172 Hours on the Moonby Johan Harstad
It's been decades since anyone set foot on the moon. Now three ordinary teenagers, the winners of NASA's unprecedented, worldwide lottery, are about to become the first young people in space--and change their lives forever. Mia, from Norway, hopes this will be her punk band's ticket to fame and fortune. Midori believes it's her way out of her restrained life in Japan.… See more details below
It's been decades since anyone set foot on the moon. Now three ordinary teenagers, the winners of NASA's unprecedented, worldwide lottery, are about to become the first young people in space--and change their lives forever. Mia, from Norway, hopes this will be her punk band's ticket to fame and fortune. Midori believes it's her way out of her restrained life in Japan. Antoine, from France, just wants to get as far away from his ex-girlfriend as possible.
It's the opportunity of a lifetime, but little do the teenagers know that something sinister is waiting for them on the desolate surface of the moon. And in the black vacuum of space... no one is coming to save them.
In this chilling adventure set in the most brutal landscape known to man, highly acclaimed Norwegian novelist Johan Harstad creates a vivid and frightening world of possibilities we can only hope never come true.
Dagbaldet's Best Norwegian YA Novel of All Time"
Scandinavian thriller meets sci-fi horror movie."VOYA"
This irresistible premise is often intoxicating and occasionally downright terrifying.... pretty darn effective."Booklist"
Imaginative.... Well-crafted suspense.... Interesting and original."Kirkus Reviews"
Harstad combines the perfectly paced creepiness of classic Twilight Zone episodes with Battlestar Galactica's chilling portrayal of the vast, unknowable emptiness of space."Romantic Times"
Creepy and bleak, Harstad's story is both psychologically and atmospherically disturbing."Publishers Weekly"
Original, creepy, intense... 172 Hours is page-turning sci-fi that will stay with readers long after the shocking and heartbreaking conclusion."School Library Journal"
A fascinating, suspense-filled novel that keeps the reader guessing until the end."Library Media Connection
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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Read an Excerpt
172 Hours on the Moon
By Harstad, Johan
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Harstad, Johan
All right reserved.
PROLOGUE: FEBRUARY 2010
“Gentlemen, it’s time,” Dr. said, eyeing the seven men in suits seated around the large conference table. They were some of the most powerful people in the country, together in the largest meeting room at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was nearing eleven o’clock at night.
They would have to make a decision soon.
“So, what’s it going to be, then?” Dr. asked impatiently.
The cigarette smoke in the room was thick and impenetrable, making the atmosphere even gloomier. All rules forbidding smoking in government offices had fallen by the wayside as nerves came to a head.
“Well,” one of the seven began, chewing on his pencil, “it’s an incredibly risky proposition. You must know that. Is it really worth it?”
“People had already completely lost interest in the moon missions before the last launch in 1972,” another one said. “Why do you think they’d be on board with us going back?”
“It could be done,” a third said. “We could tell them there’s a good chance of finding large amounts of tantalum seventy-three at the moon’s south pole.”
The room was suddenly buzzing, the tension starting to crescendo.
“You don’t want to go back to the south pole, trust me.”
“Of course not.”
“It’ll kill you.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“If you ask me, I say leave the whole place alone.”
“Gentlemen,” Dr. interrupted, “do you have any idea how important a discovery tantalum seventy-three would be? Most current technology is dependent on this material. People would be throwing money at us.”
“So we’re going up there to search for natural resources? I thought—” one of the other men said.
Dr. interrupted him again. “No, we’re not.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cleared his throat. “Let me put the cards on the table for you, gentlemen. We are not going to the south pole of the moon, and whether or not tantalum seventy-three is found on the moon is completely immaterial.”
Confusion spread through the room.
“I presume some of you are familiar with Project Horizon?” he continued.
The man who had spoken first asked, “You mean the research done in the late fifties? The plans to build a military base on the moon? I thought that was scrapped.”
Dr. shook his head. “The base isn’t military.” He looked at the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It’s just a research station. Isn’t that right?”
The chairman didn’t answer. He gave the man a friendly look. “It’s called DARLAH 2. It was constructed in the seventies under the name Operation DP7.”
“But why… in the world… why haven’t any of us heard of it before?”
“All information concerning DARLAH 2 was classified top secret until just recently. For security reasons.” He paused for a second, pondering whether or not he ought to say any more.
Dr. beat him to it, explaining, “DARLAH 2 was built from 1974 to 1976. But the base is in the Sea of Tranquility, where, as you know, Armstrong and Aldrin originally landed in sixty-nine. None of the other landings occurred there.”
“Why was it built?” one of the men who had been quiet up until that point asked.
“We found something,” Dr. replied.
“Could you elaborate?”
“We don’t know what it is. The plan was to continue our studies and station personnel on the moon, but as you already know, after 1976 we lost most of our funding. And as I hinted, finances weren’t the only reason the moon program was terminated. The truth is that… what we found up there is not the type of discovery for which one receives money for further research. We would have been asked to leave it alone. So we pretended it never existed… and, anyway, the signal disappeared.”
“Until it showed up again last fall,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs added.
“The signal? It? What the hell is it?” one of the confused men exclaimed. Dr. looked at the man who had spoken, then leaned over and pulled something out of his briefcase. He set a folder on the table and pulled out a four-by-six photo.
“This picture was taken on the moon by Apollo 15’s James Irwin. The astronaut in the photo is David R. Scott.”
“But… who’s the other person in the background?” one of the men asked.
“We don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What the hell is going on here?”
“There’s a proper time for everything, gentlemen. All the information you’re asking for will be made available once we’ve unanimously voted to proceed with the plan—which, may I remind you, the president himself is in full support of. Now, can we discuss how we’re going to explain the fact that we’ve had an unused base sitting up there for forty years without anyone finding out about it?”
