Tilting on the Bluest Axis

Tilting on the Bluest Axis

Tilting on the bluest of axisIt was 1967 and the whole damn country was aflame with love and drugs and civil rights. Peace rallies in Central Park. Music orgies in California. Race riots spilling out of Detroit. Every time you switched on the TV, some kook in a kaftan was preaching the gospel of ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’ Kids worked up into a frenzy, burning draft cards, getting stoned…

Those were crazy times, Xiao-Ling. But none were crazier than the plans we were hatching at mission control. That was where the real revolution was happening. That was where a bunch of eggheads were doing their turning on and tuning in. ‘Moonstruck’ we called it: getting high on space rock. Every time any one of us looked up at the sky and saw her hanging there, full and fat, lit up like some holy opal. And even though none of us were the God fearing type exactly, it sure as hell felt like something close to religion the way that beautiful rock reached out and grabbed you by the guts.

Course, in ’67 we were still two years away from that ‘one small step’ and, truth was, none of us were sure if we’d get to the moon first or the Soviets would scoop the prize. Brezhnev’s boys were formidable, hungry. Driven by discovery every bit as much as we were – as you are. And after their first guy looped the earth with the hammer and sickle stitched on his spacesuit, well, the pressure from Washington to get the stars and stripes nailed to the moon, it never let up. Ours wasn’t the Age of Aquarius or the Summer of Love, let me tell you. It was the decade of fourteen hour days and slick guys in suits stalking the corridors of HQ, squeezing you tight for their Pentagon reports.

Not that I’d change a single one of those days. Working on the lunar programme was like a dream, except it was bigger than a dream: it was real, it was the future and it was billion dollar funded. The whole world was watching us, wishing on us, and we felt that keenly. The world. Millions of ordinary Joes gazing at the sky every night, eyes bright with awe. The lunar programme was their dream too, see. Their future. What we were doing gave everybody hope, and you don’t get to be as old as I am without realising that hope is something the world can never have enough of.

You wrote me you wanted the whole story, Xiao-Ling, and I remember it just like it was yesterday.

Haglund was the lead on the Surveyor 3 team. Then there was Dr Jaffe, Eddie, Mike and me. I was the TV guy on the project, the one responsible for making sure those pictures she was due to beam back were as clear as God’s own truth.

Turned out I was responsible for a whole lot more than that but in ’67, I didn’t know that yet. None of us did. It wasn’t like we had a soothsayer on the team.

Oh, but if you could have seen her, Xiao-Ling. Up-close I mean. The photos, the film reels, none of them do her justice. Surveyor 3 was a goddamn work of art, pretty as Miss July. A robotic trailblazer, built to transmit color images of the lunar surface so that when we did finally get American space boots up there, we knew what they’d be stepping into.

Well, our Miss July, she lifted off from the launch pad one bright spring day and touched down in the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon, some three days after that. Everything had gone smoothly, right up to the point when she came into land, when the sun’s rays, refracting off rocks, blinded her sensors and scrambled her radar. She misjudged her descent altitude – went bouncing across the lunar surface like it was made of goddamn rubber. Came to rest in a crater, finally, but not before my heart had flipped a half dozen turns. The whole control room was silent, staring slack-jawed at the bank of monitors. Staring, hoping and praying some, too, I guess. Mike must have started murmuring his prayers out loud because the next thing, Haglund’s voice came booming out over the microphone: ‘Who in hell’s name you think you talking to, Mike?’

Now, Haglund was the kind of guy used to being listened to when he spoke, but Mike, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from those monitors. The ship was on her second rebound by then, three meters high, and Mike, being the radar guy, was trying to steer her down by will power alone. Haglund’s voice got louder: ‘Hey Mike, who do you suppose is up there waiting to grant you one of your three wishes?’

