by Jack Bragen
We reached orbital distance from the Moon, and the knot in my stomach partly eased. I put my hands next to the air ventilator to dry my sweaty palms. I hoped that my nervousness wasn’t apparent to my wife and two kids.
The ship unerringly pinpointed the spot where we had been allotted a campsite and began to decelerate in preparation for landing. My wife Jane was taking video, and our kids, Bob and Sandra, gazed through the thick glass, fixated, as the Moon loomed larger.
“It’s badass to be in zero G,” said Bob. “I can’t wait to walk on there and do somersaults.” I was impressed by my son’s enthusiasm. If only I could be that way...
We approached closer to the Moon’s surface. I had no inkling how I would pilot the craft should something need to be done manually, but the travel agent had assured me that these vehicles were perfectly safe.
A red flashing light appeared on my panel. The radiation-cancelling unit had shut down. I was instantly on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, and it took tremendous effort to conceal this from the rest of the family.
I said to Jane, “We have to go back. Do you see that light on my panel?”
“No doubt it is a malfunction. Why can you never enjoy anything?” Her tone was one of impatient exasperation. Jane always complained that I worried too much.
“C’mon, Dad,” said Bob. “I’m into this.”
“Guys, Dad is right,” said Sandra. “Nothing is protecting us from the solar radiation.”
“I never heard of that,” Jane said. “It has to be some scheme to get extra money out of us.”
Sandra had studied the subject in school. “We’re past the Earth’s magnetosphere,” she said.
Jane retorted, “You’re dad is turning his kids into another generation of worry warts. There is nothing we need to worry about!”
With a gentle bump, our elaborate, rented space vehicle landed.
“I need to phone the travel agency. That warning light looks important,” I said.
My daughter said, “It is important. If we have no radiation protection, we’ll get fried.”
I pressed the call button, which was to the left of the panel the travel agent had warned me not to touch. The communications speaker issued elevator music that alternated with a message, “Please continue to hold. A customer service agent will be with you shortly. We are experiencing heavy call volume, so please prepare to wait about ten minutes.”
My son Bob said, “Dammit, Dad, do we really need to do this right now. I want to have some fun.”
“Me too,” Jane said. “Why is this necessary?”
I had been on hold for a good twenty minutes, assaulted by awful music from the twentieth century. Finally, someone picked up the line.
“You have reached customer service for Planetary Adventures. I have identified you as George Stillwell and family members Jane, Sandra, and Bob Stillwell. Please describe in clear simple terminology the nature of your problem.”
It was an automated customer service representative, and I cursed some more.
I replied, “An indicator light came on that said our radiation shield is inoperative.”
I waited on hold another ten minutes. Apparently, a human being was now on the line. Without me able to get in a word, she said, “I assure you Mr. Stillwell, these ships are perfectly safe. We have been getting some other reports of this happening. We have looked into the problem and we have found it to be caused by a malfunction in the warning system. We are certain that your radiation cancelling unit is fully functional.”
My sigh in relief was probably audible on the other end. I realized that the three-second delay of Earth-Moon conversations was absent, so whoever I was speaking to must have been on or near the Moon.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr. Stillwell?”
“That should be good enough,” I said.
“Please enjoy your vacation. I am Representative A1C Janet 5424.”
After I hung up the phone, it rang with an incoming call. I picked it up. The voice said, “Please rate your experience with the Planetary Adventures Customer Service Artificial Intelligence Individual...”
I replied, “Can we do this another time?”
“Of course we can, Mr. Stillwell. For your reference, you have been dealing with the latest of sentient computers.”
“Goodbye,” I said.
“Goodbye. Please enjoy your vacation.”
* * *
The craft automatically set up and inflated an adjoining tent. Environment suits were revealed with the swivel of a fancy door in the passenger compartment next to the main airlock. The servant robot asked us if we would like a beverage.
Bob said, “C’mon! This is gonna be way better than snowboarding.”
The four of us explored the pressurized tent. Air mattresses were at one end of the space, while the other side had a deluxe video entertainment unit and a “gourmet” food and beverage machine. I accepted a can of low-grade champagne from the mini-robot. I tilted my head back and guzzled the contents of the can within half a minute.
“Let’s get out there and walk around!” Bob was eager for adventure, and I had never seen him anticipate having so much fun.
Our camping spot adjoined those of two other campers, each about a hundred yards away. Someone was barbequing in zero atmospheric conditions. The barbeque grill had air and fuel tanks. I wondered what the barbecue would taste like. The smoke that was produced instantly dispersed.
Abruptly, the fellow Moon camper was done cooking his meat, and cleaned the grill as park rules dictated. He must have been using the wrong kind of grill cleaner. The solvent got all over the place, partially bubbled away under zero atmospheric pressure, and the solids that remained apparently formed a sticky mess. The barbeque man decided to chuck his empty bottle of grill cleaner to see how far he could make it go in the scant Moon’s gravity and absence of air resistance.
