On the night before Michael’s stepfather, Dave, was taken to the skilled nursing facility, he felt sure this was not the way it should work. Dave was dying, but everyone was dying. So much had changed in even Michael’s own lifetime, he couldn’t imagine how Dave was feeling, and Michael was feeling mortality more than he ever had, since he’d turned fifty.
Medical technology had continued to advance, and particularly in the early ‘20s, there was a sense of incredible hope. Michael had been young then and hadn’t cared so much about age reversing processes or cures for arthritis, but he certainly cared now.
Seeing Dave being carted off to the old-age home, Michael wondered what had gone so wrong. The year Dave had been born, 1959, man still had a decade before landing on the moon. In 2031, when Dave was seventy-two and Michael was thirty-six, an international consortium had established a moon colony. It had seemed like science fiction when morning daytime TV did human interest segments on the colonists, and it seemed like science fiction when the government started looking for volunteers—debt and student loan forgiveness were some of the perks. Life insurance for family left behind, of course, and the legacy of a living among the stars.
Even when the civilian recruitments first started, Michael was not interested. The earliest moon colonists had been retired or washed out American astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and Chinese taikonauts, a pool which was exhausted fairly quickly. Many of the people who had been in orbit did not want to go back, and the ones in space programs who had not made the cut in earlier years were either bitter or had moved on.
The next round of recruits were military. And then civil servants, returning Peace Corps volunteers. Postal workers and city council members, teachers.
There was talk of a draft, but the idea did not test well, so nations moved to public relations campaigns.
In America, whenever the colony was on the news, the hotline to call or text or video chat flashed at the end of the segment.
Michael was happy for the colonists. They seemed to have a nice life, earning their government salaries and growing vegetables under a geodesic dome. In one human interest piece, the colonists showed a typical meal, sourced from their vertical, hydroponic gardens. It featured kale and herbs. Texturized protein powder, developed by NASA and delivered in compressed bricks, was sprinkled liberally over the colonist’s salads.
“Our food is really good,” a woman with a southern American accent said. She was young and pretty, long eyelashes, pink cheeks. “We have a closed loop system so all of our waste goes back to the garden, but sterilized. And I’m learning Mandarin! Nĭ hăo!” she waved.
The protein powder was also available in American supermarkets, and Michael didn’t know if was a product that had gained popularity because of placement in space, like Tang, or if it was being placed in life to get people used to it.
In any case, occasionally when he went out, he’d see it on the menu of upscale restaurants, alongside microgreens and artisan cheese. Protein powder pops, soaked in tamari and served on a skewer. Deep fried protein powder strips served with “astronaut aioli,” whatever that was, tasted like someone had combined Miracle and Cool Whip. His least favorite was when the protein powder appeared in a shaker, along with salt and oil, as if it were some fundamental part of culinary history.
He did understand the push to the moon and why it was necessary. Even developed countries had been on meat rations for years. Cattle, first, and then swine, and later fowl and fish were designated as a drain on resources and could not be commercially farmed. Dairies and feedlots transitioned to soy and hemp. At first, at least in America, people who lived outside of urban centers were living better than city folks, with their gardens and livestock. Increasingly, it was the rural who were becoming wealthy, selling steaks and lamb shanks to what was left of the urban rich. He’d read an article about how billionaires would helicopter to remote farms and islands to pick up tenderloin and oysters, though eventually even the helipads were converted into cultivation spaces.
Even alternative proteins like tofu and tempeh were getting expensive for ordinary people, and his yard, just like the yards of everyone he knew, had transitioned away from passive lawn to active production. Personally, he agonized over the chickens. He had studied communication and business, so at first he had no idea what to do with the flock of chicks he’d gotten at the community center, but they grew, and then he tried to balance filching eggs from his hens’ clutch with ensuring they would propagate. There was an incredible amount of literature on backyard animal husbandry online, and he devoted himself to learning.