Mike swung round in his chair and, at that exact same moment, a transmitter started beeping. Surveyor 3, she started chirping away like a blackbird at dawn. Wouldn’t you know it, our girl had survived! You could have heard the cheer that went up all the way to Mars and back. Even Haglund was smiling – and that sonofabitch never smiled.

‘Looks like the big genie in the sky got your back covered, Mike,’ he said, and everyone was so damn happy, hugging each other and going wild that we all just laughed and let it roll, until the bastard said ‘Ok, everybody. Back to work.’ And that was that – party over. Back we went to our monitors, still grinning at each other over the top of the screens.

As soon as she was on the ground, Surveyor 3 kicked into action.

Eddie was the one who’d configured that robotic arm of hers. Modelled it on his own arm, same dimensions: shoulder to elbow, elbow to wrist. A perfect human copy, all except for the hand, where Eddie saw fit to dispense with the standard four-fingers-and-a-thumb design, in favour of a soil scoop. More practical for digging, see, and Surveyor 3, she was born to dig. And dig she did, in the ground around her, lifting up great handfuls of dirt in front of the TV camera – my TV camera – and beaming those pictures back for analysis.

This time it was the geologists’ turn to go crazy, whooping and thumping the air at every new picture of dirt and stones she threw their way. And all the while I’m stood at the back of the control room thinking: those are my TV pictures. I made this happen.

Swear to God, I never had that much clarity of purpose about anything in my life compared to that one moment – not before and probably never since.

Come the first lunar nightfall, when the ship’s solar panels lost all their power, we knew it would be a full 14 days ‘til the next lunar dawn, when we hoped the panels would reactivate. But for two whole weeks there was nothing else for it but to go home, get some sleep, remind our families what we looked like. Regroup in a fortnight, start over. Except when we did, there was nothing from her. Not a single chirp. Our blackbird, she stayed silent. And then Haglund broke the news that none of us wanted to hear, that Surveyor 3’s panels were lifeless. That we’d gotten back from her were as much as we were gonna get. The mission was over, he said. HQ was ready to move on to the next thing.

Well, if time ain’t the strangest thing, Xiao-Ling. More unknowable than space, more impervious to conquest. One is subject to the laws of physics, after all, and the other has a mystery at its heart that’s a law unto itself. Time’s only certainty lies in its passage. It’s a universal imperative, the Buddhist law of impermanence, if you like: everything must flow.

If you could bend time back on itself, return me to those days in ’67 and have somebody tell me that, fifty years or so into the future, I’d be sat out here on my stoop, speaking into a dictaphone, making some voice recording bound for a memory bank on Mars, I’d have probably called ’em crazy.

Then if that same somebody would have told me that the first man on Mars was gonna be a girl from China, I’d have told ’em to get the hell out – no offence. It’s just that things were different then. The world was an earlier version of itself. The future we imagined was a shinier remake of the present: same pieces in play, same board game. After our moon landings, the Russians countered with the first spacewalk. When they sent probes to Venus, we set ours on a trajectory to Mars. And so it went, the Space Race. All the moves plotted and strategized right up to the 1980s, the date the suits had ringed for a Yankee leap into a Martian dawn.

Guess no-one told those suits about you, Xiao-Ling. Guess no-one would have listened even if they had.

Let me take a look at this dossier those folks sent me about you. Says here…

Name: LU, Xiao-Ling.

Born: 1993, Jiangsu Province.

Education: Doctorate in Astrobiology, Nanjing University.

Mission: One of a hundred candidates selected for the international space program, Mars One. Proposed launch date, 2024.

Well now, here’s another law for you, Xiao-Ling. Ever come across the one concerning unintended consequences? In case you’re not familiar with it, you could say it relates to the outcome of a particular situation you never planned for or anticipated. Or, if you wanted to keep things short, you could just call it a fuck up, plain and simple.