My modern environment suit lent quite a sense of security. I walked around in circles and I actually enjoyed the sensation of buoyancy of the Moon’s feeble gravity.
I cautioned my son Bob not to try a somersault. He gave me a look like I was the Grinch or something.
After an hour of moonwalking, my family was exhausted, and we went back to our tent. Moon television that we were watching had an advertisement for a nearby excavation spot in which billion-year old fossils had supposedly been discovered. We took our Moon rover there the following day. I marveled at the flawlessness of the paved roadway. We parked the vehicle in the highly convenient parking garage.
We looked at the exhibits in the museum, and there wasn’t much to see. My daughter appeared fascinated by the magnified lunar diatoms on display but the rest of us didn’t get it. However, I overheard a conversation.
“Their radiation cancelling unit failed. They had to turn back immediately. The husband didn’t realize the hazard but his wife had insisted. So now they’re in a divorce over it. But they’re in treatment for radiation-induced illnesses...”
“No kidding. What dummies.”
I stared directly at the two women who had been talking. They looked back at me. I said, “The radiation canceling unit is pretty important, is it not?”
They nodded. One of them said, “They can’t be readily repaired except in the factory, and without it, you could get radiation poisoning.”
The other said, “There’s a unit for this museum building and in any place people spend a lot of time. If your unit isn’t working, you’re getting radiation poisoning while you’re asleep in your ship. And you won’t feel it until after you get back to Earth.”
I said, “We thought our unit wasn’t working, but it turned out to be a false alarm.”
The woman who stood forward and to my left replied, “Now you see, you shouldn’t have to deal with that. They’re making a lot of money off us for these vacations.”
“Thanks, ladies,” I said.
* * *
The next day, we did even more Moon walking.
“Okay, son, you can try a somersault. I give up,” I said. I had seen someone on Moon TV perform somersault with no harm done.
My son crouched, preparing to jump for a somersault in the faint gravity. He extended his arm and gave a thumbs-up. I assumed he wouldn’t hurt himself, as the environment suits we had been given were the latest models. He leapt, pulled his knees toward his chest, and appeared to have the necessary momentum. But then, his rotation stopped abruptly, and his legs straightened. He landed upright.
I hadn’t realized that my daughter was standing next to me and had been watching the whole thing.
Sandra said, “The spacesuits have a gyroscope and motors in the limbs. They’re idiot-proof.”
Bob looked at me, disappointed. Static came through my earpiece, mixed with bits and pieces of a nearby camper’s communication. I could make out the word “dummies” and some chortling but nothing else.
Abruptly I had a muscle spasm in my leg. I reflexively crouched and attempted to put my hands on my painful thigh, but my environment suit blocked any relief. I limped back toward the space vehicle.
My son and daughter knew something was wrong, and followed me into the airlock. When I got into the space tent, I immediately lay down on the nearest of the air mattresses and realized I had gone into a fetal position. I looked up at Jane who was crouching next to me, and I realized something was wrong. Some of her hair was missing and her face didn’t look right.
The phone rang. “Answer line,” I yelled from where I lay.
“This is a warning that solar radiation has exceeded the recommended levels.”
“Damn it, we have to get out of here,” I shouted. I made myself stand up, and this required a lot of effort. “Is the whole family in here?”
“We’re all here, “ replied Jane.
“We need to vacate this dumb inflatable tent and get back into the ship.”
The family scrambled back into the luxurious spacecraft, and I pressed a button labeled, “emergency return.”
“Are you certain that you would like to terminate your vacation?” asked a voice issued by a speaker in the cockpit.
“This is an emergency. Take us back to Earth right now!”
* * *
The ship landed on the main landing pad of the spaceport, and I phoned 911. An ambulance showed up next to our spacecraft, and four emergency medical techs helped us get out of our Moon craft and into the ambulance. We were taken to Radiation Treatment Center of America.
All four of us were hospitalized for the next four months, and I was later told that I had been written off as terminal, while my son, daughter and wife were almost as sick as I was. However, we all survived.
I looked at myself in the mirror. I appeared to be about twenty years older than before our vacation. My teeth had all fallen out, and I had almost no hair. When I looked at my wife and two children, they were altered almost as badly.
When I initiated litigation, Planetary Adventures insisted we had been warned repeatedly of the danger and flatly denied that we had been assured by them we were perfectly safe. My attorney told me we didn’t have a case.
I decided to write a book about the whole mishap, and this book eventually made the top ten list. Planetary Adventures is attempting to sue me over the contents of the book.
Copyright © 2015 by Jack Bragen