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Waste of Space
Earth year 2041
Lunar day 252
Really freaking early in the morning
For my thirteenth birthday, my father gave me the greatest present I could have ever hoped for: He took me outside to play catch.
Now, before you start thinking that my father was the biggest cheapskate on earth, there are a few things you need to know:
For starters, my father couldn’t have been the biggest cheapskate on earth, because we didn’t live on earth. We lived on the moon.
We were some of the first lunar colonists. Along with a handful of other scientists and their children, we lived at Moon Base Alpha, the first human settlement in outer space. When NASA had recruited us, they had made it sound like MBA would be the most exciting, amazing, incredible place in the universe.
It turned out, living on the moon was far more difficult than anyone had predicted. But as hard as it was for the adults, it was even worse being a kid there. Not only did we have to deal with the same lousy dehydrated food and cramped sleeping spaces and sadistic toilets as the adults, but there were a host of other problems for kids.
Like making friends. There were other kids at MBA, but I hadn’t been given any choice in selecting them. I was just stuck with them, and the only other boy my age, Roddy Marquez, wasn’t much fun to hang out with. You know how, on earth, parents will sometimes drag you to their friends’ house for the night and ask you to hang with their friends’ kid, even though they know the two of you don’t really get along? Well, imagine that, instead of going over to their friends’ house for one night, you’ve gone over for three years. And you can’t leave.
That was another problem with being a kid on the moon: You couldn’t go outside and play. Ever. Leaving Moon Base Alpha was extremely dangerous. There were a hundred ways you could die on the lunar surface; we had already lost one person out there and nearly lost another. For this reason, NASA forbade children from ever going outdoors, meaning that we were supposed to spend our whole time on the moon inside a building smaller than your standard Motel 6.
Despite it being against the rules, I had experienced the dangers of the surface myself. I had been outside on the moon four times: once while walking to MBA from the rocket that had brought me there and three times due to emergencies. I had nearly died on two of those excursions, which was a 50 percent near-death-experience rate. The same as flipping a coin. Not great odds.
And yet I still desperately wanted to go back outside again.
I was going nuts cooped up inside Moon Base Alpha. So were all the other kids. Even my six-year-old sister, Violet, who was normally as cheerful as an animated cartoon chipmunk, was starting to go stir-crazy. After eight months on the moon, she had watched every episode of her favorite TV show a thousand times and was constantly hounding Mom and Dad to let her go outside and play.
To which they’d inevitably have to reply, “You can’t.”
“Whyyyyyy nooooooooot?” Violet would whine. “I’m bored inside. There’s nothing to do on the moon.”
“That’s not true,” my parents would tell her. “You could play a game. Or read a book. There are thousands of books we could upload.”
“I want to ride my bike,” Violet would say.
“Your bicycle is back on earth.”
“Then I want to go out in a lunar rover. Dash got to go out in a lunar rover.”
“That was an emergency. And Dash was almost killed by a meteorite shower.”
“At least he got to have some excitement. I never get to almost die. I never get to do anything. I hate this stupid base!”
At this point my parents would get a little flummoxed. Ideally, they should have argued that “hate” was a strong word and that the base wasn’t stupid, but the fact was, neither of them was a big fan of MBA. I think both of them were feeling really guilty about having volunteered our family for service on the moon. Which would also explain why Dad ended up waking me at two a.m. on my birthday to play catch.
“Dash,” he whispered, shaking me lightly. “I have a surprise for you.”
I sat up groggily on my inflatable mattress and promptly bonked my head on the low ceiling of my sleep pod. Even after eight months at MBA, I still hadn’t gotten used to the fact that our sleeping areas were as tiny as coffins. I glanced at my watch and groaned. “Dad, it’s the middle of the night . . .”
“. . . on my birthday.”
“Sorry. It’s just that this is the only time I can take you outside without Nina noticing us.”
“Outside?!” I exclaimed. “What for?”
“Shh!” he warned. “I thought you’d like to try out some extreme low-gravity sports.”
I blinked at my father in the darkness, trying to figure out if this was a bad joke or a good dream. “It’s illegal for me to go outside.”
“I figured we could make an exception for your birthday. What do you say?”