Every one of us makes quite a few of them over the course of a lifetime and me, I got two that stand out above the rest. One was professional, the reason you wrote me and why I’m sat out here, beneath the stars, talking into this thing for reasons of posterity. The other was personal and went by the name of Chrissie Linklater. And while Chrissie may not have made it into any history book, she certainly altered the course of my life in a fundamental way.

Let’s start with the first.

In another time and place, the day of the Surveyor 3 launch might never have happened for me. I’d been working crazy hours without a break. The closer the deadline got, the longer the days became, until all of us just about gave up on the idea of real sleep, pretty much settling instead for snatches of shut-eye in makeshift campsites underneath our desks.

I’d just become a father, so things at home had gotten pretty intense. There were demands coming at me every which way. At some point in the mix, my immune system must have flat-lined. Picked up some pig of a cold when I needed it least: eyes streaming, nose worse, sneezing like a walrus.

April 17 came – launch day – and Matilda, my wife at the time, she said I oughta call in sick.

Now even if it had’ve been the kind of job where calling in sick was even an option – in some parallel universe, where governments don’t exist and nations all get along together and life is like some regular Eden where the fall never happened – even in that place, sick as I was, I’d still have gone in that day. Crawling on all fours, screaming, if I had to.

What can I say, Xiao-Ling? Man, given the right amount of jet propulsion, can win an arm wrestle with a force like gravity but he still can’t beat the common cold. Bet in your line of work, you’d understand about that far more than me. I was never much of a microscope man. Found it hard to get excited about the small stuff. Had to be able to build it, launch it, land it to keep me interested. Typical boy’s stuff, I guess. Least it was back then.

On account of the baby, I’d been home the night before the launch, grabbed a coupla hours sleep. Set off back before the sun rose, driving the full sixteen miles feeling like hell’s own hostage.

By the time I got to HQ, the rest of the team were at their desks. All of ’em, that is, except for Chrissie Linklater who ran the catering franchise. While Chrissie may not have been an official member of the Surveyor 3 team, it was her styrofoam coffee that got us through all those nights of toil and tears. And her apple pie that reminded us of home just when we were missing it most. Chrissie walked into the control room that morning, pushing a stainless steel trolley piled high with breakfast. Hair pinned up in big platinum curls, smelling of something sweet and floral, a starched white apron tied around her like a bed sheet.

You said it was the whole story you wanted, but you can probably guess the rest about Chrissie and me. Suffice to say, she was probably a big part of the reason I’d gotten so ill. The stress of all that running around with another woman. Trying to keep a lid on everything. Failing.

After the high point of the launch, the inevitable happened. Matilda and me broke up. Chrissie moved on to the next Joe. Life flowed.

Then we put the first guys on the moon.

Few months after that, we sent up a second set to go do the same. Pete and Alan, Apollo 12. They took a pair of bolt cutters with ’em, paid a visit to Surveyor 3, snipped off her extremities and brought ’em back for analysis. The lab guys at HQ, they wanted to run some tests, wanted to understand the long-term effects of the lunar environment on man-made objects.

One of those objects happened to be my TV camera, but turned out the camera wasn’t the only thing of mine that came back.

Remember those unintended consequences I told you about, Xiao-Ling? Once all the components of Surveyor 3 were back in the lab, some professional predecessor of yours, some micro-biologist, they went and swabbed everything that had a surface. Just going through the motions, I guess. Just acting on instinct. We already knew from previous missions that no microscopic life exists on the moon, when – hell of a thing – the swabs taken from the TV camera went and showed up a million microbes! All over the goddamn petri dish: Streptococcus, squirming like space worms.

Nobody knew what to make of it. The whole team got dragged in. First time all of us had been back in the same room together since the day Haglund told us the ship’s panels were defunct. When we started putting the pieces together, Eddie remembered my sneezing, my pig of a cold and – wouldn’t you just know it – my microbes that had been on an extended vacation to the moon and back.

Now this was new: that bacteria could survive in the vacuum of space, lay dormant, then kick back into life again when conditions were more conducive to their well-being.

