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December 2009

December 2009 -- Jungle

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  • Woman on the Moon
    by Sarah Cuypers

    Reprinted from November; when originally posted, half tho story was missing. It is now printed in its entirety. EMG-Zine offers its apologies to the author, and to the readers who missed out on the terrific ending!

    When I was a child, I had a dream in which I found myself on an open, grey and empty world. There was a fine-grained sand beneath my bare feet, feeling more like dust than actual sand. The world around me was grey, but not dull. There were hills and ridges, but perhaps the most remarkable were the many round craters that littered the ground.

    I remember wearing something I must have seen in a history book or possibly a fairytale book. It was something silky, long, much embroidered and rather old-fashioned. I think I was dancing, for I remember the scarves moving around me. Their bright colours contrasted wildly against the monochrome scenery. I could hear nothing, not my own breathing, not the merest crunch of the dust beneath my feet. But I felt an exuberant joy to be there, an exhilaration of such magnitude I had never felt before during any of my waking moments.

    The sky above was black, a thick impenetrable darkness, but speckled with countless stars, shining brighter than I had ever seen. On the horizon another beautiful sight unfolded as I watched: a new splash of colour rose in the dark sky: a world of vibrant blues, green, browns and twisting white cloud-cover.

    And as I danced on the still lunar surface, I was watching Earthrise.

    The dream had impressed me greatly, but the memory still faded over the years, as do all children's treasured dreams.

    It is only now that I wonder how much influence it really carried. For now I am standing on that uniform grey surface of the moon. Not in a colorful silk dress, but in a heavy, white NASA-issue spacesuit, watching my home planet hanging in the sky as a breathtakingly beautiful disk. I admit feeling a tinge of regret for never being able to see Earth rise majestically over the moon surface as I did in my dream. Lessons in astrophysics during my early training clearly explained that as the moon and Earth are tidally locked, the only way one can see the Earth rise above the moon is from travelling in lunar orbit.

    But neither that, nor the familiar silhouette of our Janus Moon Lander before me, could take away from the awe-inspiring vista around me. And it is hard not to feel exuberant. For here we are once again, on the moon.

    No one ever really expected that the first series of moon landings would remain forever the last. Even in the last century we already knew we would return some day. And so, over sixty years after the first moon landing, we have. Now no longer a strictly American venture, the costly business of visiting the moon has become an international cooperation.

    I can't lay claim to be the first non-American on the moon, nor to be the first woman on the moon. Both titles have been claimed by the Frenchwoman Juliette Cousteau, who flew on the previous Janus mission. Although some -- including myself -- had hoped for it to be me. Such is life.

    But I, Liao Shi-yin, can at least lay claim to the title of being the first Chinese woman on the moon, a fact that has earned me the nickname 'our little taikonaut' by my two American companions.

    Cordello and Johnson, my companions on this mission, are big guys with equally big grins, and a taste for beer and baseball -- if possibly, combined. But they're friendly enough fellows and even allowed me the honor of naming the lunar lander, which is an old tradition. I didn't have to think long before naming it Celestial Arrow, which provided my companions with much amusement. But what other name should they expect from a taikonaut? I find it is rather fetching.

    But progress hasn't necessarily made moon missions more easy. When I left my colleagues to take soil-samples a-field, they were busily engaged in checking and testing the lander legs, and re-enforcing them if necessary. Unlike the old Apollo missions that existed out of a lander and a capsule, the Janus module combines both elements into one. The module legs are known to develop hairline fractures under the cold space-conditions, but nothing a little extra vacuum-welding can't solve. Johnson prided himself to be quite the King of Vacuum-Welding and commander Cordello would see to it that he lived up to that boast.

    My sampling tour would be my last trip across the moon surface, so I tried to take in as many impressions as possible. But as I was fording a low ridge and happened to look down in the valley, I wasn't quite prepared for one specific impression...

    There was a woman, dancing there. A Chinese woman! On the moon! Without a Spacesuit! Her long sleeves and scarves danced around her in the moon's low gravity. Of all places, there was a woman dancing on the moon. For a moment I was reminded of my long-faded childhood-dream, and I wondered: I had been dreaming her life, or had she been living my dream?

    I had only stood there motionless for a few moments when she in turn caught sight of me. She stopped mid-dance and came forward. My inner physicist rebelled. This was impossible in so many endless ways, and yet here she was. I could see her footprints in the dust. I could still see her coiled black hair or her embroidered clothing, no matter how many times I blinked.

    I received a second shock when she came near and towered over me. She must have dwarfed even Cordello and Johnson, who were by no means small guys. The woman should at least have been larger than nine feet. She bent down and peered into my face. I resisted stepping back, even though I had the unpleasant feeling she saw right through the amber-colored, reflective glass of my helmet. The only emotion on her face was a mild curiosity, as if my presence didn't perturb her as greatly as her presence confounded me.

    "You have come here, travelling on a Great Arrow, such as my husband might have fashioned," she said at last. "Have you come to bear me a message from him? Does he still bear anger towards Heng O, his way-ward wife?"

