For many people in this era, their dream is to float amongst the stars. To drift in space, going from planet to planet, exploring a potential beyond their own earthbound existence.
On Earth, on a long stretch of the Arizona desert, a man sits on the hood of his car. He sits amongst nature, a nature that is disturbed only by the open road and the power lines, and stares up at the sunset. A gorgeous evening in the middle of June. The kind of moment captured in photographs and paintings. Thomas (Tom to his friends) Fitzgerald, a newly-dubbed “Astronaut,” contemplates his life. To be the first man to ever set foot on the moon is an honor and a privilege, and it also a massive burden as a representative of humanity. In one hour, the sun will completely set, leaving the moon to illuminate the world. In one week, Tom will be on the surface of that moon, fulfilling his dream and the dream of billions.
Tom is out here in the desert to be alone. Alone with his thoughts. A place to be away from the petty internal and external politics exploiting his dream. Ever since he was a young boy, Tom wanted to be amongst the stars. His overactive imagination that was egged on by the stacks of pulp and superhero comics he read each month, and the radio programs he listened to each week, filled him with visions of rocket ships and stars and the possibility of alien life. Captain Astro, The Crab Monsters From Planet X, and Mad Scientist Comics were his favorite. A love of science fiction that he would continue to have in his teenage years, when himself and other boys his age were called to serve in the war. Five long years would pass, and Tom would return home, given a lavish welcome and labeled a hero, a title that follow him well into adulthood. A title that he never truly wanted.
The thing about war is that, despite what you’ve heard on the radio, read in the papers, or seen in movies, there are no heroes. A brave man charging headfirst into enemy gunfire to fight for his country’s honor is a myth. War is nothing more than a bunch of terrified boys hiding behind cover, firing their guns wildly into the air, not caring if they hit anything, just shooting until the other side stops. Most of the survivors will go back home and spend the rest of their lives on a street corner, enslaved by a chemical that takes the memories away. Society will not call them heroes, they will call them bums. “Thank you for your service” becomes “get a job.” Some of these survivors will become something worse: a politician. Tom just wanted to go home and become a writer; maybe work on some of those sci-fi movies that were becoming all the rage. The kind with aliens and vampires and things that weren’t a glorification of the suffering he witnessed.
Fate had other plans. During his time overseas, Tom found that he had a real knack for machinery. He could fix and maintain any vehicle, weapon, or radio he could get his hands on, becoming the most sought-after engineer by the US military. Hollywood wasn’t returning his phone calls or responding to his letters, so he went back to the service, building computers and communication tools at an overlooked research center. Tom figured that he could make a living building these machines, and writing scripts in his spare time until a big-shot producer took notice. Many years have gone by, and an unfinished draft of his first script still sits in a typewriter tray.
However, because of his skills, his physical fitness, and his perceived ability to maintain a cool head in an active war situation, Tom’s superiors approached him with an offer: undergo a radical, rigorous training regiment for three years, and be the first man on the moon. Of course, this would all be top-secret, and telling anyone about this mission would be considered treason. Tom agreed to the proposal before he was given the usual spiel about “doing his country proud.” To him, it didn’t matter why he going, only that he was getting to go in the first place.
Three long years go by. Tom is trained to withstand zero-g gravity. He learns the ins and outs of the programming language that will get his ship into space. He has the names and birthdays of every member of Ground Control memorized, and maintains a casual first-name basis with all of them. This is the fun part. Then comes the agony. Politics. Nationalism. The realization that his dream is nothing more than a cynical exploitation to beat the Russians to the Moon; making him nothing more than a prop in the Cold War.
Now, in the Nevada desert, Tom sits, and continues to reconcile his dream with his reality. Space was his dream. Is his dream. But the horrors of war turned him into a man that only supports America because he has no choice. Coming home from Japan, Tom was not the same man he once was. Witnessing his brothers-in-arms, boys no older than sixteen, mutilated beyond recognition by bombs and machine gun fire. Tom lost his pride in his country. What was there to be proud of? His post-war engineering was nothing more than a way to pay bills. At least, that’s what he told himself. The moment he was approached to enter the space program, that hatred subsided quickly. Tom would never admit it out loud, but being a puppet of America was a small price to pay to live out his dream. Even if, after three years, he grew to resent that something as sacred as the moon, which belonged to the artists and the poets, was taken and perverted into an act of war. There was another thought that Tom had been grappling with: what if, maybe, he still loved America? It could be a lifetime of propaganda newsreels at the movies, or the drills he went through in the service, but there was still some sliver of hope that there had to be something more. Maybe the people; the ones who aren’t making the rules. The strange people he would meet at bars, cafes, concert halls. The kind of people that have public service announcements made about them. Maybe these were the kind of people Tom stuck around for. Wanted to make stories for. Wanted to go into space for. Or maybe this was all a coward’s coping mechanism.