“Unused? Are you trying to say that no one has ever stayed at this base before?” one of the astronauts in the room asked. “What about the people who built it?”
“They were never inside. The modules were assembled on the surface by machines, not by people.”
One of the men already on board with the plan stood up, smiling confidently: “We’ll say we’ve spent forty years testing it, making sure it works perfectly.”
“And does it?” someone else asked.
“In principle, yes,” replied the man, whose smile wasn’t quite so confident anymore.
“In principle isn’t good enough, is it?”
“It’ll have to do. We have to go back within a decade, before someone else gets there first.”
Several of the men present still seemed skeptical, if not stunned.
“But who are you going to send up there? What are they going to do?”
“The first expedition will accomplish three simple things. One: They’ll test the base and make sure it’s working the way it’s supposed to. Two: They’ll research the possibility of mining rare Earth metals that will give the United States a huge advantage in the technology manufacturing market. And three—this is the most important of all, gentlemen—they will attract media attention, which will consequently secure sufficient financial support to continue our research and… get rid of any potential… problems.”
“Problems like what?” someone asked.
Dr. held his hand up in front of him as if to stop the words. “As I said, we’ll get to that. The idea is to turn the whole thing into a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the moon. We’ll build new, improved versions of the classic Apollo program rockets from the sixties and seventies. That’s guaranteed to make people feel nostalgic.”
“But no one under the age of forty-five even remembers those Apollo missions.”
Dr. waited a long time before speaking. He was a very intelligent man, and having to explain every detail to these ludicrous excuses for public figures was grating on his nerves. Fortunately, he had played this conversation out in his head many times, and he had an answer for anything they might ask, including the perfect idea for getting the entire world interested in a new mission. “Gentlemen, what if we send some teenagers up there?”
No one responded. They all just sat there, waiting, assuming he was joking.
But he wasn’t.
“You want to send kids? Why in the world would you want to put kids on the moon?” someone asked.
Dr. smiled patronizingly and replied, “If we select three young people, teenagers, who get to accompany the astronauts, we’ll get a whole new generation excited about space exploration. It will be nothing less than a global sensation.”
“But… just a minute ago you were telling us there’s something… unknown up there. And none of you seem able to say what it really is or what potential consequences we’re facing. And you want to send untrained, innocent teenagers up there as, what, guinea pigs?”
“The benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. replied. “The probability of anything happening is small in the specific area of operation, and the astronauts will have the opportunity to set up important equipment and perform the necessary studies. For the sake of simplicity, I think it’s best to look at this as two missions in one. The first—our part—is to research the potential mining of tantalum seventy-three—”
“I thought you said we would not actually look for tantalum at all?”
“We won’t.” Then he went on. “The second part will be the teenagers’ mission, which will be little effort for them. The media attention will be automatic. They’ll portray this as a glamorous space version of a trip to Disneyland. And, best of all, my preliminary inquiries indicate that some major corporate sponsorship is almost guaranteed, which will likely provide the money we need for a second mission.”
“There’ll be a second mission as well?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You want kids to go on the second one as well?”
Dr. held up two thick envelopes marked TOP SECRET. “Teenagers on the moon, gentlemen, is the solution we’ve been looking for. The door opener.”
“But how will you decide who gets to go?”
Dr. smiled again, even more slyly, and replied, “We’ll hold a lottery.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Mia Nomeland said, giving her parents an unenthusiastic look. “No way.”
“But Mia, honey. It’s an amazing opportunity, don’t you think?”
Her parents were sitting side by side on the sofa, as if glued together, with the ad they had clipped out of the newspaper lying on the coffee table in front of them. Every last corner of the world had already had a chance to see some version of it. The campaign had been running for weeks on TV, the radio, the Internet, and in the papers, and the name NASA was on its way to becoming as well known around the globe as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.
“An opportunity for what? To make a fool of myself?”
“Won’t you even consider it?” her mother tried. “The deadline isn’t for a month, you know.”
“No! I don’t want to consider it. There’s nothing for me to do up there. There’s something for me to do absolutely everywhere except on the moon.”
“If it were me, I would have applied on the spot,” her mother said.
“Well, I’m sure my friends and I are all very glad that you’re not me.”
“Fine, sorry. It’s just that I… I don’t care. Is that so hard for you to understand? You guys are always telling me that the world is full of opportunities and that you have to choose some and let others pass you by. And that there are enough opportunities to last a lifetime and then some. Right, Dad?”
Her dad mumbled some sort of response and looked the other way.
Her mother sighed. “I’ll leave the ad over here on the piano for a while, in case you change your mind.”
It’s always like this, Mia thought, leaving the living room. They’re not listening. They’re just waiting for me to finish talking.
Mia went up to her room in the attic and started practicing. When it came to her music, she never slacked off. She’d been playing the guitar for two years, and for a year and a half she’d been a vocalist in the band Rogue Squadron, a name with a nod to the seventies appropriate for a punk band that sort of sounded like something from another era, maybe 1982. Or 1984. Even though she didn’t always care about getting every last little bit of her homework done, she made sure she knew her music history better than anyone.
Her latest discovery was the Talking Heads, a band she had slowly but surely fallen in love with. Or, rather, that she was doing her best to fall in love with, because she could tell it was good. She still struggled a little when she listened for a long time. And she wasn’t quite sure if the music was post-punk or rock or just pop, and that made the whole thing even more complicated. But it had such a cold, electronic eighties sound, she knew it would be a perfect fit for her if she could just get into the music.
