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Story Excerpt

I’ll Be Moon For Christmas
by Michèle Laframboise

On the stage, four jazzmen undulated like pale algae fronds, sending up blues notes in the stale air of the Ribald Café.

The long moody harmonics spouted from the brass instruments joined the blue smoke ghosts rising from the make-believe cigs most patrons were using. The musicians were playing pitch perfect, of course, an instrumental rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” an oldie that always made the younger ones among us smile.

The interior decor was doing its best to make us forget where we were: lustrous vermilion drapes framing the scene, glossy leafy plants in every unused corner, the ceiling painted in a trompe-l’oeil illusion of rising skyrises through a glass roof, even with random flocks of pale gray doves flying overhead. The scents that mingled with the false tobacco were the typical blends of true coffee beans.

Not even the gravity betrayed our location; years of living in Second and Third Base had morphed the funny weightlessness into a new normal. And the very young had never known another ground under their feet. For them, this was normal.

I gave my attention to the band now playing. If I squinted hard enough, I could imagine the same band, with my grandmother playing her soul out.

Blowing in a trumpet mouthpiece took rigorous training of lips and lungs: my grandmother had had to empty the tube several times per concert.

Of course, the players on the stage had no difficulties with delivering the proper vibrations with their rubber lips, nor had they any problem blowing the air column forward. Their long fingers dribbled liquidly along the keys, producing impressive scales that a long-dead Wynton Marsalis or my still-living grandmother would have envied if she could hear them, from wherever she was.

*   *   *

About 384,000 kilometers away, Madelyn hobbled on the cracked asphalt of the road, leaning on her staff. Her very white hair hung in a single, thin braid, swaying as she returned from her readings on the crude weather station, computing figures. Temperatures were climbing steadily, despite the last-ditch efforts and the synthetic ice devised for the poles fifteen years ago.

The white ice was supposed to send sunrays back into the sky, making a planetary thermostat. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the political bickering slowed the project to a crawl, then a full stop.

And that had all been going on before the sun acted up.

One clear, perfect blue-sky day just before Christmas, the surface of the sun brewed the worst flare-up ever, a coronal mass ejection with nova-like power dousing the Earth with so many high energy particles, its atmosphere and magnetic field were unable to stop them.

Radio stations on the night side of the planet had survived for a short time, announcing the flare, before falling into silence.

Daniel Saintonge, her big-boned son-in-law, had cursed in French, while Margaret cried out her daughter’s name to the vivid turquoise and emerald auroras gracing the night sky. To no avail. Helia, sixteen, Madelyn’s sharp-as-a-tack granddaughter, was stuck on the Moon.

All Madelyn’s coding talent turned into ashes when every quantum computer on the planet flatlined. Electronic circuits fizzled and died during the relentless month. When the storm ebbed out, the cloud-based quantum tech was in ruins.

Then human nature raised its ugly head. Like opportunist bacteria, a group of hackers infected the main surviving Cloud and com systems, blending every emission into gibberish. Their action caused a first wave of dead, among those whose lives depended on machines.

Suffused with a fifteen-year-late fury, Madelyn kicked at a loose pebble on the asphalt. Her right hip flared, protesting the treatment.

The rock rolled a few feet and stopped there, instead of going up and up in a long parabola. She missed her home up there, and her faithful trumpet collecting dust in a storage bin. She had not brought her instrument down, not for the short visit planned for that fateful Christmas.

Madelyn had been able to accept the terrestrial gravity for a limited stay, but the short downside vacation had morphed into a permanent state of affairs. Of course, there was no way to explain that to her muscles and bones, shrunk by weightlessness. She had adapted, but her articulations were still recriminating as her age settled in.

No more hip replacement possible. . . .

She looked up at the thin sliver of Moon. They had been impacted by the hacking, too (she was certain of it), and had no means of transportation off the satellite.

If only they could talk to us!