Currently, the birds were okay. New chicks had hatched, he’d butchered some of the grown hens, which was awful, but he had his own little corner of abundance. He fed the birds, and their shit fed his garden, and their eggs appeared like fragile gifts. Still, the hens seemed to be always molting and they were cranky, always hot. He related. The one rooster strutted like a king, and Michael hated him. In the perpetual heat, he’d hung a fan in the coop, and he put out old, freezer burnt frozen vegetables when temperatures soared into the hundreds. The chickens did not seem to care that a block of peas was half a decade old, but even Michael’s deepest freezer stores were becoming depleted, because no one shopped the way they used to. Nothing ever went on sale.
Many cities were very organized, with rooftops converted and common areas commandeered. His suburb outside of Denver had not yet enacted any strict official ordinances, but Michael let the chickens peck what was left of his grass into nothing anyway, and he fenced in his vegetable garden to keep them away from the squash. When he had produce that was stunted or immature, he sliced it and put it in ice trays with water, and then turned out the cubes into plastic bags to make room for more. He did this not only for the chickens but for the future.
Michael’s mother had died the year of the moon push. Unexpectedly, and immediately he had started to get letters and phone calls from the government, identifying him as a strong candidate for the colony.
When he spoke with a representative by phone, she said, “Now that both of your parents are gone, you might want to consider it, for the greater good. Tell me, what’s keeping you on Earth?”
Michael had long known that as an unmarried man, he’d be a target for moon life. He had not expected it to come on so quickly.
He also realized the caller had more information than he had about his own biological father. It didn’t affect him emotionally, but he hadn’t known his birth father was dead.
“You know, my actual dad is still alive,” he said. “His name is Dave.”
“Your stepfather, you mean, is David, and yes, living, according to our records, in the 2000 block of Marion Street, Denver, Colorado.”
“And I have a sister,” Michael said. “And I don’t want to go to the moon. Can you take me off this list?”
“Your stepsister, you mean, Leah, according to our records. We do not have her address on file. I don’t have the authority to remove you from any list, but I can add Leah, if you’d rather go together. She has some problems, though, I see in the notes. Would you like to provide an update on Leah’s current legal residence? This will help us make contact.”
Michael hung up.
His phone rang again and he sent it to voicemail.
His phone rang every hour, on the hour, from the same number, for the next seventy-two hours. When it stopped, he knew he had only been temporarily cycled out.
They’d waited for months for the approval from insurance regarding Dave’s placement to the nursing home to come through. Man was living on the moon but Medicare was still a disaster. When his mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Medicare had transitioned immediately to palliative.
Michael knew there was an algorithm, and he knew that his mother did not have a good chance of survival—some things never changed, he figured—but he was surprised at how quickly the system dismissed her.
“Would it hurt to try to treat it?” he had asked the administrator. “I’ve seen the ads for Pancrestia, or I could probably talk her into a trial of something experimental.”
“It won’t help,” the administrator had said. “Late stage, you know, most of the developments are in detection.”
Maybe he was not surprised.
He missed his mother, but he was glad she was gone. On her deathbed, she had expressed great concern for him and his sister. She had begged him not to have her body cremated, but Michael had cremated his mother anyway. He couldn’t afford a cemetery—land was too precious and prices had soared—and he didn’t want her composting in his backyard, though it was one of the options in the pamphlets provided by hospice. He was glad she did not have to see how all this moon business had escalated.
He had been unable to imagine loading the car and driving Dave the few miles to his new room at St. Peter Home, but when it was happening, he went through the motions.
They were not a religious family, but Michael liked that Saint Peter had ultimately become a saint by performing miracles of compassion. At least according to Wikipedia.
Illness had come very quickly after his mother and Dave had come back from vacation in Mexico. They had thought there was something lingering from the water, but Michael reminded them they’d stayed in a resort and also, he had said then, there were 145 million people in Mexico—the water couldn’t be that bad. Maybe it gave you the shits if you weren’t used to it, but it didn’t keep you in bed for three days.
Then his mother collapsed.
Dave was lucid enough to call 911, just barely, but it made no difference.
Michael was aware of the rumors, though he thought the stories about poisoning were the same hysteria of 1960s America when people thought LSD was in the municipal supplies. The border between the US and Mexico had been re-opened in 2024 after the wall had come down and it certainly hadn’t solved everything, but it seemed reasonable enough to go to Mexico for vacation. The tourism brochures were so glossy.