She kept practicing her guitar for an hour and wrote a draft for a new song that worked off a riff she’d stolen from songs she was totally sure no one had heard. It would be okay to show up with that at her band’s rehearsal tomorrow. After she’d played through it five times and was pretty sure she remembered the chords, she set her guitar down, plugged her headphones into the stereo, and pressed play. Music from the band she had decided to start liking filled her ears. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.
“What are you listening to, Mia?” her dad asked, raising one side of her headphones. He was trying to smooth over the negative vibe from earlier in the day.
“Talking Heads,” she answered.
“You know they were really popular when I was young.”
Mia gave him a look but didn’t respond.
“You know, it’s an amazing opportunity, Mia, the moon. I—we—just want what’s best for you. You know that.”
She groaned but tried to smile at him anyway. “Dad, please. Just drop it, okay?”
But he wouldn’t drop it.
“And for your band, have you given that any thought? Don’t you guys want to be famous? I don’t think it would hurt Rough Squadron in terms of publicity if the vocalist were a world-famous astronaut.”
“Rogue Squadron,” she corrected.
“Anyway,” he replied, “you know what I mean.” And then he left, shutting her door carefully behind him.
Mia lay down on her bed again. Was there something to what he said? No, there wasn’t. She was a musician, after all. Not some astronaut wannabe. She turned her music on again, and vocalist David Byrne sang: “ I don’t know what you expect staring into the TV set. Fighting fire with fire.”
It was almost May, but the air was still chilly in Norway. The trees lining the avenue were naked and lifeless with the exception of a couple of leaves here and there, which had opened too early. Two weeks had passed since Mia’s parents had suggested their silly idea to her.
Now she was standing outside school, scraping her boots back and forth over the ground as she waited for Silje to come back from the bathroom. Lunch break would be over soon, and around her other students were scurrying back into the building for fear they’d be late. But Mia was not in any hurry. The teachers always came to class a few minutes late anyway. They sat up there in the teachers’ lounge eating dry Ritz crackers and drinking bitter coffee while they trash-talked individual students.
Mia felt her school was the kind of place where the teachers, with a few decent exceptions, should have gone into pretty much any profession other than teaching. Janitorial work, for example. Or tending graveyards. Something where they didn’t need to interact with living people. Most of them had just barely squeaked through their teaching programs about a hundred years earlier. They had almost infinite power here, and they did their best to remind the students of that every chance they got—because they all knew that this authority disappeared like dew in the sunlight the second they left school grounds and headed out into the real world, where they were forced to interact with people their own age.
Silje came out of the bathroom. She and Mia were the only ones who hadn’t gone back inside yet.
“Cool boots,” Silje said.
“I’ve been wearing them all day,” Mia replied drily. “Didn’t you notice?”
“Not until now. Where’d you get them?”
Mia looked down at her worn, black leather boots that laced up just above the ankle. “Online. Italian paratrooper boots.”
“Awesome,” Silje said. “Well, should we go in?”
“What do you have now?”
“Math,” Silje said.
“I have Deutsch. With ‘the Hair,’ ” Mia said with a sigh.
They went back in and took the stairs up to the second floor.
“Are we rehearsing tonight?” Silje asked right before they went their separate ways.
“I think so. Leonora’s going to call me as soon as she knows if she can.”
“Let me know, okay? I can be there at seven. Not before.”
“Seven’s fine. Hey, I wrote a new song yesterday.”
“You did? What’s it called?”
“ ‘Bomb Hiroshima Again,’ I think. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Cool,” Silje said with a laugh. “See you later.”
Mia continued on to the third floor and walked into the classroom. The teacher wasn’t there yet, so she skimmed through her German book to figure out what in the world she was supposed to have read the night before.
The Hair came sailing into the classroom with an inflatable beach ball shaped like a model of the moon in her hands. Mia rolled her eyes. Oh my God, not her, too.
But, yes, the Hair—this tiny lady with the freakishly big hair—had caught moon fever. She disappeared behind her desk and started blabbering on in German about how exciting the whole thing was and how great it would be if one of her students ended up being selected.
Mia rolled her eyes again. It was a known fact that the Hair had been at this school too long. She only taught German and home ec. And then there was her big secret, which everyone knew but which she thought was well kept: The Hair had never been to Germany. She had only ever left Norway once, to go to Sweden. And that was back in the summer of 1986 or thereabouts, and she had come home again after four days.
But maybe the fact that she was now standing in front of them with that inflatable moon under her arm wasn’t as strange as one might think. The whole world had come completely unhinged this winter. The newspapers, the radio, the TV, and the Internet were flooded with moon mania every day, from trivia and data spouted by experts and professors and astronomers to competitions where you could win all sorts of stuff just by answering a few simple questions about space travel. Meanwhile, millions of teenagers were busy logging on or standing in long lines at registration desks in malls or grocery stores in just about every single town in the whole world to make sure that their names had been entered.
For safety reasons, NASA had decided that the three young people who would be chosen to go must be at least fourteen and that they couldn’t be older than eighteen. They would also need to be between five feet four inches and six feet four inches tall, undergo a psychological examination performed by a certified practitioner in their hometown, and pass a general physical examination in order to obtain a medical “green card.” All applicants should have a near and distant visual acuity correctable to 20/20 and a blood pressure, while sitting, of no more than 140 over 90. And then there were all the tests and training they would be put through in the unlikely event that they were among the selected few.
While these requirements restricted the number of candidates somewhat, millions of names had been submitted for the big drawing, and as the days and weeks went by, people were close to bursting with excitement. Gamblers put money on which countries the lucky three would come from and on whether the winners would include more boys or girls. Talk show hosts invited experts to speculate about nonsense like the effect of seeing Earth from space on people so young. And then there were the debates that were as numerous as they were endless about this moon base that no one had ever heard mention of before now. What was it? Why was it there? What did it do? Could people really trust that it had been built with peaceful intentions?