I was out of my sleep pod before he could even finish the sentence, yanking on a T-shirt and shorts over the boxers I’d slept in. “What about meteors?”
“They shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve run a dozen atmospheric scans. No known clouds of potential meteors or space debris are anywhere within two hundred thousand miles. But we’ll stay close to base anyhow, just in case.”
“Okay.” I knew that, should a meteorite hit me directly, it wouldn’t matter how close to base I was; I’d be dead. But the risk of that was nonexistent if the skies were clear. Dad wouldn’t have taken the chance if he didn’t think it was safe. “And Nina . . . ?”
“Asleep. She was on the ComLink with earth until two hours ago, but I haven’t heard a peep out of her since then.”
Nina Stack was the moon-base commander. She was tough as nails and had the emotional range of a blender. (For this reason, all the kids called her Nina the Machina.) Her quarters were right next to ours, and the walls were thin; if you pressed your ear against one, you could hear everything in the next room. So if Dad said Nina was asleep, she was probably asleep.
“Won’t opening the air lock trigger some sort of alert?” I asked.
“Normally, yes. But Chang showed me how to hack the system.” Chang Kowalski was my father’s closest friend at MBA and the smartest person I had ever met; if anyone knew how to hack the system, it was him.
“C’mon,” Dad urged. “Before we wake your sister.”
Since he hadn’t mentioned Mom, I glanced toward her sleep pod. She was awake, peering out of it, looking a little jealous that Dad was getting to go with me, rather than her. “Happy birthday,” she whispered. “Have fun out there.”
She gave me a bittersweet smile. “I can’t believe I have a teenager. I’m old.”
“You don’t look old,” Dad told her. “You look the same as the day I met you.”
“That’s just the low gravity. Wait until you see me back on earth.”
“You’ll look even better there, I promise.” Dad gave Mom a kiss (which I averted my eyes from), then grabbed our baseball and led me out the door.
It took another fifteen minutes for us to get outside. Space suits are difficult to put on, and you don’t want to make a mistake. Otherwise you could freeze to death. Or suffocate as your oxygen leaks out. Or both. All of which were things we obviously wanted to avoid. So Dad and I took great care suiting up, then double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked each other.
“How’s the suit feel?” Dad asked me. With our helmets on, we were now using radios to communicate, even though we were standing right next to each other.
“All right, I guess,” I reported. “Seems a little tighter in the shoulders than it was last time I went out.”
“Really?” Dad asked, surprised. And then understanding flooded his face. “Oh my gosh,” he sighed. “Of course.”
“What is it?”
I would have smacked my forehead if I hadn’t been wearing a space helmet. Over the past few weeks, I’d begun a growth spurt. It was only an inch so far, but still, that had very different repercussions on the moon than on earth. The few T-shirts I had brought were getting tighter and shorter on me, so we’d had to ask NASA to send new ones on the next supply rocket. The same applied to the single pair of sneakers I had brought; in the meantime, I’d had to slit the tips off with a paring knife to make room for my toes. And as for my space suit . . .
Everyone on the moon had a suit specifically designed for them and no one else. Many parts of mine, like my helmet, had been sculpted specifically to my own personal measurements, meaning that someone significantly bigger or smaller than me wouldn’t be able to use it. However, it appeared that NASA—which had only made space suits for adults until recently—had forgotten something very important about kids: We grew. And in the significantly lower gravity of the moon, there was a chance we might grow even faster than we did on earth. Meaning that, after being on the moon for three years, our suits might not fit us anymore.
Of course, I hadn’t thought about this myself, and apparently no one else had either until that moment.
“Do you think it’s still safe for me to wear it?” I asked.
“Yes,” Dad said reassuringly. “You haven’t grown that much. But I wonder if your sister’s still fits her. She’s sprouted a bit since we got here, and she hasn’t tried her suit on in eight months. She ought to, though. And all the other kids should too.”
“Especially Roddy,” I said, meaning Rodrigo Marquez, the only other boy on base my age. The one I was stuck on the moon with. “I don’t think he’s any taller, but he’s definitely rounder than when we got here.”