He also didn’t think that whatever had killed his mother and had made Dave very sick, sick in an unrecoverable way, was something Mexico had done.
How many other able-bodied men and women were getting calls about the moon colony, after their folks succumbed to a resort poisoning, he wondered. He didn’t dare look it up to be recorded in his browser history. He was so sorry he’d been so naïve. He’d taken them to the airport. He’d been proud of them for traveling on their own.
What the fuck, he thought.
Michael called his sister Leah.
“It would be good if you could come here,” Michael said to his sister. “Dave would like to see you. I can get you a ticket.”
“Yeah, I dunno Mikey. Work is pretty busy.”
Leah was living in Honolulu, and he honestly was not sure what she did for a living. She had flown back briefly for their mother’s funeral, staying in her childhood bedroom and alternating between rage and desperate sadness. Michael knew which it was by the music she listened to.
Whenever Michael asked his sister about her work, she demurred. “Employment here is not like the mainland, brother,” but that didn’t tell him anything. She was old enough, forty, that he didn’t think she was still dancing—she had sworn him to secrecy about it years ago and he had kept that promise—but he worried now that she was still doing some kind of sex work.
And he didn’t care if she was, as long as she was safe, as long as she was stable. He remembered when she was born. He remembered helping her with her homework. He remembered when he was thirty-one and she’d just turned twenty-one the call he’d gotten from her, slurry drunk and angry, out at a club, begging him to come pick her up. She was still in Denver then, but he was out of town on a business trip, so he’d found a friend to go for her. She was not coherent enough to give her address, and Michael didn’t know it, because she was shuffling through different houses all the time. His friend, Laird, was a guy he had worked with at the office with Dave, and Laird was solid. The kind of guy who didn’t ask a lot of questions when you called after midnight with a favor even though you hadn’t really talked in over a year, the kind of guy who upon realizing Leah didn’t know where her own home was took her to his, set her up on his inflatable mattress, made her eat a sandwich and drink a glass of water, who texted Michael later to say I’m so sorry, but when I woke up she was gone.
The woman who was the moon representative started dialing him again. Every hour, on the hour. He had turned his phone to silent, and then powered it all the way down, but somehow it still lit up and rang.
In the television segments, moon life was increasingly rosy. The first child had been born, a Russian girl with dark hair. They called her Луна, Yuèliàng, and Luna. The media agreed she was beautiful, and even Michael felt a kind of closeness with the space baby, and so he answered his phone at midnight on a Tuesday in a wash of remembering his sister being born.
“Michael,” the representative said, “You have work tomorrow; you can’t really talk now, you know.”
“Did you call to tell me this?” he asked.
“Let’s make an appointment for tomorrow at 10 a.m., your time. Your calendar looks free,” she said.
“Fine,” he said.
“Are you sad you never had children?” she asked, “Remember your ex-girlfriend from those years ago, Sabine? She has two, but she’s divorced now.”
“You’re right. I need to go back to sleep,” he said.
“Here we don’t sleep,” the representative said, “And we are very happy.”
“I don’t believe you,” Michael said, but the representative had already hung up.
At the facility, Dave was settling in. The doctors said he had Rapid Advance Parkinson’s (RAP), a new kind, and Michael wasn’t sure if this was true, but if it was, it was terrifying, and for the first time in his life, he was glad to not share Dave’s genes.
He called his sister again, but she didn’t pick up. Listen, Lee, like I said, I will buy your ticket. Please come. I can’t do this on my own.
She texted back almost immediately. It’s not about money, Mikey. Why do you always think that? You are just like him!
That’s a compliment, you know, sis, he tapped.
Fuck off, Mike.
Love you, too.
He hated texting, and he wondered what Dave had ever done to Leah, besides care for her. It was easy to be angry at his sister, now that Dave was dying.
At home, after work, Michael heard a thumping sound at his front door, and when he opened it, there was a package, tied in string.
Inside, several blocks of protein powder sealed in a biodegradable film, a braid of fat garlic—his had wilted this year, and he wasn’t sure why—and sealed inside dry ice, one very fresh looking beefsteak. He hadn’t had beef in probably half a decade.