Whatever it was, Tom couldn’t linger on this thought for much longer. The silence of the desert was interrupted by a motorcycle engine. Its rider was a man who had clearly never even heard the word “subtlety,” let alone lived up to its definition. Five o’clock shadow. Black beret. Long trenchcoat, in June. Black boots. Black shirt. Black gloves. Tom had always been warned about spies before. The Russians, Tom had been told, were so hell-bent on ensuring that America didn’t beat them to space that they were willing to kill him. This was definitely a spy. Stepping off the bike, the spy approached Tom, not saying a word the entire time. Not only was it obvious that he was a spy, but it was obvious that he had bad intentions.
Tom was a three-time amateur boxing champion. One championship won when he was fifteen at a neighborhood gym, and the other two during his army days. So he could handle himself in a fight. The strategy here is to get the first shot in: land a shot so hard it’ll knock this guy’s dick stiff. Maybe lead in with a jab if necessary. He had to be quick, just in case his opponent had a weapon. You can never be too careful with government spies. Guns, knives, bombs, poison claws underneath a fingernail. These guys are armed with all types of conventional and non-conventional weapons. Just so long as this guy can’t reach for whatever it is.
Tom threw a right hook. With movement faster than any human Tom had ever seen, the spy had done a backwards handspring, evading the attack. Tom could just barely evade the spy in return, as his shirt got torn by the spy’s outstretched hand. He went with the poison claws, it seems. Tom was smart enough to know that while he couldn’t outpunch this guy, he could go on the defensive. Poisoned claws can pierce human flesh, but a well-placed kick with a pair of steel-toed boots will break them right off. Eventually. While Tom’s expertise was in a standing brawl with his fists, he had recalled seeing some fighters overseas using kicks to push an opponent back, creating distance between them. A push kick with the left foot, followed by a hopping kick with the right. The spy is springing to attack. Tom pushes him with a stiff left to the ribs, and gears up for the next kick…
It doesn’t work. Multiple attempts are made. Kick, and a miss. Another kick, and Tom has only succeeded at pissing this guy off. Time for Plan B: Run.
Tom begins sprinting, leading the spy to give chase. Finally, Tom has run out of breath, and collapses, propping himself into a sitting position on the stump of a power line. Finally breaking the silence of this fight, where the only sounds these two men had made previously were grunts and curses, Tom admits defeat.
“Alright, alright. You’ve got me. Just…just make it quick, will ya?”
The spy, relishing his opportunity, dramatically lunges his hand directly at the neck of Tom. This is it, the end of the dream. The end of America’s hope. The legacy of Thomas Fitzgerald ending as a corpse in the desert. The odds of being on the moon first is now firmly in Russia’s favor.
Except that it isn’t.
A last second dodge literally saves Tom’s neck. The spy’s clawed hand is stuck in the wood, and he’s desperately trying to pull it out. A well-placed ground kick to his ribs causes the spy to recoil in pain, which then causes the claws to be violently ripped from his fingers, spraying blood in a nauseating display. The spy is the next to break the silence with a heavily accented “FUCK” as he holds his bloody hand.
“Tell me,” Tom asks, “why are you trying to kill me!?”
“Because you need to die! Your death marks the end of two hundred years of unearned exceptionalism!” The spy responds, still visibly in pain. “You Americans! You exert your will over the world; putting it on your death parade called Capitalism. We could have just as easily killed your spineless leader like the snake that he is. But, we realized that your leaders can be replaced. Presidents have no real vision; they get elected, break all their promises, kill innocent people in ‘enemy’ countries, repeat. Heh, just look at what’s going on in Vietnam. No, if the Motherland is to win this war, we need to kill the people’s spirit. That’s you. Without you stepping foot on the moon, the people have nothing to believe in, nothing to live for. And for that reason, you need to die.” He then sprang to life once again, throwing lightning-fast punches. Tom manages to dodge some of them with footwork that would only be surpassed by Muhammed Ali, and responding with blows of his own.
The two men continue to clash in this epic struggle with the strength, speed and stamina of comic book heroes and villains. Eventually, Tom gets the upper hand. Punch. Punch. Punch. Hook. Uppercut. Knee to the sternum. Point of the elbow to the back of the neck. The spy lies on the ground, beaten but alive. Tom looks down at his beaten foe.