Roddy was the only person who had actually gained weight at MBA. He was one of the few Moonies who actually found space food appetizing and he had staunchly avoided the two hours of exercise a day we were required to do to combat low-gravity bone and muscle loss. There was a decent chance that, once we got back to earth and its stronger gravity, Roddy wouldn’t have the strength to stand up.
Dad didn’t say anything in response, though. A cloud of worry had formed over his face.
“Dad?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Hmm?” He turned back to me, then seemed to snap back to the present. He gave me a smile, but I could tell it was forced. “No, I was just thinking about the suits. Remind me to make sure we test your sister’s on her, first thing tomorrow.”
“First thing?” I asked. “We’re not leaving here for another two and a half years. If we’re lucky.”
“Still, there could always be an emergency and we might have to evacuate.” While that was true, I got the sense something else was on my father’s mind. Before I could press the issue, though, he said, “Looks like we’re good to go. Let’s get out there before someone comes along and sees us.”
With that, he picked up the baseball, opened the interior door of the air lock and stepped inside. I followed him.
I was quivering with excitement.
I had expected to be more nervous after my previous life-threatening trips onto the surface, but those had been very different. Each of those times, I had been in a rush, and lives had been on the line. This time I was going outside simply to have fun. And my father was with me, which made a big difference.
Honestly, the whole point of going to the moon is to walk around on the surface. For as long as people have dreamed of going there, the dreams have never been about being cooped up in a moon base. The dreams have been about making boot prints in moon dust that will last forever, climbing mountains that no human has ever climbed, and staring up into the sky and seeing our home planet in the distance. All anyone remembers about humanity’s first visit to the moon is the two and a half hours Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent on the surface, not the additional nineteen hours they spent in the lunar module.
The air-lock chamber depressurized, and then a green light lit up by the outer door, indicating that it was okay to head outside.
“Sun’s out,” Dad said. “Lower your visor.”
I was already doing it. The moon doesn’t have an atmosphere, so in the direct sunlight it’s more than four hundred degrees. Without the protective mirrored visors in our helmets, our heads would have cooked like microwave popcorn.
Dad lowered his visor too. His face disappeared and was replaced with a warped mirror that reflected me back at myself.
Then Dad opened the exterior air-lock door and we bounded out onto the moon.
Since the sun was out, the entire plain of moon dust before us was lit up. Above us, the sky was pitch black, save for earth, hanging in the air by the horizon. I stopped and stared at it for a few seconds, thinking how beautiful it was—and wishing I was back there.
Dad seemed to sense this—he was probably thinking the same thing—and so he made a blatant attempt to distract me. He bonked me on my helmet.
“Hey!” I said, wheeling around toward him.
He held up the baseball and said, “Go long.”
So I did. I bounded across the lunar surface. It wasn’t easy, as the moon dust was thick and slightly adhesive, and the weight of my space suit counteracted the low lunar gravity. But it was still a joy to be playing outside at all.
The last time I had played catch with my father had been more than eight months before. It had been our last trip back home to Hawaii before setting off for the moon. We had returned from training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to say good-bye to family and friends, to take a few last hikes in the mountains, to surf a few last waves. It had been a bittersweet visit, knowing that we wouldn’t get to do anything like that again for three years, but at the time we’d all been very excited about heading to the moon. We were blissfully unaware of how much worse life would be at MBA than NASA had prepared us for.
In the last eight months, I had been able to play ball inside MBA, but it wasn’t the same as doing it outdoors. And every time I did it, Nina inevitably showed up and ordered me to stop it before I hurt someone or broke something. This also happened whenever I and the other kids tried to do anything physical, like tag or hide-and-seek or blindman’s bluff. Officially, the only place approved for strenuous activity at MBA was the gymnasium, but the gym was too small to play in. Yet another reason why being a kid on the moon was lame.
Technically, we weren’t even supposed to bring balls to the moon because of the potential for injury, but Dad had found a loophole. We were all allowed to bring a few special “personal effects” to remind us of home, so Dad had faked the signature of Sandy Koufax on the ball and claimed it was a family heirloom.
I got forty yards across the moon and spun back to face my father.
He tossed the ball my way. Only in the low gravity, he didn’t know his own strength. It rocketed out of his hand and sailed several stories over my head. “Oh, crap!” he exclaimed.