The Hair reached the end of her speech and switched into broken Norwegian, which often happened whenever she spoke German for too long. “But listen to this. Someone representing NASA—yes, the NASA—called our school to check in with our students about signing up for the lottery. As I’m sure you’ve heard, any school with one hundred percent participation by their eligible students will be entered in a sweepstakes for a grant for technology upgrades. The representative from NASA said that a whopping ninety-one from your grade have already signed up and asked us to encourage the rest of you to do so as well. But only five of you from my German class have taken advantage of this incredible opportunity.”
No one said anything.
“Well done, Petter, Stine, Malene, and Henning.”
The four students who’d signed up smiled at her smugly.
“And Mia, what a nice surprise. Congratulations.”
Mia stiffened completely and said, “I didn’t sign up for anything.”
“Well, according to NASA, you did.”
Mia leaned over her desk and said loudly, “Well then, they must have made a mistake! I totally didn’t sign up for that stupid-ass lottery.”
“Calm down, Mia. It’s nothing to be self-conscious about.”
“I’m not embarrassed about it. It’s just not true. And even if it were, NASA shouldn’t be releasing that kind of information to anyone.”
The Hair waved her hand dismissively and winked at her, as if they were both in on some secret. “Evidently it was a condition of the sign-up procedure that you give NASA permission to reveal your name as a participant in the lottery. But we don’t need to dwell on this. It’s up to each individual to decide if he or she wants to consider doing it or not.”
“What’s your point?” Mia railed, rage welling up inside. “I told you I didn’t sign up for that thing. What the hell would I do in space, anyway? Don’t you think I have better things to do? Screw the moon!”
“We don’t use language like that in my classroom, Mia!”
“No, we don’t talk at all in your classroom. You just go off on hour-long monologues about whatever bullshit you feel like!”
The teacher stood and pointed to the door. “You’re excused from the rest of the class, Mia. I don’t want you here. You can wait out in the hall.”
Mia didn’t protest. She brushed her German book off the edge of her desk so it landed in her backpack, got up, and left. The hallway was empty, and from the surrounding classrooms she could hear snippets of Norwegian, math, and English classes going on. Without thinking, she opened the door to her classroom again and stared straight at the Hair.
“Besides, everyone knows you’ve never been to Germany. Maybe that’s something you should be embarrassed about?” For half a second her teacher’s face became long and sad, as if she’d been sentenced to life in prison for a nasty crime she forgot she’d committed.
Mia heard cheers starting to erupt from the other students before she slammed the door shut and headed down the stairs and out onto the school grounds. She strolled over to the track next to the gym, sat down on the railing, and took out her phone to call her mother. An uncomfortable suspicion had started to take shape in her mind.
Behind her, about thirty students were running around the track. Mia didn’t even need to look to know that this was their crazy PE teacher’s doing. She was almost fifty, had a mustache, and had been teaching there since the dawn of time. She didn’t accept the concept of excuses; even if you were paralyzed from the waist down, she demanded that you perform to Olympic standards. Several of the panting students in the back were obviously pale, a couple of their faces were light green, and it was only a matter of time before they keeled over and vomited.
Mia’s mother answered just as the first stomach emptied its contents onto the track.
“Mia, hi. What is it? Are you at school?”
“Mom, did you sign me up for that trip to the moon thing?”
It was quiet on the other end of the line. Very quiet.
“I… we, your dad and I, we… thought you’d regret it. Later. So, well, we, um…”
Mia interrupted her harshly. “Did you sign me up?”
There was another pause, but shorter this time. “Yes.”
Mia groaned. “What were you guys thinking?”
“Mia, everyone else your age thinks this is an amazing opportunity. Why—”
“But I’m not everyone else, am I? You have absolutely no respect for the fact that my opinions are different from yours. Why don’t you guys go yourselves if you’re so excited about it? Because that’s what it’s about, right? Since you guys aren’t eligible, you’re signing me up as the next best thing. What do you think, that it’ll make us all rich and famous? Is that it?”
“Mia, I think you’re being unreasonable now.”
“Unreasonable? What’s unreasonable is doing it behind my back.”
But Mia had already hung up. Two students collapsed with a dull thud onto the grass behind her. Seconds later the PE teacher was over them, hauling them up as the vomit ran down their gym clothes.
Mia didn’t even like the word. And it didn’t have anything to do with the kind of shape she was in. She could have easily outrun most of the kids on the track. She could swim laps in the pool with her clothes on and retrieve those lame dummies from the bottom or whatever they were being asked to do, without getting tired.
But it was all just a waste of time. Actually, compared to gym, a trip to the moon kind of made sense.
The old man sat shaking on a sofa by the window and looked around the room in confusion. There were old people sitting everywhere, on the sofas, on the chairs. A woman who was almost a hundred dragged herself across the linoleum floor with her walker in front of her.
What in the world are all these old people doing at my house? the man thought.
His name was Oleg Himmelfarb. And if he weren’t profoundly senile, he would have understood that he wasn’t at his own house anymore, and that the old people were there because they all lived in the same nursing home he did. And obviously he would have understood that he was an old man himself, and that he had only a year left to live.
But he didn’t know that. Oleg Himmelfarb hardly knew anything anymore.
At one time, less than six years ago, he had been a fully functioning person, a charming grandfather and a man who still loved his wife and gave her flowers every single Saturday. During his long professional life, Himmelfarb had been a custodian with the highest security clearance at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
But all of that was forgotten now.
Safely tucked away and preserved at Parson’s Nursing Home outside Miami, the previously quite intelligent Himmelfarb had been reduced to a bag with eyes, a box no one really knew where to send.
