insisted their customer base really wanted.
The moment Stephanie climbed out of the car, the heat and humidity hit her like a solid wall of misery. Still, wiping sweat from her forehead provided an excuse to dash away the tears welling up in her eyes.
What perverse imp of astronomy had arranged for the crescent Moon to be hanging right over the treetops like a perfect symbol of lost hopes, of dreams foreclosed by the stupidity and short-sightedness of others? Not just her own dreams, but those of everybody who'd believed in space as humanity's new frontier and done their piece to make it happen only to watch everything fall apart in a mess of penny-pinching and faultfinding.
We were supposed to have Moonbases and trips to Mars by now. Instead we ran the Space Shuttle orbiters until they wore out and never bothered planning for anything to replace them until it was too late. Now we've got a bunch of ideas for new systems, but nobody willing to commit a budget to any of them. Already anyone old enough to remember the Apollo landings is too old to become an astronaut, and it won't be long before kids'll think of space travel as ancient history, something we used to do way back when.
Stephanie swallowed hard against the rising tide of bitterness. It was too close to self-pity, something she'd scolded both Reese and Marti about. And one thing she still remembered hating about so many of the adults in her own childhood was hypocrisy, that whole do as I say, not as I do song and dance.
Better to concentrate on what this place had, not what she had lost. The Molly Brown, Grissom's Gemini spacecraft, was still standing in front of the visitor center. If Stephanie squinted a little, she could blur away the faded paint, the other signs of weather and the passage of time. It gave her hope someone had been maintaining the other artifacts, the memories of a time when space seemed so reachable, when it seemed inevitable that humanity's course would be onward and upward in an ever-expanding frontier.
Once inside the visitor center, she had to pause for a moment to let her eyes adjust. Several people were moving around the room, looking at the displays. She studied their faces for hints of their thoughts. Was that tension around the mouth sadness at a future lost, or annoyance at being dragged to something about which the person cared nothing? She'd seen her fair share of disdain at work whenever she'd dared express disappointment about the decline of the space program. For people in an industry dedicated to dreams, a lot of her co-workers had no vision. More than one had said outright that the money spent on crewed space travel was better put to improving quality of life for the greatest number, not giving adventures to the few.
She drifted over to the display on the Apollo 1 fire, hardly aware that she was passing by everything else. Maybe it was just her current mood drawing her.
One of the other people who was standing beside her said, "You know, he really got a raw deal."
"No duh." Stephanie recalled a book she'd read, the memoirs of one of the other Mercury astronauts. "If it hadn't been for the damned Fire, Gus would've been the first man on the Moon. Now that's a world that deserves to be real, one I could get behind instead of having to accept reality because I don't have any choice."
Another of the visitors made a tsk-tsk sound. "This is the world we have, so you should make the best of it."
Those words pushed the button of all Stephanie's pent-up frustration. "Yeah, right. I've spent my whole life making the best of things, being realistic and practical, and what do I have to show for it? A crappy job, a lousy marriage and two bratty kids. Just because this is our world, who's to say it's the only real one? Maybe if there is a God out there and He's an abundant God instead of a miser like the penny-pinching jackasses who expected the space program to run on a fraying shoestring, then the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics is right and somewhere out there is a world where the Fire didn't happen and Gus got his Moonshot. Maybe he managed to actually say something cool instead of flubbing his lines like Armstrong."
"Please, out of respect for the dead--"
"Respect for the dead." Stephanie could hardly breathe, she was so mad. "I get sick of people who prate about 'respect for the dead' to shut up anyone they don't want to hear. People who'd throw the living to the wolves out of 'respect for the dead.'"
Words failed her. Knowing she couldn't endure another scolding, she bolted out into fresh air. She half heard Phil shouting at the kids, "Get off that thing, for chrissakes. It's a historical artifact, not a goddamn piece of playground equipment."
She hardly needed to look to know Reese and Marti were climbing on the Molly Brown. How long would it take before Phil would start threatening to take away all the family's fun activities for the next month or three?
Maybe she should've known from how he put up with the jerk who always twisted "Phil Berg" into "filbert" -- but at the time she'd been getting over a nasty breakup with a boyfriend whose overbearing, bullying manner was just shy of abusive, so she'd mistaken ineffectual for gentle. By the time she realized that no, Phil wasn't going to grow a spine and stand up for himself, she had one kid and another on the way.
She didn't even bother to hide the bitterness and weariness in her voice. "Come on kids, let's go home."
As they piled into the car to head home, Stephanie sagged into her seat. She was feeling like crap, and even now that Phil had the air conditioning going full blast she was still soaking with sweat.
Maybe if she could just get a little distance from everything she'd get over whatever was wrong with her.
The celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the original Apollo lunar landing had been almost a decade in the making, down on Earth and here on the Moon. More than once Stephanie had wondered if the planners would set everyone up for disappointment by creating expectations so high nothing could meet them. But as the wife of the commandant of an important lunar settlement and the settlement's IT chief, she hadn't wanted to sound like a spoilsport or a party pooper, so she'd concentrated on developing promotional materials that would focus on the historical significance of Grissom's first steps on the surface of another world. It hadn't kept certain people from redesigning her Webpages -- she'd heard grumbling during IT teleconferences about Farside needing to get into the enthusiasm -- but she'd comforted herself with the knowledge that she'd presented a realistic view of the landing, not an overblown one.
Even the children had managed to strike that balance. When Reggie had asked them how they'd like to go to Nearside and see Earth for real instead of on a video monitor, they'd fairly frothed with excitement. But their eagerness had been tempered with the knowledge that it was a treat they'd have to earn. Both Howie and Usagi had addressed themselves to the necessary training with a will, all the time keeping up their regular coursework and their responsibility as junior coders for the Shepardsport IT department.
Still it was hard not to feel just a little sadness that today was the last full day of their trip, which like all such events had passed too quickly. Reggie must've picked it up, because he'd announced it was time for one last surprise before they headed home.
Stephanie looked over at their son and daughter, standing just ahead of them on the moving sidewalk and taking in their surroundings with observant eyes. Yes, she did have reason to be proud of Howie and Usagi, and not just for how well they'd handled the technical side of the trip. As the oldest and largest lunar settlement, Grissom City was an order of magnitude larger than Shepardsport and had plenty of distractions and places where a youngster could get in trouble. However, both Howie and Usagi had stayed on task and on target the entire time.
A sharp "tsk-tsk-tsk" pulled Stephanie out of her thoughts. She looked over at the two women on the oncoming sidewalk. Even if they hadn't been wearing pearl-gray jumpsuits with the logo of one of the space tourist companies rather than the familiar NASA blue, Stephanie would've known them for idle rich. Maybe it was their too-perfect features, all bought and paid for, courtesy of Earth's finest cosmetic surgeons. Or maybe something in their body language, an air of entitlement that presupposed due deference from the common herd.
In any case they weren't bothering to hide their expressions of disapproval. "Isn't it a shame how some women just have to go running off with those astronaut clones instead of finding real men to marry."
The other woman drew up her lips in disgust, an expression that made Stephanie think of a tech who'd just scooped something foul and slimy from a server-farm cooling system. "I've heard a lot of them had crushes on the original astronauts and see the clones as a way to have their dreams. I wonder how many of them ever consider what they're doing to their children, giving them only half a family tree..."
Stephanie didn't hear the rest of it, being too busy trying to forestall the most probable reaction from her husband. Reggie's permanent posting to Farside had been the direct result of his involvement in an Internet flamewar that involved anti-clone prejudice, among other bigotries. She slid her hand into his and willed him to hold his peace. No, Reggie, don't lose that Shepard temper of yours. Not here, not now.
But he didn't jab an accusing finger and shout. Instead he just looked at them. Reginald Waite could do the Shepard Stare so well that some of the senior personnel, the ones who'd met Big Al, called it "the second coming of the Icy Commander."
When he did speak, it was to the kids. "Don't let them get you down. Some people are just obnoxious." With his free hand he ruffled Howie's hair, reddish-brown like Stephanie's but with that sharp widow's peak from the Shepard geneset.
Stephanie resisted the urge to look over her shoulder to see if the two Rich Bitches were still in earshot. She was not going to give the kids the bad example of indulging in Schadenfreude.
Still, she stayed on her guard the rest of the way. Just because somebody plunked down a cool million or two and went through the necessary months of training, it didn't necessarily mean they had come to grips with the role of the clones in lunar society. The tourists might know intellectually -- every space tourism company's training program covered the social aspects as well as the technical -- but at an emotional level they really didn't get what those statistics meant. What was that term from that old sf novel about the kid raised by Martians like a Tarzan of Mars -- grap, grak?
No time to waste flogging her memory for books she'd read in high school. They'd arrived at the elevator to the surface dome. Except for the doors being painted with the seven stars and crescent moon of Grissom City instead of the familiar Shepardsport squid with its tentacles around a map of Farside, it looked just like the elevator to the observatory dome back home. Except she knew from supervising the kids' pre-trip training that Aldrin Park was far more than any simple observatory.
At least they got the elevator to themselves, which eliminated the worry of being stuck with more idiot tourists for the minute and a half it would take to ascend through the hundred meters of regolith which protected the residential habitat from meteorites and radiation. It was amazing how much could fall out of loose lips in so brief a time, and her husband's temper had not recovered from that last encounter.