    Her question surprised me, but not only because I was able to hear and understand her, which was yet another physical impossibility. Heng O? More memories came into my mind, bedtime stories my grandfather used to tell me. Of how the Heavenly Archer Yu shot down nine rebellious suns, leaving one and so sparing the Earth of a fiery death. How Heng O, Yu's wife gave in to her curiosity, and drank Yu's share of the Elixir of Immortality, before hiding from his wrath on the moon.

    "Ma'am," I said after I had found my voice. My inner physicist was now totally silent, completely floored by too many breaches against laws of physics. "The Heavenly Archer Yu is said to have died many centuries ago."

    Heng O took in a deep breath and looked into the darkness of space. "He is dead, then. And Heng O remains." She turned again to me, now with unease on her face. "If Yu did not send you here, why have you come? Has the Queen Mother of the West sent you? Does she wish for Heng O to return to her surface?"

    "Curiosity has brought us here," I replied. And a great deal of funding, of course, but that would only confuse her. "Would you like to return to Earth?" I asked carefully instead. I was beginning to worry how we should fit Heng O in the already tight Janus capsule, and how exactly we'd explain to Houston that we had come by a fourth passenger.

    "No," Heng O said, and for a moment she seemed surprised at her own answer, while I breathed a sigh of relief. "No," she said again, "I am happy here. This is my domain."

    "There will be more people coming to the moon," I said. It seemed only fair to warn her that about every space agency on Earth had plans to build a semi-permanent base on the moon. Suddenly I felt alarmed she might object.

    But Heng O only smiled. "The moon is large," she said, "and the dark side is even larger. Your people will not trouble me."

    And with a laugh she turned around and danced away amidst swirling cloth, leaving me behind, completely dumbfounded. Did what I thought just happened, really did? At that moment something small and hairy passed me by in large jumps. The long-eared newcomer paused for a moment to look back at me, and then it was gone.

    Naturally, only the moon rabbit had been missing from this fairy tale.

    It was at that exact moment I decided I would not breath a single word about this to anyone. Luckily for me, there wasn't much time to mull over things by the time I returned to the moon lander. Johnson was dismantling the last science-experiments while Cordello was already loading the equipment back into the lander. Lift-off was in two hours and the final checks and engine start would keep us all three busy enough.

    Soon all three of us were packed together in the Janus capsule. Johnson was relaying readings to Houston as the colors and lights splashed on our consoles. Two bars, three bars, four bars. I followed the ascent of the power levels on the display with my eyes. The engine was powering up quickly. On the sixth bar the capsule shuddered under the force. Outside, clouds of dust were kicked up by the exhaust fumes. I leant back in my chair; here I was only the passenger while Cordello and Johnson took the Celestial Arrow through her paces.

    A sudden, unexpected shock ran through the capsule. The lander was tilting!

    "The left leg is cracking under the strain!" Cordello yelled while his hands flew over the console.

    "Impossible! We had that repaired! Shut down launch!"

    "No! No time! We must risk it!"

    "We're reaching critical thrust! The tilt's too great, we'll--"

    Another jolt rocked the shuddering Celestial Arrow. The capsule tilted back to the other side. Cordello didn't hesitate and thumped the launch controls at the exact moment the lander was upright. The sudden acceleration pushed us against our seats as the capsule rose from the lunar surface. There was no time left to ponder how or why, training took over as we manually completed the lift-off.

    As soon as the lander had cleared the moon and a course for Earth had been laid down, Johnson and Cordello almost simultaneously unbuckled their belt and drifted to the capsule window. Their heads almost collided as both wanted to see outside and judge the state of the lander leg. Johnson got there first and stared through the window, before giving Cordello the opportunity to take a peek himself. The two men then glanced at each other nervously and silent.

    Houston finally re-established radio-contact and demanded a status report. Cordello switched on the radio with great reluctance.

    "The repairs on the left lander leg didn't hold during launch. It snapped and the lander tilted. Then it inexplicably righted itself, enabling us to lift off." He took a deep breath. "Houston, someone repaired the lander leg by tying it together with a long colourful scarf."

    I let out a short burst of laughter and stifled it just as quickly by putting my hands over my mouth. A colourful scarf! What were the odds?

    "Come again, Celestial Arrow?" The controller in Houston asked incredulously.

    "I'm telling you," Cordello said wearily. "There's a bright red-and-yellow scarf tied around the broken leg, holding the ends together."

    "It looks somewhat silky..." Johnson added, embarrassed.

    I continued listening to the strange conversation while watching the displays of the console. My hands were still over my mouth, but they were now hiding a smile. Strangely enough, the thing foremost on my mind was not how Heng O could survive on the inhospitable surface of the Moon, nor how she had known about the lander leg. I had not been the first woman on the moon, but then, neither was Juliette Cousteau...

    The first woman on the moon?

    Had been Chinese after all!

    Sarah Cuypers writes fantasy and science-fiction short stories for fun. She also dabbles in drawing and wildlife photography. She’s from Belgium and adores frogs.
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