He sat there on the sofa with his hands in his lap for a few minutes, until the aides came into the room. One of the nurses lifted him off the deep sofa and into a standing position.
“Do you have your balance now?” she asked him, without waiting for a response. Himmelfarb stood there, straight up and down with his hands at his sides as he waited to be told to move. The nurse waved at him and he started walking in the direction her finger was pointing. It was best that way. Don’t resist, just do what they ask. At least that let him avoid thinking, because every time he did that, he got a headache. It was like his brain could no longer tolerate the strain of deciding what his body should do.
“Are you coming, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
The old folks were rolled into the room and arranged in chairs in a semicircle around the TV. Several of the residents jumped nervously when the screen lit up. One of the aides rose and said, “My dear residents, today is an important day, so we’re going to watch something we don’t usually watch. Is that all right?”
No one responded to her question. There was a bit of grumbling among the residents, but it was impossible to know for sure if that had to do with what she’d said or with things only they were aware of.
“Good,” the aide continued. “I’m sure you remember the moon landing in 1969, right? Well, we’re going back there now. As we speak, a global lottery is being held for all the teenagers in the world. NASA has set aside three spots on the upcoming flight for them. My son Scott already entered. So, cross your fingers—my son may be selected to be an astronaut this year!”
“Turn on the Weather Channel!” one of the old people whimpered.
The aide pretended she didn’t hear that and smiled. The speech the president was about to make, and especially the chance that her son could be one of the lucky winners, meant a lot to her. She clenched her fists in her pockets and waited.
Then the president’s face appeared on the screen. He talked about the dawn of a new era in the history of space travel. He talked about the three young people who would travel to the moon aboard the spacecraft Ceres, and he showed sketches of the moon base DARLAH 2, where they would live during their stay up there. He did his best to make it seem completely unremarkable that the government had kept the base a secret for all these years.
Mr. Himmelfarb straightened up in his chair and concentrated on the man giving the speech, but he couldn’t quite follow what he was saying. Still, it was like something minuscule clicked deep within his brain when the president showed the drawings of the moon base. He’d seen those drawings before. But where? And why did it make him so nervous?
Suddenly, his whole body stiffened. He couldn’t breathe.
In that instant, it was totally clear to him where he’d seen those drawings before, and his face changed from an empty, apathetic expression to one of blinding, white fear.
And his scream could be heard all the way out on the street.
It was the sound of a person who’d just realized that all hope was lost.
Midori Yoshida was standing outside the Shibuya 109 shopping center in Tokyo with her bags between her feet, checking her phone for messages while she waited for her girlfriends Mizuho and Yoshimi to finish their shopping. It was a little past five, and the warm April air was a pleasant change from the stuffy clamminess in the dressing rooms.
Her mom had called. Midori was just about to call her back when she changed her mind. No. She would call her later. It surely wasn’t anything important anyway. It never was. When her parents did call, it was just to nag her about something they thought she should’ve done. Or they called when they were mad because she wasn’t home yet. Not so strange, given that they lived all the way out in Yokohama and it took almost forty minutes to get there by train from Shibuya or Shinjuku station. And that was when it wasn’t rush hour.
Ever since she’d turned thirteen, almost two and a half years ago, Midori had made the trip into downtown Tokyo at least twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. After school on Wednesdays she went hunting for clothes—used or new—and also fabric, shoes, hats, bracelets, and small knickknacks she knew she didn’t need but that she wanted anyway. Every single yen she earned from her evening job in the warehouse for her uncle’s supermarket went toward these purchases. Her parents thought she was throwing away money she would need in a few years. But the way Midori looked at it, it didn’t make any sense to think like that. What was the point of her doing well in five or six years if she wasn’t doing well now?
The truth was, Midori had only just begun to feel like she was doing well, and she wouldn’t give that up for anything. She had never understood why the bullies targeted her specifically from the very beginning of elementary school, because there really wasn’t anything to justify it. Without any false modesty, she was much prettier than most of the other girls in the class. She didn’t talk differently or act in any way that made her stick out. Her taste in music was maybe a little different from most kids’ preferences, but it’s not like she made a big deal about it.
The harassment continued all the way through elementary school, and when she switched to junior high, it just followed her, like a part of her identity. It’s not that the bullying was particularly serious; they never bothered her physically, and at least it was only the girls who took out their frustrations on her. The boys pretty much didn’t care one way or the other. But it was enough that Midori could never totally relax while she was at school. She could never be quite who she wanted to be.
But since she’d become a teenager, that had changed. She’d heard about a place in downtown Tokyo called Harajuku, where offbeat teens gathered on Sundays and completely took over the area for a few hours. They came from all parts of the city, and all they had in common was the need to show that they were different. Most of them wore clothes and costumes they’d sewn at home, a chaotic blend of colors and outfits. Some looked like they came from the future; others were dressed like European maids from the nineteenth century. There were rock-and-roll types from the 1950s, superheroes, hippies, and teenagers wearing suits or with hair dyed all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone who didn’t fit in anywhere else was here. Together.
After just a couple of months she had made more friends there than she ever would have dared to dream and, just like that, her life had changed radically. Now whatever those anonymous girls in her class thought or said to her, she didn’t care. And better yet, she started getting back at them. She struck where they were weakest: boys. It was fun to play baseball with the guys and go to cafés with them during lunch break. She could talk about music with them and swap the latest news about bands that were coming to Tokyo.
