Man And The Moon Maid
Mark Lax 2011
(Previously published, but not in this edit.)
You take those half-league strides like you always do. There's the jostling of your pack followed by the
crunch of stone beneath bristling treads. One comparative baby step later and you're bounding again.
Your usual 23 mile trek to work. Grey waves of black-infested rock rise and fall. A din of automated radio
traffic interspersed with the amplified sounds of your own respiration completes the monotony.

You've been doing this for some time. Each day is bifurcated  the same: a kangaroo sojourn from HQ to
the ore mine tower; 10 hours at the tower; 10 hours off starting with the journey back. Days count as no
unit of measure. You mark time in shifts. This is your 100th shift.

The tower pokes out from the black and the grey. It's an elongated pyramid pointing up, a silver sliver
flicking at the stars. Another stride and it's huge. There's its double doors, the airlock.

A moment before the opening sequence starts you hear it for the first time. A yell, maybe? Feedback
from the helmet's headphones? You don't need the headphones at this juncture, so you shut them off.
Gone is the sound of respiration, no more computer radio chatter conveying this and thats, but the yell
is still there.

Leak within the suit. You'll have to check it out. You keep this in mind until the airlock seals behind you.
The conclusion fades from consciousness as you take the suit off.

And then the conclusion is refuted. You're inside the tower, the suit is off and yet you still hear the yell.
For moments you examine it. It's high-pitched, rhythmic and it repeats; almost  like chanted words.

Or a minor inner ear problem. Your concentration is broken by the sharp buzz and the flashing green
light that tell you the shift has started. The yell ends in mid-chant as you exit the airlock.

Something is going on inside the tower. They call it 'work' and you set everything out of your mind to do
it. What there is to be done, you have to do: there's no one else here. Samples needing quality control
align for inspection, statistics stratify for prediction of the next shipment, maintenance reports and repair
schedules appear. Illuminated panels pop up and drop down, appearing and disappearing into your
desk as each task deals with itself.  Details confine your mind, mesmerizing moments in routine,
compiling time hypnotized.

At the first slacking point of your operations, the first opportunity to sigh, you look up and the shift is
over. Predictably typical, as is the tired condition of your body. You trudge back down to the airlock.

Reminding yourself, you point a finger at the suit. That's right, it's broken. Have to repair that.
Tomorrow. You fetch a spare, run the spare's diagnostics--it's good--and don it.

The yell starts before you can screw your helmet on. You listen. It's not a machine, unless it's a hose.
But hoses whistle when they fail and this is not a whistling. Hell with it. You secure the helmet and open
the airlock.

The air becomes visible as it rushes to escape the airlock. You feel it buffet you. An iris of metal petals
seals shut behind you. You have the headphones shut off. You didn't hear the air nor the airlock shut.
You should hear nothing.

But you still hear the yell. One step away from the tower you hear the yell louder. You take more steps. It
gets louder still.  

The yell consists of two sounds: one short, one longer. The pairs repeat twice and then there is an
interval. Each interval is different in duration, as is the duration of the pairs themselves.

Like some giant anthropomorphic grasshopper, you bound off in what you believe is the sound's
direction. Sounds? Here? That crosses your mind. But your travel is being rewarded: the yell is
becoming more distinct.

It's definitely words that are being spoken, you decide as you skid to a halt. You're not sure where you
are, so you summon the topographical map on your heads-up display. Unconsciously your hand points
at a mountain 30 feet to your right.

The mountain is 100 feet tall. It's the same distance wide at its base. Maybe the width is about 25 feet at
its flat top. The thing is too tall and too narrow to be a crater. And it shouldn't be here.

What you are hearing is no longer getting louder. Now there seems to be a slurring inflection with it. You
stride to the mountain's base.

Once up close, you notice the uniform ridges that run up the rocky sides. You start your climb up its 45
degree slope. It's a woman's voice, you realize half way up. Your hands brush the perfectly smooth rim
that surrounds the plateau's top.

"I'm lone-ly. I'm lone-ly."

The surface up here is perfectly smooth also. It glows white. Its perimeter is an exact circle.

She sits at the plateau's center, on a simple padded metal kitchen chair in front of a card table. Across
the table from her is another kitchen chair. It's pulled away from the table as if someone should be sitting
there, but it's empty. On the table is a deck of cards, a steaming tea pot and two cup and saucer sets.