Just as he was putting the beef onto his barbecue, which he’d had to dig out of storage and then try and find enough wood scraps to burn in it, his phone rang with the inscrutable digits of a representative on the caller ID, but he didn’t answer.
There was a whisper about diseases, early onset Alzheimer’s, abrupt and acute RAP, and cancers that had been accepted as incurable, like pancreatic, like Michael’s mother had had. Especially in people who were non-compliant. Or so the whispers said. There were some exclusively print journals that printed theories and leafleted the city streets. Lymphomic episodes were a hot topic.
Michael was getting bolder about checking internet message boards, and though he had always been a reserved person, he did think there was some weight to what people were saying—we cured the AIDS virus and yet there’s nothing for diseases that have been around longer?
When he’d spoken to the representative at their appointed time on Wednesday, his ordinarily low level of alarm had peaked.
“Mikey, you have another year,” she said. “Did you enjoy the steak?”
“What does that mean,” he said. Only his family called him “Mikey.” Now he was worried that he shouldn’t have eaten the beef. He’d sprinkled one portion of the protein powder on the chicken feed, and he wondered if the representative somehow knew about that too.
“Also, Leah,” she said. “Leah, we have been looking into it and we do not think she is going to become a moon candidate.”
He wondered if he was actually speaking to an automated system. He had said to the representative that he wanted to stay on earth, didn’t some humans have to stay? The moon was less than thirty percent of the size of Earth, with no water outside of the closed-loop domes. Even he knew that. Kids learned it in school. No way it could support large populations.
“We’re about to begin terraforming,” the representative said. “We think this will create change, and the potential on Mars especially is exciting.”
School kids also knew Mars was only half the size of Earth.
“What about Sabine,” Michael said. He heard his chickens clucking.
“She’s a candidate,” the representative said. “You have an algorithmic match with her. You think of her. We know.”
“I haven’t talked to her in years,” Michael said, backtracking. “I have never kept in touch with my exes.”
“Does that matter now?” the representative asked, but before he could answer, the call disconnected.
The absolute worst thing, when Michael was strapped into the transport rocket’s jump seat, was thinking about Dave. In the prior eleven months, dementia had escalated, and while Dave was not there on the surface, Michael believed Dave was in there somewhere. He had unsuccessfully lobbied to bring Dave to the moon based on shaky evidence that low gravity could be beneficial to neurological diseases.
There was a trial study, but the panel did not agree in Michael’s favor, largely because Dave was unable to consent.
“As if you care so much about consent!” he had almost shouted at the hearing, but he held back.
He’d been fired from his job, his chickens had died all at once, overnight, and his vegetable garden turned to black mold. He thought he saw the outline of a footprint in the garden, but he couldn’t be sure. His bank account was frozen. The hotline said it was just an administrative error and they would release money if he called them, but even in the small amounts they approved, the money was going fast, and he didn’t think it was an error at all.
“I will take care of Dave,” Michael had said as he argued to bring his stepfather, the only father he had known.
“It’s better that he stays,” the panel said. “Your sister can care for him.”
“And if she can’t? I haven’t spoken to her. She won’t return my calls. What happens then?”
“The facility does their job, and we are looking out,” the panel of representatives said, in what seemed like unison.
The moon consortium had given final approval on matching him with Sabine. He’d asked for her out of the shortlist, or he had accepted the suggestion of her, as at least she was someone he knew, though it had been years since he’d seen her, and though he still had not spoken to her nor exchanged a message, she had accepted him, too. He understood he would be going to the moon whether he wanted to or not.
He would become a father to her children, just like Dave had been a father to him. He would resolve to transcend the past, just as Dave had. He would watch the children grow. Just a few hours after he had landed, he would be shepherded to her pod, and the union between Michael and Sabine would be sealed in a government ceremony, a representative presiding.
“What if my shuttle is late,” Michael had asked, worried about starting his nuptials incorrectly.
“Don’t be so terrestrial,” the representatives had said. “We are never late.”
The dome Michael shared with Sabine was clean and spare. They realized they were luckier than some of the other matches, having some context on Earth.
“Your mother?” Michael asked on their wedding night, his first night in the colony. Sabine had been on-Moon for a month.
“She went fast,” Sabine said. “Then the calls started.”
“I know,” Michael said.