Left and right of her, the fir tree plantations had been replaced by food crops, tended by neighbors. In the years since the Blow-Up, city dwellers had to spread across the arable land and eke out a new, less comfortable life. At her age, Madelyn should have enjoyed a nice retirement package, but the company had evaporated along with a thousand others, leaving her and millions of people with only their hands and their minds to cope with the situation.

A low whine rumbled at her back. Topping thirty km/h, the solar car looked nothing like the streamlined beasts gracing the old magazine pages: it was an open assemblage of wheels and tubes and wires under a pair of recycled solar panels. Quantum-less technology was coming back, but at a snail’s pace.

The driver slowed by her. She could smell the sharp metal tang of the batteries stacked under his seat.

“You want a lift, Mad?” Marcus Stampeder asked, nets of wrinkles fanning from his eyes.

His cobbled up car was a one-seater, but the small bench in the back was free of medical packs. So she settled in, ignoring the hard surface. As the car ambled on, they talked about everything and nothing, back to back, Marcus lean and sharp as a tack.

Marcus reported one attempted suicide at the neighboring farm group. He had managed to talk the young man down from the roof, but it was clear that people were losing faith in the future.

The Blow-Up had compounded the ecological damage already done, pushing it to the tipping point. The hacking and the riots had taken many lives, before more imaginative souls dug up rare analog systems and build crude local emitter/transmitters to bring people back together. Some cities sent weak radio signals up, but those went unanswered.

Now we live like our ancestors did in the nineteenth century, she thought as a bicycle rider clattered by.

*   *   *

Grandma had been a prodigy, delivering the “Flight of the Bumblebee” without a hitch. The non-musical (or merely non-imaginative) people expected a brass trumpet player to be a squat man with bulging cheeks; my grandmother’s thin frame would have filled them with dismay, because where could she find the volume of air to expel such powerful notes?

She played for the sheer pleasure of it, because in the “real” life of the ultra-serious First Base, she had been the genius programmer who tuned up the musician bots now playing in the Café, along with many small machines.

With the perfection of atificial intelligence, she had been perceived as an obsolete oddity by the serious engineer types of First Base, or as a head case by the human science specialists of Second Base.

Only Third Base, where I had been training as a greenhouse botanist, cheered her talent. Music was not my thing, but growing fruit, vanilla, and coffee beans? No problem.

I wish she was still here with me. I miss that savvy twinkle in her blue eyes.

We had lost all contact with Earth since the Big Shake. Or big whatever.

Four days before the catastrophe, my grandmother had taken the shuttle to visit the rest of the family. I was supposed to finish my exams at Second Base and follow her down, but it was not meant to be.

The biggest catastrophe hitting humankind had been a silent, but deadly one. On the bright blue dayside of Earth, nothing showed out of the ordinary.

But all communications ceased abruptly. Satellites went silent, their circuits zapped. Some fell like wounded birds, their brief fiery path registered by our scopes. When our locked orbit brought the night side of Earth to our eyes, the luminous necklaces of cities that defined the continents had winked out, leaving a weak reflection of our satellite on the dark Pacific Ocean. 

We had fared better on the Moon, sheltered by the mineral mass of the satellite as it was facing Earth. The particle storm barely grazed us while it pounded our planet’s surface. First Base reported no harm done to their Santa Cave of weapon techs, but faceless hackers managed to sneak a morphing virus into our own com array before the storm blasted their electronics.

None of our planet-bound sisters and brothers would be in a mood to greet Christmas or the New Year, while being precariously balanced on the verge of extinction.

The remaining population was scraping every watt they could reap, every calorie. They were putting up recycled materials to harness wind, to harvest sunbeams, to enrich the soil, replant trees, spreading more sun-reflecting synthetic ice on the poles.

All this we could deduce from our telescopes, because the albedo reflection of whole countries changed over the years, inviting more vegetation. Even when clouds blurred the sky, they could still look up and pray to our celestial body.

And we, deprived of transportation, could only observe the struggle from our spatial perch.