She knew all too well that eventually these boys would end up having lives that were totally different from the ones they were hoping for. Every last one of them would end up a salaryman, wearing a suit, just pushing papers from nine to five, before falling asleep, exhausted, on the train home to their bitter wives. And those bitter wives? Well, they were all those drab girls in her class who were throwing their lives away by going to this school to begin with. Deep down, in spite of everything, they knew that the same thing would happen to them as to so many Japanese women. They were expected to get married by the age of twenty-five. They were expected to quit working and take care of the home. And then they would sit there, neat and tidy in their cramped apartments, doing dishes and waiting for their men to finally make it home after hours of overtime and a visit to some cheap hostess bar for a couple of overpriced drinks with random girls who didn’t have saggy boobs that hung down to their knees. They would sit there wishing they were somewhere totally different, living a totally different life.
Midori was not going to be one of them. No question about it.
She had other plans.
And the young people down in Harajuku were her ticket. They helped her remember that they all had choices and that they were free to do what they wanted with their lives.
Midori’s sister, Kyoko, who was seven years older, had certainly never been a part of the Harajuku scene, but she’d done what she could to avoid winding up in what she called “the Japanese trap.” She’d escaped. She moved to London when she was nineteen to study, and since then she’d come home to visit only twice a year. But there was something else, too. She seemed happier every time she came. It’s very simple, Midori, Kyoko had told her. There’s more than Japan, you know. There’s a whole world out there. You can go where you want. You just need to make up your mind.
And that was exactly what Midori had done. The day she turned eighteen and was done with school, she would leave Yokohama, leave Tokyo, leave this whole noisy country that was desperately trying to be modern while still clinging firmly to its conservative past.
New York, she thought. It has to be New York. Obviously. But she didn’t know why. Maybe it was the movies she’d seen. The pictures. The music. She pictured how she, Mizuho, Yoshimi, and maybe even more of her Harajuku friends could travel across the Pacific together. They’d be the neo– modan garus, the new modern girls. They’d find a big loft in an old apartment building, and they’d have to ride a rusty freight elevator to get to it. They’d have people visiting all the time, friends who popped in from Japan. They would make art, clothes, music, movies, everything. And they’d get old together, never get married, and never dry up into boring middle-aged women. Of course they’d date people, and their boyfriends would certainly come and live in their little commune for a while, as long as they made sure they left again before they really settled in.
That’s how it would be. In less than three years.
She just had to make it until then.
She turned toward the sound and saw her girlfriends walking out of Shibuya 109 behind a load of shopping bags. They could just barely walk normally. She smiled at them and strolled over to meet them.
“Did you guys leave anything for the other customers?” she asked.
“Well, we didn’t buy the dressing room. Or the cash register. Here, can you take a couple bags?” Yoshimi held out her arms, and Midori relieved her of part of her load.
“I’ve been waiting for you guys forever. If I were a man, I’d have a long beard by now.” Midori laughed.
“It’s your own fault you finished so fast, you lightweight, not ours,” Mizuho protested.
“Hey, three hours is not ‘so fast’!”
“Okay, so it took a little longer than we thought,” Mizuho replied. “But maybe this will make up for it.” Mizuho handed her yet another bag. They’d bought her the boots she’d been wanting for months.
“You guys are crazy!” she exclaimed happily, and hugged them.
“Should we go get coffee before the train?” Mizuho asked.
Midori hesitated. “I don’t know; it’s starting to get late. My parents called and…”
“You’re supposed to be home already?” Yoshimi asked.
“But then it doesn’t matter. If you’re already late, it’s not like you can make it home on time, right?”
“I guess not,” Midori said. “Okay, then, a quick coffee.”
They headed for the Starbucks and sat by the big windows on the second floor, where they had a panoramic view of the gigantic neon advertising billboards on the buildings across the street. Below them thousands of people scurried over the big crosswalks.
“Coffee actually isn’t good for people like us,” Yoshimi said. “But it tastes good, so what can we do?”
“Why isn’t it good for us?” Midori wanted to know.
Yoshimi and Mizuho replied in unison: “Because it stunts your growth.”
Midori took a big gulp. “We’re Japanese. It’s not like there was any big risk we were going to be six foot five anyway. Cheers!”
They raised their disposable cups and clicked them together. And that was the exact moment Midori heard the music.
It was classical music, dramatic and loud. She saw how people clearly stopped out on the street and turned toward them.
“Quick, they’re going to play it again now!” Yoshimi squealed enthusiastically, already on her way down the stairs.
“Play what?” Midori managed to ask before grabbing her cup and running after her friend.
“The NASA ad!” Mizuho called over her shoulder, and disappeared out onto the street.
The huge video screen located on the side of the building was playing a Hollywood-style ad.
“It’s been nearly fifty years since the very first moon landing took place,” it began. With pictures of the historic 1969 event as the backdrop, the voice-over explained that NASA was ready to send people back to the moon for a longer stay. Then the action sequence began. A rocket hurtled out into space with dizzying force.
The voice-over paused for effect as the pictures showed a computer-generated image of a landing module quietly setting down on the moon. Small astronauts climbed out and went to work. In the background could be seen the contours of a large moon base.
“For this exceptional expedition,” the overly dramatic voice continued, “NASA has decided to make an equally exceptional offer to the next generation. Three young people between fourteen and eighteen will have the opportunity…” pause for dramatic effect “… to be part…” another pause for dramatic effect “… of this return to the moon!”
Midori couldn’t take her eyes off the screen.
“You could be the first teenager in space,” the voice urged. “Sign up at nasamoonreturn.com and be part of the most important lottery in history. You. Are. Invited.”
And with a vigorous fanfare, the NASA logo flashed onto the screen for a few seconds before it went black. And then a stupid car ad came on.
“Had you really not seen that before?” Mizuho asked incredulously. “They’ve been playing it nonstop on TV. It’s everywhere.”