“Remember when all I cared about was art?”
“Yes. I remember.”
Sabine was divorced, and the father of her children had an exemption—he did something with chemicals, for the government, and he had remained on Earth. Sabine said that she had only married the man because she thought it would mean she could stay.
A girl and a boy with Sabine’s fine features also occupied the dome. And it was not long before Sabine’s belly grew with another girl who became another space baby.
“I didn’t think I could still conceive,” Sabine had whispered, “I had to do fertilization for the other kids. But I’m sure. I have to report it.” She punched her symptoms into the console in their living room.
The next day, a representative arrived, and tested Sabine’s urine and blood. “Low gravity has this effect, it regenerates the body.”
“I’m fifty-two,” Sabine said. “I already did menopause.”
“We will be monitoring you. Congratulations.”
Michael felt a pang for Dave. He had a video call with him once a week, but Dave seemed not to register who he was.
“We’re having a baby, Dad,” Michael said.
“Oh, congratulations to Leah!” Dave said.
Michael had made regular inquiries about his sister Leah, but nothing had turned up. Hawaii had voted to secede from the United States, and he hoped it was just because of that—no information being shared, rather than no information to be had.
On the night of their child’s birth, Michael gave to Sabine the package he had smuggled from Earth and had been saving, hidden in on tiny corner of his small closet, a soft bag of chicken feathers he’d collected once he knew he was matched with Sabine and as his birds died.
“You do remember me from then,” she said. “I thought you might have been faking it. The bird-scapes. The art I made.”
“Yes,” he said, even though it was only half a memory, from another time.
For years, they lived in harmony. For years the children grew, and the youngest girl especially, moon-child, who did not look at Earth with nostalgia. When her siblings were depressed, she cheered them up. When her parents wondered what they were actually doing, she assured them. When the oxygen levels were low in the dome or the artificial gravity apparatus not functioning, she was animated, suspended from the ceiling, and certainly not conserving energy as the training literature suggested. Rather than being terrified, she laughed and pushed off of the wall for more momentum on her aerial somersault.
Their days were filled with working in the gardens, repairing the geodesic dome, repairing the closed loop water and waste systems, repairing the pods the community lived in, and filing requests to the representatives.
The representatives called back sometimes, inquiring about health and welfare.
“What’s your location, actually?” Michael asked once.
“Be careful,” the voice said.
The youngest girl they called Joy. They’d not bothered to learn the Russian and Mandarin pronunciations of her name, because the pods had splintered and intercultural training had ceased just before Joy was born. From Sabine’s first marriage, the boy Jesu, was petulant and moody. The oldest girl, Corinne, was skeptical and bored. Michael and Sabine were sorry for their Earth kids. They hadn’t asked for this.
They had friends from some of the other pods, but upon every orbit of the home planet, it became clearer and clearer they would never go back. The children themselves were no longer children. Jesu became nineteen and Corinne twenty-one. They would always have a guaranteed salary, as part of the colony, but there was little to engage with outside of manual labor and physical training for the always upcoming Mars expedition.
Michael remembered once when he’d been a child himself, and Dave, who was just a stranger then, had waited on his mother’s stoop. Michael had handed water to Dave through the screen door, even as he’d felt bad about not inviting the older man in, but he was home alone and his mother had very strict instructions.
How nice it would be, Michael thought, to just go outside. How nice it would be to just breathe, and not wonder about the filtration system, not wonder where the next breath was coming from.
It happened slowly, fewer transports from Earth, fewer stopovers on the convoys to Mars. Moon colonists saw plenty of rockets, but the bays to their pods stayed empty, and stores were running low.
Michael had convinced the colonists to make some risky adjustments to the oxygen and the water systems, and his bet had paid off. The monitors were beeping less urgently, but they still needed supplies.
Even the protein powder, their staple, was becoming depleted.
Michael was the same age now that Dave had been when he had gone to the facility. He loved Sabine, but he wasn’t sure if his life was better.
Those years ago, Sabine had brought her own contraband, starts of peace lily and mother-in-law tongue, high oxygen producers, and their dome was filled with leaves. She tried to give cuttings to their neighbors, but the neighbors disapproved.
The literature said to trust the system.