I spun around and ran for the ball again. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to track. Against the pitch-black sky, it glowed like an oncoming headlight. I charged through a small impact crater, tracking the ball as it fell, then dove for it. I snagged it out of the air and landed on my belly, carving a long furrow in the moon dust. But the ball stayed in my gloved hands. I got back to my feet and realized I was now nearly a football field away from my father. I raised the ball triumphantly for him to see.
He gave a whoop of joy. “Way to go, Dashiell! That has to be the greatest catch in human history! It puts Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds to shame!”
I whooped as well. Diving for the ball had been reckless and childish. I could have smashed into a moon rock and damaged my suit—and it was now so covered with moon dust, it would probably take an hour to clean. But I still felt exhilarated. “Let’s see if I can get it back to you!” I said.
“Be careful,” Dad warned. “I didn’t even throw it that hard. If you use all your strength, you’ll send it into orbit.”
“All right.” I gave the ball a light flick, the same way I might have chucked it across our yard back in Hawaii. Sure enough, it flew all the way back to Dad—and then some. It shot over his head, ricocheted off the air-lock door, and plopped into the moon dust at his feet.
“Okay,” Dad said. “I think we’ve got the hang of this. Let’s see how far we can go. I’ll bet we can easily set the record for the farthest game of catch of all time.”
I took a few steps backward and Dad tossed the ball to me. Now that he had a better idea of how to throw in the low gravity, he was much more on target. I caught the ball, took a few more steps backward, and winged it back to him. We kept on like that for a few more minutes, until the distance between us was nearly two football fields. Definitely a record. And yet we still weren’t even throwing that hard.
The only thing that kept us from going any farther was that it was now getting hard to see each other. My father was only a little dot on the horizon. He had to alert me as to when he was throwing the ball so I would know it was coming. If I lost it in the field of moon dust around me, we’d never find it again—and the closest sporting goods store was 250,000 miles away.
And yet I kept finding my attention drawn to the earth hanging in the sky above me.
I desperately wanted to go home.
I hadn’t taken a breath of fresh air in eight months. I hadn’t gone on a hike, or ridden a bike, or seen an animal that wasn’t part of a lab experiment. Almost every bit of food I’d eaten had been dehydrated, irradiated, thermostabilized, and reduced to little cubes of gunk; I was dying for a taste of ice cream, or fresh salmon, or a salad.
I missed water most of all.
I hadn’t expected that, but it was true. I had never realized how much I took water for granted until I barely had any. I missed standing under a warm shower. (On the moon, we had to clean ourselves with a cold, measly trickle of water—and we only got to do that once every few weeks.) I missed swimming in the ocean. I missed being able to open the tap and drink water that had recently fallen from the sky, instead of water that had been consumed, urinated out, and recycled two thousand times already. I missed every single thing about rainstorms: the feel of the drops on my body, the rumble of thunder, the shimmer of a rainbow, the smell after the rains had passed. That had all been missing from my life for the past eight months.
Except for one, all-too-brief moment.
A month before, with the help of an alien named Zan Perfonic, I had mentally traveled to earth to see my best friend, Riley Bock. For approximately two seconds, I had the experience of standing on Hapuna Beach in Hawaii. It wasn’t like I was merely watching it on a screen; it was as though I was actually there. I could feel the ocean breeze on my skin and the cool wet sand beneath my feet; I could smell the salt in the air; I could sense the warmth of the setting sun and the earth all around me.
And then I lost contact.
I know, I sound like a lunatic. Like all the time cooped up on the moon drove me insane and made me start hallucinating.
But I wasn’t crazy. Zan was real. She had first approached me two months earlier. Originally, she had been in contact with Dr. Holtz, but after he was murdered, she reached out to me, hoping to continue her contact with the human race. I was the only person she spoke to, and she did it through thought alone. She could project herself into my mind and communicate with me through some sort of highly advanced intergalactic ESP. (This cut down on the need to spend several hundred millennia flying between planets to talk face-to-face. It also allowed me to speak to her in private, which was good, because she wanted to keep our contact a secret.) I had no idea how she did it. In fact, I had no idea how I’d done it myself. I had been desperately trying to replicate the experience ever since, but without any luck. Zan tried to explain the process to me many times, but I couldn’t even begin to understand what she was talking about.