“I signed up already,” Yoshimi said. “Are you guys going to?”
“No way,” Mizuho said instantly. “What the heck would I do up there? There’s nothing to see, nothing to buy, nothing to do. Pretty much like Roppongi during the day.”
“What about you, Midori?”
But Midori was already too lost in her own thoughts to even hear them.
This is my ticket, she thought. It’s three years earlier than my plan, and it takes me a little farther than I’d thought, but this is my way out. This is the way to New York.
Yoshimi tugged on her arm and said, “Isn’t it cool?”
Midori snapped out of it. “Totally,” she replied. “Totally. We should definitely sign up. Definitely.”
Sixteen-year-old Antoine Devereux found himself waiting alone on the Dupleix Métro platform. It had been a long day, one of the longest. The kind of day that just kept going and going no matter how much time you tried to kill. But the morning had been different. The morning had been just as beautiful as every single morning had been for the last five months after he had met Simone at that party at Laurent’s up on Montmartre. Ever since they hooked up the following week, he’d pretty much given up sleep altogether. He didn’t need it. Being with her was like being connected to an enormous battery. She was the kind of girl people could fight a world war over. And he almost wished he could move with her to a deserted island that no one ever visited, just so he could be sure no one else would discover how amazingly perfect she was.
But now it was too late.
Some idiot guy named Noël had shown up out of nowhere and put better ideas in her head. Well, different ideas anyway.
And in April, damn it, of all months. In April, in Paris! Could it be any more tragic? If someone decided to hand out a prize for being the biggest failure, he was guaranteed to win just by showing up.
He looked at his watch. The train should have been here ages ago.
Resigned, he left the station and decided to walk home. He headed toward the Eiffel Tower first. It was starting to get dark, and the tourists were cramming themselves into its elevators like sardines for the ride to the top. One time he and Simone had done that, too. It had been a little cheesy, obviously. No Parisian with any self-respect would go up to the top of that tourist trap. But you couldn’t ignore the fact that there was something romantic about it, and Simone had loved it.
It had been a few weeks before Christmas. He’d waited for her in the bitter cold by the north foot of the tower. She’d been half an hour late, and his hands were almost blue when she finally showed up. Luckily she’d let him warm them up in her sweater while they rode the elevator to the top. Antoine had waited until the other tourists finished looking at the view and disappeared back down to pull a bottle of wine out of his inside coat pocket. They’d shared the ice-cold bottle of red and then she’d told him she loved him. But then that must have been in November.
Five months earlier.
Relationships should really come with expiration dates stamped on them so at least people would have a chance to get out before the whole thing turned totally rancid.
He kept going along rue de Rivoli. Most of the shops were closed for the night, and aside from the incessant, loud traffic, the long street was pretty much devoid of people. He thought about what she was doing right now. It had only been an hour since he was sitting on her bed in her apartment on the beautiful avenue de Suffren, but that was all in the past.
Was he there yet?
Was Noël sitting in her room? Had Noël just walked in and replaced him?
Was she happy, or was she still thinking about him? Not that knowing would do him any good. Part of him hoped she was sobbing and miserable, that she was regretting how she’d acted, that she would be run over by a train on her way to school tomorrow. Part of him hoped she would fall down onto the tracks and that the train wheel would slice her skull in half, that her guts would ooze out her mouth and her blood would spray up onto the terrified commuters. And then there was the other part of him, the part that still loved her with all his might. The part that wanted her to have the best life possible, whether with him or with someone who made her happier than he could.
Antoine painstakingly ran through the last several months to understand why she’d broken up with him. Was it something he did? Something he said? Or something he didn’t do or didn’t say? He desperately racked his brain for the answer, an obvious, clear solution that would make him turn around and go back, ring her doorbell and say, Yes, I’m sorry for what I did.
But sometimes it’s already too late before you open your mouth.
The boat had simply sailed on their relationship. And it hadn’t just left port. The whole pier had been torn down, the water drained, and the whole place converted into the world’s loneliest parking lot.
Suddenly Antoine wished he could just disappear for good and never see Simone or this city or this world again.
“Pardon me. Do you have a light?”
Antoine stopped. A man in his forties in a suit was standing on the sidewalk in front of him, blocking his way. He was fumbling with a pack of cigarettes.
“Just a sec.” Antoine searched his jacket pockets and found a lighter. He passed it to the man, who lit it.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, too?”
“Sure,” Antoine replied, perplexed that the man didn’t just take one out of his own pack.
“Thanks,” he said.
The man nodded at an enormous billboard over the shop across the street.
“Don’t forget about the deadline, eh?” he said, and started walking away. Antoine didn’t have a chance to respond before the man disappeared down the street.
Antoine glanced at the billboard. It was black, with an enormous moon half hidden in shadows:
DO YOU WANT TO GO TO THE MOON?
He’d heard about the mission and that NASA was going to take three teenagers on a trip to the moon; a bunch of people at school were talking about it. But he hadn’t given it a second thought.
And it was right about then that it hit him: What were you just wishing a second ago? You wanted to get out of here. Well… you can’t get farther away than that.
He’d already decided. He would sign up. As soon as he got home. Damn it, he would go to the moon, as far away as he could possibly go.
Then she could sit there in her room holding hands with Noël until she got arthritis, for all he cared.
When he finally reached home, he didn’t say anything to his parents, pretended like nothing was up, and forced a smile from deep down in his gut when they asked how Simone was.
“I was just thinking about Simone,” his mother said. “Maybe you’d like to invite her over to dinner soon? Maybe this Sunday? We haven’t seen her for ages, and she’s such a great girl. Don’t you think so, Arnaud? Arnaud?”
“Huh? What is it?” he heard his father yell from the living room, his newspaper rustling.