*   *   *

Marcus’s odd solar car ambled on, leaving Madelyn in front of the spider-shaped compound (each leg a bedroom and the kitchen at the center) that had been her home for the last fifteen years. As soon as she stepped onto the covered porch spanning the space between two “legs,” a little tornado launched herself at her, it’s clothes painstakingly sewed, the blue fabric shiny with repeated cycling.

Rachel had Madelyn’s sky blue eyes and her mother’s chestnut hair. And she had a refreshing child’s curiosity, asking many questions about the Moon, about who drew the rabbit shape on her face, about her big sister Helia still up there.

Rachel! Leave your granny alone, you’ll break her!”

This was Margaret, always worrying since her eldest daughter had been cut off from her, stranded on the Moon fifteen years ago.

“For one lousy exam!” she had said, during a crying jag, her head against Daniel’s shoulder.

On some people, the day-to-day survival, with no improvement in sight, took a harder toll. Margaret was a strong sort, but the core of her being had been resting on her bright teenage daughter, Helia.

Madelyn explained to her daughter and son-in-law that the Moon Bases had been protected against the big Blow-up. She was confident her granddaughter was alive and thriving. But the lines of communication had still not been reestablished.

The Moon shone, beautiful and cruelly silent.

There were theories passed around over dinners, that the Moon inhabitants kept all their advanced technologies for themselves, and that they didn’t care for the leftovers of Earth any more than the Mars colonies did.

Madelyn countered the naysayers, but the long struggle and the harshness of life, and the ensuing silence, eroded their joy. The men and women of the garden farm made do without the luxuries of imported goods.

Helia did not even know she had a new sister, born eight years after the event. It had been an act of hope in her mid-forties, but Margaret would have wasted away without this skipping and hopping sprite around her.

Rachel was the life of their small colony, as Madelyn called their group of neighbors. Because they were as isolated as space colonies, each farm compound like loosely linked beads on a necklace, with bike messengers going to and from them.

Daniel, Rachel’s dad, had taken it all in stride, after the riots that had killed Madelyn’s husband at the other end of the country. Right now, here he was, guiding his pedal bicycle to the shed. He blew a kiss to his daughter.

*   *   *

I inhaled the glorious aroma of the brewed coffee rising from the ceramic cup, the bottom under the handle shrunk so the cups could be stacked in neat piles. I would make it last, the cup’s bottom keeping the brew scalding-hot, until the singer came on the stage.

Third Base was the most recently built Moon habitat, with plenty of everything to sustain us for centuries. Every base possessed triple redundant technologies to go on, even if the other two vanished.

Long underground shuttle roads linked the three, so First and Second Base scientists could come and relax here. The stern criteria for immigrants had been relaxed, to accommodate “artsy” types like Camilla and me.

The cool soprano voice took me by surprise.

Camilla sang “How High the Moon?” as she sashayed toward the stage, her brown hand trailing for a fraction of a second on the edge of my table. Almost a caress.

My singer friend was a true blues vocalist, producing exquisite notes with her own throat. I could bask in the Moon with her, as she chirped the rapid succession of notes as well as a musicbot.

Cam reminded me, in part, of Grandma, because she was a psychologist who had embraced the leisure, spending hours training her voice. She had an opulent figure some men overlooked, but she wore it well in one sixth of Earth gravity.

I didn’t know squat about Ella Fitzgerald or other historical jazz figures, but then, Cam could have been one, singing in those cabarets about dreaming of a white Christmas. Or the beautiful and sad “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” a promise no one could fulfill here.

We had replicated artificial trees from metal ore, but none could replace the fir tree Mom and Dad propped inside the house, with the strong scent of sap. On the Moon, Christmas made no sense, there was no shorter nor longer day of the year, and no coming of the light to celebrate.

I sipped the last drop of rich coffee as the singer’s ultimate note rang clear in the hushed silence of the patrons.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022. I’ll Be Moon For Christmas by Michèle Laframboise

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