In a way, being back on earth for two seconds was even worse than having been removed from it altogether. My moments there reminded me of what I was missing and left me desperate for more. It was like tasting the tiniest morsel of chocolate and then being told I couldn’t have any more for the next two and a half years. And my inability to get back again—or even grasp how it had happened at all—was insanely frustrating.
Staring up at the blue planet now, all I could think was how wonderful it would be to be submerged in all that water.
“Dash! Heads up!”
Startled by my father’s cry, I snapped back to attention to find the baseball hurtling right at me. While I’d been distracted, Dad had launched a pinpoint throw to me. I didn’t even have enough time to react. The ball clonked me right in the face shield. I staggered backward, stumbled over a moon rock, and fell on my butt.
Dad burst into laughter. “What happened?” he asked. “Did you just zone out for a bit?”
“I guess.” I staggered back to my feet and found the ball in a pile of moon dust a few feet away.
“Were you looking at the earth?” Dad asked, sounding a lot more serious all of a sudden.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I can’t believe it’ll be another twenty-eight months until we can go home. Eight hundred and sixty-eight days. Not that I’m counting.”
Dad didn’t say anything right away. I wasn’t sure if he was feeling guilty for bringing me to the moon, or mulling over what to say next—or maybe our radio connection had simply dropped. Finally, he spoke. “About that. There’s something we need to discuss.”
There was a sadness in his tone that unsettled me. Like he had very bad news to deliver. “What is it?” I asked.
Before Dad could answer me, though, another voice interrupted our conversation. It was Nina Stack, and she was angry. “Stephen and Dashiell! What are you doing out there?”
Rather than be cowed by her, Dad answered cheerfully, knowing it would annoy her. “Good morning, Nina! Dash and I were just conducting some scientific research on the physics of spherical projectiles launched on the lunar surface.”
Nina didn’t think this was funny. But then again, Nina didn’t think anything was funny. “Do you have any idea how many safety protocols you are violating by being out there?” she asked.
“Seventeen?” Dad ventured.
“Seventy-six,” Nina corrected. “I want you back in here ASAP.”
“C’mon, Nina, be a sport,” Dad pleaded. “It’s Dashiell’s birthday. And we’re not doing anything dangerous. . . .”
“Any foray onto the lunar surface is dangerous,” Nina told us. “You two should know that better than anyone. With everything else that’s going on here right now, the last thing I need is for another disaster to crop up.”
I wondered what Nina meant by “everything else that’s going on here right now.” But I didn’t have a chance to ask.
“Can you give us another ten minutes?” Dad asked.
“No! I’m watching you right now. If I don’t see you head back here this very moment, I will cite you for insubordination.” Nina spoke like she was scolding a kindergartner, rather than talking to one of the world’s foremost geologic scientists.
“You’d do that?” Dad asked. “After everything I’ve done for you?” Even though it sounded like Dad was teasing, I knew there was more to it than that. Nina had broken some rules herself at MBA recently—far more serious than the ones we were breaking—and she could have been relieved of her duty for it. Although Nina had reported her actions to NASA, Dad, Mom, and the other Moonies had issued statements in support of her, claiming there had been extenuating circumstances, and Nina had been allowed to keep her position as commander.
“What’s your point?” Nina asked coldly.
“I would like to let my son spend another ten minutes on the surface of the moon for his birthday,” Dad replied.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said, not wanting my father to get in trouble. “We can go back—”
“No,” Dad said firmly. “You have been a model citizen at our base for the last eight months—even when other people haven’t.” This last part was obviously directed at Nina. “You deserve this. In fact, you deserve a hell of a lot more than this. So I think the least Nina can do is—”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence. From the other end of the radio came a shrill, terrified scream.
Even though it was diluted over the radio, it still made me jump.
The scream wasn’t from Nina. It was too distant, like it had come from someone else far away inside MBA. I couldn’t tell who had screamed—or even whether they were male or female—but one thing was clear:
Someone back at Moon Base Alpha was in serious trouble.