This Neil Armstrong Is Not Dead
Armstrong in bed
Armstrong looked at her lying beside him, asleep. She was grainy in the moonlight, a black and white photograph magnified a thousand times for forensic examination, revealing a pyramid on Mars, a face on the moon.
The nightgown was sheeny. Plain white cotton sheets were the perfect backdrop. They were best for the heat, a version of her had said several iterations ago when he could still understand her speech. He rubbed her flank, distant. She did not stir. The night smoothed the edges. His dull hands maintained the illusion -- they lacked the sensitivity of finer instrumentation. A sand dune glowing black in the desert night, the round curves denying the reality of grit in the eye.
Gently brushing, he removed the work of millennia of slow geology, rubbing his hands softly over the hills of her until the powder was evenly distributed, the illusion gone, the grains spread back into the Sea of Tranquility. He thought of his claw reaching out, grappling, sealing away samples of the dust of her. There would be no repercussions, no consequences. Nothing matters in space.
He looked at her night grey hair, knowing in daylight it was ash blonde, knowing it should be burnt red.
Technically, she was his wife. Technically he was Armstrong.
My father pulled the supplement from the newspaper, and spread it on the kitchen table for me. The paper was crumpled, he had picked it up for free after someone else had left it on the train.
Ink lines sketched out the lunar module. A small black-visaged figure sat in the lunar rover, heading for the foreground, travelling between boulders. Rocks are for hiding behind.
The rover was a car with all of its guts showing, the opposite of everything else on the moon, all suited and shielded. I pointed to the inside out umbrella erect at the rear, imagined it turning on its pole, pictured the blob suddenly appearing on a screen. "That's for telling when the monsters come," I said.
"There are no monsters on the moon," my father said, filling me in on the facts of life.
"You don't know. They haven't been there yet."
"There is nothing alive on the moon."
I was astonished and deflated. I had never felt like this before, though I would come to know this feeling well. No monsters? Then what was the point?
Maybe once a decade or so one would reach for the other. A round of golf. Balls lofting into orbit, the debris from the sand trap taking a minute to settle back to earth.
Aldrin was gone, off again. First on booze, then on wives, now he was in love with the Republic.
Collins was a monk inside. Who knew what had happened to him in those three days alone in his tin can tomb? He was further removed than the rest of them. Lost, though not in space.
Armstrong at the reception
In the years of preparation, the tide slowly pulled him away from those he knew and used to love. So gradual was it that neither they nor he noticed his withdrawal. Was this part of the program? Was he slowly being prepared for being cast adrift? Was alienation as much a part of his training as instrumentation and centrifugal acceleration? Or was that attributing too great a subtlety to a federal agency?
He was shielded from exposure. He did not venture far at a time. The only reality was not in his head, it was in his suit, filled with the static of Houston, with the deep sea of his own breathing. Touch was beyond him, though he could grasp by remote control through practiced gestures. Armstrong saw visions never before witnessed, but he was separated from it all, as though it was just a television stuck in his face.
Moving among them, he exhaled waste products and tried to avoid fogging. His responses must have been appropriate, for they smiled as they greeted him. As he turned, their faces grew distorted at the edge of his helmet. For effect, he reached far, far away for a tumbler of orange juice from a tray held by one of the orbiting waiters. He would hold it for awhile, then an excuse would be found to put it down untouched. It was just too difficult to introduce it without mess into the suit environment. There would be Tang later at home.
He tried to remember how he had got here. Surely he hadn't driven himself?
Armstrong at work
They removed his gravity. He could not be held, and fell through and was lost.
Or perhaps it was not the astronauts who fell into new gaps, their absence unremarked as they were replaced by others who had fallen too, tumblers in an infinite slot machine. While they were away the world had reinvented itself, and when it turned, it turned without them.
They were Heisenberg's eyes, the first to look on the world from afar, and in observing it, they each knocked it into a separate orbit, so it could never be the same for them again.
Was NASA aware at some level? During the long debriefing, were the soldiers there to protect the astronauts, or to keep them in? In other worlds had there been disaster, a cataclysm like matter and anti-matter colliding? Had there been a horror greater than the emptiness?
Or was it ANSA? He tried to remember.
The American aliens.