The woman is a shapely bleached white outline. You take a pair of steps towards her. Her skin is beige.
Her dress and shoes are white. Her white hair is slicked back and netted into a bun above her stumpy
neck. You watch as her supple hands hike up the edge of her skirt, smooth out the top of a black nylon
stocking. She rears back her head. Thin lips part. A shrill whisper of a voice gamely fails at carrying a
tune. "I'm lone-ly. I'm lone-ly."

"You sing... Horribly." How's that for an opening line? Whatever you think comes out your mouth. You
have that problem.

"I thought an animal was in a trap or something," you blurt, not a thought given to ridiculousness of this

She stands up and says "Hello."

"Hi. How you doing? How's it going? Nice weather we're having, huh?" Your head is bobbing, nervously
nodding yes.

The woman shares your hysterical laugh. "Please, have a seat."

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I? Looks like you're expecting company."

Her expression goes barren. She shrugs her shoulders. "I was.--How do you take your tea?"

"I don't." You don't do tea. You do sit.

"It's herbal tea," she explains. And so it is. You watch the green fluid as it streams from the spout into the
cup, blithely defying the lack of gravity. Steam rises up from the cup's depths.

Your sensors say: that's tea; it's steam. They also say: there is no gravity; there is no air. When the
sensors hone in on her, the readings go nuts. Layered rectangles marked 'Critical Diagnostic Failure'
crowd your heads-up display. "I have to go," you say.

"So soon? Why?"

"If I don't start back now, I might run out of air." This is true, but it's not the truth.

She rises with you, following you to the plateau's edge. "Don't be a stranger."

"I couldn't be any stranger than I already am." Over the edge you go, maybe in more ways than one.

'Acute Psychotic Episode' is what they call this. If you report it, the company will move to help you... right
out of a job.

You keep this in mind above all else as you return to your dorm at HQ. Instead of reporting the incident,
you run a check on your sensors. What you can determine is that the 'Critical Diagnostic Failure' idiot
light was kicked up by a string of 'unclassifiable readings'. The sensors have a lot of confidence in
themselves. Obviously if it can't categorize and quantify a reading, it must be on the fritz.

That's the verdict you get after consulting your roommate, also. His beady brown eyes make a casual
swift sweep of the tests you made. "It's fragged," he grunts, his pudgy paws handing you back the

"Second equipment failure in one shift," you comment.

"Quality control problem," he proclaims out the side of his mouth.

You chance it. You ask him "Ever see anything out there?"

"Rocks," Rocky answers. Rocky sees rocks in his dreams. "I did see something kinda funky today. This

Don't get your hopes up. Your roommate Rocky is about to tell you everything that went on in a video he
rented. He prattles out, in no particular order, the plot, the neat lines, his inane observations, like he
always does. And you fall asleep in the middle of his discourse, like you always do. Not that this will keep
Rocky from doing this again. Every night. Nothing discourages Rocky.

How much like Rocky are you? You start out early, allegedly for the tower. You head for her mountain.
What are you trying for?--'Acute Serial Psychotic Episodes?' Kiss the job good-bye. You can't be

It pays off. You find the mountain again.

And you find her again. She's standing in front of the card table. You spot her as she's drawing her
arms through the sleeves of a coat. It's a pretty normal looking purple coat: cotton; pleated shoulders;
and a high-back collar. The woman puts on mittens. Highly fashionable fur-cuffed boots grace her feet.

She hurls a long fuzzy white scarf over her shoulder. It wraps around her neck. Where did she get the
scarf from? Her hands plucked it from nowhere.

The woman casts a glance at you, tilts her chin up. "Take a picture," she says.

"I'm sorry... I didn't mean to--"

"--It lasts longer."

She's answering questions you didn't ask. Or she's giving you an invitation to answer obvious questions.
"Bring a camera," she says, her hand grabbing hold of a round nothing. You hear a click. She steps into
invisibility. The unseen door swings shut. "See you tonight," comes her voice from nowhere.

Answers or no, that was an invitation to something. Perhaps you make your first mistake by keeping the
date? You bring a camera. She seems to have the camera's eye, and yours.

And she knows it.

She awards your presence by preparing a lovely looking meal. You can smell it through your helmet, but
there's no air out there. So looking is all you can do. Get used to it.

After dinner--she eats; she clears your uneaten meal away without comment--you settle down for a night
of games. Board games. Card games. First she teaches you Hearts. Then she kicks your ass at it. And
then she teaches you another game. And kicks your ass at that, too. Again, get used to it.