As it turned out, the only annoyance proved trivial, an old 3 Doors Down song piped in on the sound system. Although this version was instrumental only, Reggie knew the words well enough to bring a sour expression to his face. "Why do so many people think we live in perpetual darkness on Farside? I know it's an old song, but it's not so old they couldn't have watched the videos of Haise and McCall from the Apollo mission to Farside and see them working in sunlight."
Howie looked up at his father. "Maybe people think of Farside as dark because it never knows the sight of Earth."
Reggie's eyebrows twitched upward. "Now that's an interesting interpretation."
He was ready to say more, but the elevator stopped and the doors opened to their destination. In flowed air redolent of the smell of vegetation rooted in soil, the sound of water running over stones. Stephanie had viewed photos and Webcam streams of Aldrin Park, but the actuality still took her by surprise. From the kids' reactions, it had hit them even harder. There wouldn't be the homesickness, true, but after living their entire lives in artificial environments, encountering even a simulation of a natural garden would have an impact.
But not so much that they couldn't remember to step out briskly onto the flagstones and free the elevator for the next passengers. Stephanie had never been able to discover whether those stones were real slate lifted out of Earth's gravity well or a synthetic using lunar rocks, but they looked and felt like the real thing.
No such question about the Earth shining through the glass of the geodesic dome overhead. Several NASA psychologists had theorized an instinctual ability of humans to recognize real versus video images of the homeworld on sight and connect at an emotional level, ever since Matt Solomon's battles with Earth Separation Anxiety Disorder during the '74 Manned Venus Flyby mission.
By force of will Stephanie pulled her gaze away. She couldn't afford to waste time and energy longing for a world she'd left behind forever. At least Howie and Usagi seemed able to admire Earth's beauty in the lunar sky without agonies of longing, but it was also possible that being born up here had linked them to the Moon instead.
No time to puzzle such things, for Reggie was leading them along the paths, pointing out various species, commenting on how plantings had changed since he was flying out of Slayton Field a decade earlier. As he approached a small metal bench his lips curled upward. Not the full-blown grin of delight, for there was also a measure of reverence in his expression.
"It's good to see the Gemini VIII memorial bench being maintained." Reggie cast a quick look around, found the plaque. "It's been a bone of contention ever since Aldrin Park was first built. There's a lot of people who believe it should only honor the pilot, not the commander, never mind Armstrong was the one who got that killer spin broken and the spacecraft back to Earth so NASA could determine it was a problem with that particular spacecraft and not a generalized Gemini design flaw."
Both Howie and Usagi's expressions showed recognition -- they'd studied the ill-fated Gemini VIII mission and its political fallout in their history coursework. Usagi said, "Wasn't Armstrong the one who went before Congress even though he knew old man Proxmire was out for blood?"
Reggie's smile vanished, replaced by an Icy Commander frown. "That's Senator Proxmire to you, young woman. But yes, he did. Deke Slayton offered to go to bat for him, but he refused because of the risk Slayton's involvement could bring the entire Astronaut Office under attack. A number of historians have argued that Armstrong's quiet and self-effacing demeanor in the face of Senator Proxmire's attacks were critical in discrediting the Senator as a bully in the McCarthy tradition, although one can also make a case that the junior Senator from Ohio was as important in shifting public sympathies away from the anti-space crowd."
Howie looked up at his father. "Don't you think Armstrong deserved better than getting driven out of the astronaut corps and spending the rest of his life a recluse under a cloud of suspicion?"
"Oh, definitely." Some of Reggie's good mood was back again. "We'll never know just what we lost when he sacrificed his career to take full responsibility for what was really a problem of faulty training, just like we'll never know just what the Astronaut Office lost when John Glenn left to go into politics. Who knows -- if Glenn had stayed with NASA, he might've been the first man on the Moon, and might've come up with some really rousing oratory for the moment."
Stephanie couldn't keep herself from chuckling. "It'd probably wouldn't be hard to come up with something better than, 'OK everybody, we did it.' But then Gus never was real articulate." She rested her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Although your ur-brother might've come up with something good if he'd gotten the first Moonshot."
"Really Steffi? Better than 'Al is on the surface. It's been a long way, but we're here'?"
Stephanie laughed. "Hey, by the time Shepard got his flight, it wasn't such a momentous occasion any more -- they were already planning the first permanent base here at Tranquillity East. He could afford some personal observations instead of being expected to produce oratory for the ages." She looked up at the Earth hanging blue and distant in the black lunar sky, at the gray stone of the ridgeline that kept the landing lights of Slayton Field from casting an unwelcome illumination in the park's tiny dome. "Who knows, if the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics is true and Gordon Cooper's right that we live in a universe created by an abundant God instead of a miserly one, there may well be a world where Armstrong got a fair shake, one where Glenn made a grand speech from the lunar surface, maybe even one where Shepard didn't have his career screwed up with an inner-ear malady and didn't have to spend his best years grounded."
Copyright 2015 by Leigh Kimmel
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