My grandfather is driving the car, so the memory must be from before he died. It's the only conversation I can remember having with him, if you can call it that. I am standing right behind him, leaning over so he can hear me. I don't think they had any laws back then. 'Friendly monsters?,' he says, so that is how I can remember what topic I had broached. 'There are no friendly monsters.' I'm confused. I try to discuss the topic further, but he won't have a bar of it. My Dad must have been filling my head with nonsense. It is the nature of monsters that they are not friendly.
I returned to my seat, my dualistic mythology disturbed. No friendly monsters? So we are all alone, then?
Armstrong goes back to bed
A bed is a bed in any world, and he leaned into it, seeking respite. He yearned to dream of suffering and pain. He longed for clarity in chaos. He wanted to care, but feeling was washed away in the monochrome, leached into the vacuum, spread thinly into nothing.
Had he ever dreamed next to a red haired woman? In sleep he encountered the shades of other possibilities. There he could feel the void, sense the heat drained away.
The more memory was challenged by his surroundings, the more they were both negated. Worlds collided, and the fragments dispersed. What could be left?
I awoke to see my own eyes, staring at me. I saw the shock come into them. How was I seeing myself?
The astronaut is suspended above me, a buoyant presence inches from my own. It is huge. Breath fails me. I cannot scream. Would anyone hear me if I could?
The scene is inverted. I am suspended above the void. Earth must be behind me, though it would offer no comfort to turn and see it spread below. There is a deep thick darkness, and it scares me further to see the terror in the vague reflection of my face.
Then the astronaut recoils, drawn back by his tether, as though something is wrong, there is a danger to be avoided, a crisis to be averted, and all while he is stuck outside, exposed.
Stuck he is. He flounders to the ceiling, and bounces against it, trapped amongst my father's nursery paintings, my comforting companions. He drifts, separated from his orbiting craft by a baby finger's width of plasterboard.
I take heart. Standing on my bed, I search beyond the tint of the visor, to see if another set of eyes is hidden behind the reflection of my own. I stretch and reach to tap my fingernails on the glass of the faceplate, but I am not tall enough yet. One day. Jumping with claws like a monster, I yell "raahh!" to elicit a response (but not loudly enough to wake my parents or my sister).
Beneath the glass, I like to imagine the face is set and determined, showing no shock at finding a child beneath him. Armstrong seeks only to complete the mission. He is patient and persistent. He will wait until time passes, and the force field of mundanity holding him there dissipates. The world will turn and reality will shift. One day he will be freed from this suburban trap.
Just now though he drifts from wall to wall, weightless. The movement is soothing, and I return to sleep.
Perhaps he is still there, tethered by that long umbilical cord, visible only on those nights when the full moon shines. Where else is there for him to go? Mars is too far, the space between lethal with unavoidable cell shredding radiation. The stars? We're only fooling ourselves. Apollo is as good as it gets.
Sometimes, after making the sandwiches or washing the dishes, I catch a flash of light reflected from a face plate just above me.
Armstrong nods, and gets on with the job.
Armstrong on holidays
She reclined on a banana chair, silent, probably asleep beneath her shades. It was for the best, he could not understand a word she said. The divergence was too great. He was amazed that she persisted in her existence, so many worlds away.
He stood in the ocean, in the rhythm of waves. It must be Acapulco. He was comfortable in unfashionable trunks. He closed his eyes and felt the sun's warmth, felt his skin prick as it began to burn. A cool breeze blew low over the water, beneath the crests. He thought of how the relieving air did not diminish the heat of the radiation bathing him.
Somewhere back there, children squealed. A dog barked, high above. A garbage truck rumbled. Men fought with knives. A lone hand, or perhaps a crab, fossicked unattached in the dunes. Beneath a leaf, a tiny army was raised, and began to overflow.
Armstrong ducked beneath the waves, leaving it all behind. Rushing water vibrated bubbles of trapped air against his ear drums. He dulled his senses to all but harmonic motion, and tried to lose himself in the god of numbers.
Currently a refugee from redundancy in The Hague, David Stevens is a criminal lawyer who usually lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and children. His stories have appeared in Crossed Genres, Aurealis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye and Pseudopod, and some Australian literary magazines. His short story, "My Life as a Lizard," received an honorable mention in the list of Best Short Fiction of the Year in Clavis Aurea in Apex.