Sabine said she did trust the system, but just like on Earth, even though she trusted the grid, or, eh, the system, she said she put solar panels on her roof to supplement.
“The reps don’t like us to talk about Earth,” the neighbors said.
“It’s not ‘talking about Earth’ to grow something,” Sabine said.
Outside every window, Mars was looking different from terraforming, a kind of purple, and Earth was looking different, too, aquamarine.
Sabine said she thought the seas had risen and the cities had been consumed, and that’s why no government was sending them relief.
“Don’t say that so loud,” Michael said.
“They hear it all anyway,” she said. “We haven’t heard from a representative in months. What does that tell you?”
The home planet was pretty, as she’d always been, but it was true there were fewer tufts of green or brown or white-capped mountains—where were the people living? They were not, mostly, they assumed.
And then the representatives arrived all at once, in smart uniforms with flush cheeks, looking healthy and well-fed.
They had transport vehicles. Mars was finally ready but there were limited seats.
“There will be enough for everyone eventually,” the representative of the representatives said. “For now, it’s just a matter of timing. There are still ejection capsules in the event of an emergency for those who remain.”
Almost all of the parents sent their children on ahead. Michael and Sabine did. Joy, their moon baby, was for the first time in her life, scared. Jesu and Corinne, for the first time in their lives, were able to comfort her because they already knew what it was like to leave home.
When they said goodbye to the children, there was another few days left of oxygen remaining on the limping generator.
When they looked out the window of their dome, they were too far out of orbit to have any real information.
They saw, even though no one believed them, the aurora borealis.
They saw their children being carried away by rocket.
They saw the meter on the air filtration system tick to below critical levels.
They saw, thankfully after the children had gone, the last moments of hypoxia take hold of their friends and neighbors in a rapture of asphyxiation, tearing at corners of the dome, breaking bottles of contraband champagne against the trusses, lighting a bonfire of clothes and household goods. The small amount of NASA’s remaining protein powder, tossed into the blaze, burned in an unconventional rainbow, chartreuse to mauve to gold.
Michael and Sabine saw the fires, knew the fires would feed on the little oxygen left. They wondered how much pressure it would take to cause the dome to explode.
Then Sabine was grabbing Michael’s hand, running towards one of the escape capsules. It was confusing, that there were so many left, that so few colonists had decided to eject.
“We should have gone sooner,” Michael said. “Why didn’t we follow the kids directly?”
“It’s the air. We haven’t been thinking straight,” Sabine said. “I should have had more plants. They were right to take the children. Dirt was so hard to get. And they mocked me, remember how they mocked me? The children are safe, though, that’s what matters.”
Sabine wept and Michael remembered what he’d learned long ago in a yoga class with Dave: breathe in, but remember to breathe out.
He exhaled, and eventually so did Sabine.
They had both been trained on aeronautical controls but the capsule had only a single button and so they pushed it together.
A thruster engaged, and they both felt the force. They hovered for a moment, and then they cried out: immediately it was clear they were on a trajectory towards Earth, not towards Mars. The launch codes were apparently old and so they hurtled towards what was once their homeland but was now a hot ocean.
Or the codes were not old.
“I thought we’d go the other way,” Michael said.
“Me, too,” Sabine said.
“We’ll burn up in the atmosphere,” Michael said. “It will go fast.”
“Maybe,” Sabine said. “I’m not sure what these things are made of.” She thumped the side of the capsule.
They felt clearer than they had in days, from the capsule’s oxygen supply.
“What will the representatives tell our children,” Michael said.
“He was a kind man, a kind father,” Sabine said, breathing deeply.
“She was a gifted artist, a good mother,” Michael said, exhaling.
“They made a family,” she said.
“They were a family,” he said.
They were two, hurtling towards a dead planet, fingers laced together, the ends of their gray hair starting to spark, glowing filaments in the first microseconds of reentry.
Then their bodies were ash, and then their bodies were nothing, and what was left of the capsule splashed down, where it began to quickly dissolve in the acidity of the surrounding sea.
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Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde.
Excerpted from What If We Were Somewhere Else: Stories by Wendy J. Fox. Copyright © 2021 by Wendy J. Fox. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Santa Fe Writers Project.