The white coats started getting excited about a theory that’d been doing the rounds for years. Panspermia, they called it, which sounded like some kind of joke. Which sounded like something those whacks on acid might’ve dreamt up while dancing naked at sunrise. But soon enough, some heavyweights started talking about it seriously. Started scoping out new projects, redirecting funds. The way they were acting, you’d have thought we’d found little green men up there, although – as it was pointed out to me at the time – in a way, we kinda had.

Well, my biological contamination, so-called, it made the history books and went and changed a whole bunch of protocols around how things got done. Suffice to say, if I’d been working on the Surveyor 3 team now with that same cold, I wouldn’t have made it past the lab door. Matilda, the soothsayer, she was right after all: I shoulda called in sick.

Shoulda done a whole bunch of things over the years, Xiao-Ling. Shoulda steered clear of a whole lot more.

But then the factors that contribute to a particular situation can’t always be minimized or altered without producing a completely different set of results. If I’d listened more to Matilda, if I hadn’t done my running around with Chrissie – if I’d used a Kleenex instead of spraying strep all over the shop – then you and I, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.

I thought I was done with unintended consequences, and that they were done with me. Until I received your letter, that is, when you told me it was my story that inspired you to take up doing what you’re doing. That my sneeze was responsible for setting you on this road in the first place – this looking for microbial lifeforms in Martian rocks. Remnant forms of them, at least; three billion years old. That damn panspermia, again! Though, even I have to admit, it’d be a hell of a discovery, wouldn’t it? Not that I’ll be around by then to find out how it goes. But as you’re taking this voice recording with you, your chosen addition to the time bank up there, maybe you could whisper in here from time to time, let me know how it all works out?

And since you and I both find ourselves staring down the barrel at eternity, allow me to say this. To those that built her from the ground up, Surveyor 3 was like a living, breathing thing to us. Some of us felt real tenderness towards her. So much so that when she blasted off from the asphalt, it hurt to let her go.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m thinking about that moment your ship rips through the stratosphere, Xiao-Ling. TV, internet, the whole world watching. Some guy in the control room counting off time over the uplink, his voice calm and steady, but his numbers somehow lost against the rockets’ roar. On the ground, the crowds going crazy, staring skyward, one hand shielding their eyes against the bright white glare. And in the middle of that crowd, standing in silence, are two of the proudest, loneliest people on the face of the whole planet. Their eyes clinging to the vapour trail joining you to them. To that ghost umbilical, born of discovery, and dissipating on the breeze more quickly than they’re ready to let it go.

It was different with the moon. We had every intention of bringing those guys back. Accidents happened, of course, as they will. Your mission is different: seven months to get there and, once you are there, best guess, around 68 days or so. They think.

I guess you’ve done the math, Xiao-Ling. Guess your momma has too. And I don’t suppose the irony of that nine months duration is lost on either one of you.

And, since it was you who drew the lot to be first crew member to step outside the ship, it’s gonna be your name in the history books. Your footprints immortalized in the dry, red dust.

Life’s a one way mission for us all, far as I can tell. And those unintended consequences, they stretch further than you think.

Here I am, sat outside in the dark, separated from you by space-time, by a lifetime. But united by something bigger than the both of us combined. Bigger than the furthest reaches of imagination. Maybe even bigger than the whole universe, who knows? And though you and I will never meet, for the briefest moment, for a single heartbeat, we were both of us here together, tilting on the bluest axis. Lives overlapping, destinies entwined, with that same moon circling over both our heads. Sweet as a milk drop, as ancient as wisdom. And she’ll always keep circling for you, Xiao-Ling, because that’s just what she does. So you enjoy the trip, you hear me? It’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

Victoria Briggs lives in London and works in magazine publishing. Her most recent short story is published in Short Fiction 9 with another forthcoming in Unthology 8. She once won the Asham Award for women writers and has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.

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