“Go home. You and I aren’t heroes here. We’re both the same: tools of the government. You hunt and kill people your leaders tell you to. I used to do the same, now I make machines that are probably doing a better job of killing than me or any other American could. Every morning, I would wake up, hating myself. Hating what I had become. To be building these bullshit machines because I need money to live. To go every day of my life being called a “hero” because a bunch of blood-thirsty power mongers put a gun in my hand and told me to shoot someone I had never met in a country I couldn’t even point out on a map. Worst of all, I hated that I had grown used to it. Grown used to it, and maybe even liked it. Others didn’t matter to me, because my life was stable. It was simple; I didn’t have to think about the greater scope of things.”
The spy manages to weakly mutter, “so then why do all this? Why go up there?”
“To be alone.”
“The day I was approached to go out into space, it was as if every moment of my life had lead up to this point. I came out to this desert to be alone, which is why we fought out here, and not in my home. Out here, nobody will bother me. Well, in theory, anyway. I have these memories of my time in the war. All the blood and violence. The sounds of gunfire and screaming. Walking seventy yards to pick up another piece of a man I shared cigars with the night before. No matter what I do, or how much time has passed, I can never forget these things. People call me a hero for going through all of that, which I’ve always hated. In a week, they’ll call me a hero again, and I’ll hate that even more.”
Between the fighting and now, the sunset gave way to the night sky. Tom had sat down next to his defeated opponent, who made no effort to rekindle the battle.
Tom pointed to the sky. “You see that? I’ve wanted to go up there ever since I was a little boy. I was so willing to take this journey, that I didn’t stop to ask why. My government wants to colonize the moon. I’m supposed to run tests to see whether not the planet is habitable. Beyond that, I don’t know what they’re planning. I can imagine that they’ll want to send the most powerful up there if it’s hospitable. If it isn’t, then they’ll probably send the ‘undesirables,’ the people we’ve criminalized for looking and acting different. Tell your leaders that I have no intention of telling the truth when I get up there. I’m not doing this for America. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this for Russian, either. Not any nation, for that matter. I want to go to the moon for the same reason I come out here: I can forget. When I’m alone out here, I’m at peace. But it’s not enough. I wish to experience a solitude no man has before. This might be the only way I can ever truly heal.”
“Best of luck then, Comrade.” The spy makes those parting words, before getting back on his bike, speeding away into the night.
One Week Later
Thomas Fitzgerald is ten seconds away from making history. Strapped to the pilot’s seat of his rocket, he steels himself for what lies beyond our atmosphere.
“…and in ten
Lift off! May God watch over you, sir!”
The rocket blasts off in a violent roar. It’s finally happening, the stars are within reach! It’s hard for Tom to hold back his emotions; his excitement, the tears of joy forming under his eyes. Tom watched the blue sky get darker and darker, as he got closer and closer to the cosmos. Almost instantaneously, he was no longer in Earth’s atmosphere, drifting amongst the stars.
Tom was now safe to get out of his pilot seat, which he jumped at the chance to do. He looked out his cockpit window, the small window on the exit hatch, any view he could get. What a view it was, the beauty of the void stretching into infinity. It was perfect. The many stresses of Earth became so insignificant so quickly, with the planet becoming a tiny speck light years away. Tome was content with this, floating all alone, accompanied by the hum of his machinery. He could never go back home.
A starmap had been prepared prior to the mission, and all Tom had to do was tune his navigational instruments in the direction of the moon. Soon, one man would greatly expand the knowledge of humanity in one fell swoop. America would be able to beat its chest in a display of national pride for generations to come. The discoveries made here could benefit science, or would benefit the military. Tom did not care about any of these things. This was a man willing to spill his guts to a Russian spy who tried to kill him, as if here were a therapist and not an assassin. All that mattered was the mission.
The moon got bigger in the cockpit window. It was almost time to land. Voices on the radio relayed instructions and praise to Tom, who ignored all of them since he took off. Entering his surfacing capsule, he began the landing procedure. Landing gears extending. Thrusters launching and guiding the ship into position. Speed decreasing. Lowering. Lowering. Lowering. Lowering the small shuttle until it touched the ground. Tom sat still for several minutes, his eyes closed. This was it, his dream was coming true. A dream that began with a boy who loved comic books, and was being realized by a man who only wished to escape. He unstrapped the safety harness in his seat, and pulled the hydraulic lever that opened the door. All Tom had to do was take two more steps. He could feel the cold of the moon through his space suit. The absolute stillness of the atmosphere would terrify most men, but Tom felt at peace here
Two steps off his capsule onto the surface of a new frontier, a new beginning. Tom was going to fulfill his dream.