“I was just saying we think Simone is such a great girl, isn’t she?”
“Yes, yes,” his father’s voice said from the living room after a brief pause. “A really sweet girl. You have to take care of that one, Antoine. You hear me?”
Antoine felt his heart rising into his throat and realized he might throw it up at any moment, bloody and useless.
“Yeah,” he forced himself to say. “Yeah, I’ll ask her.”
Then he went into his room. He powered up his Mac and entered the address: nasamoonreturn.com.
With a few clicks of his mouse, he found tons of pictures and film clips from the old moon landings in the sixties and seventies, interviews, and information about the contest. Applicants had to be between fourteen and eighteen to enter, but of course he already knew that. He also knew he probably would have no problem at all passing the medical and psychological examinations. After all, he was in good physical condition, and no one in his family had ever been mentally ill or anything like that. His parents and relatives were kind of strange, true, but that wasn’t the same as saying he was likely to suddenly snap and start hunting down his crewmates with an ax.
NASA’s rigorous three-month training program was another thing altogether. Would he have the stamina to go through with it? From what he understood, it included daily running sessions, logic tests, stress tests, and a number of flights in the Vomit Comet, an aircraft that quickly climbed to thirty thousand feet, only to point its nose straight down and dive for the deck, giving passengers a chance to experience weightlessness for twenty-five seconds at a time. Or nausea for two hours straight, if they were really unlucky. Then there were the high-altitude flight chambers used to familiarize trainees with the symptoms of oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, as it was called. And finally they would have to spend a substantial amount of time in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center, where a 202-by-102-foot pool, complete with a mockup of the spacecraft and landing module, would train them to enter and exit the modules at a depth of forty feet, simulating zero gravity. This was definitely no joke. Not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of theory they would have to read and learn before they left the ground.
But first he had to apply, of course. And then just wait. The three winners would be notified in mid-July, he read. They would have to be absent from school from April until June of the following year for the training and final mission.
The winners would be flown first to New York to appear on The Late Show and then to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they would undergo the training before the launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in mid-July. He’d have to postpone a few finals, but that shouldn’t be any problem. Besides, it’s not like he could have a better excuse.
According to the information, the three winners would spend 172 hours on the moon plus the trip from Earth and back, which would take just over a week. They would stay at the DARLAH 2 moon base (weird, he’d never heard anything about a base being built on the moon, and he knew a few things about space travel), and from there they would perform a number of experiments on the surface. Top-notch astronauts with years of experience would be with them at all times and ensure their safety every step of the way. And then there would be media coverage, of course. The contest winners would have to be prepared to do interviews on TV, on radio, and online before, during, and after their trip. They would have to answer questions online, write blogs, and go on an international press junket afterward.
Antoine looked at the list of cities they’d have to go to: New York, L.A., Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, and so on.
Well, it’s not like that would be so bad, Antoine thought, smiling faintly at the notion that he would get to see the whole world in addition to space.
Sitting there in front of his computer reading the information, it was like Simone had been blown out of his consciousness. His only thought now was that he had to win. His name had to be selected.
He quickly Googled the statistics. It turned out that only about 8.5 percent of Earth’s population was between fourteen and eighteen. If it was true that there were about seven billion people on Earth, that would make about six hundred million teenagers out there. And if you then discounted the teens from various parts of the world who didn’t have access to the Internet—or any other chances to enter the contest—the number of actual contestants might be as small as three hundred million.
So that was only three hundred million other people he had to beat.
The odds definitely weren’t in his favor. Three hundred million to one. There was pretty much a bigger chance of just about anything else happening in his life. Like Simone calling him in the next fifteen seconds.
A quick search did not lift his spirits any.
According to one page he found, it turned out that:
The odds of scoring 300 points in bowling was 11,500 to 1.
The odds of getting a hole in one in golf: 5,000 to 1.
The odds of being canonized and thus famous for all eternity: 20,000,000 to 1.
The odds of becoming an astronaut: 13,200,000 to 1.
The odds of being attacked by a great white shark: 11,500,000 to 1.
The odds of being killed in a plane crash: 354,319 to 1.
The odds of being killed by parts falling from a plane: 10,000,000 to 1.
The odds of winning an Oscar: 11,500 to 1.
The odds of becoming president: 10,000,000 to 1.
The odds of hooking up with a supermodel: 88,000 to 1.
The odds of winning an Olympic gold medal: 662,000 to 1.
The odds of seriously injuring yourself shaving: 685,000 to 1.
The odds of being killed by a meteor landing specifically on YOUR house: 182,128,880,000,000 to 1.
That last one was basically the only one that was less likely than his getting to go to the moon.
Antoine sat there looking at the numbers for a minute. Then he leaned over his keyboard and entered his name, birth date, phone number, and address.
He thought about it one last time.
Then he hit send.
The experienced astronaut eyed the lunar lander with a certain skepticism. Commander Lloyd Nadolski was forty-two. He’d been with NASA for almost fifteen years and was one of the few astronauts who had completed three missions in space. Now he was in one of the hangars at Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s launch center located on Merritt Island on the coast of Florida. And he was not impressed with what he was seeing.
“Well, what do you think?”
He turned to see Ralph Pierce approaching him. Pierce was the lead engineer responsible for constructing the lander Demeter. NASA had been working on it for years and had not finished the final version until less than a week ago. Nadolski peered at the vessel again.
“Can it fly?” he asked, not directing his question to anyone.
“It flies, Commander. I can promise you that. We tested it again last Friday. All systems are working perfectly.”
Nadolski nodded without looking at Pierce and walked around the lander. It had been designed to look like the vehicles that were used in the 1969 moon landing and the missions of the early seventies. Would it withstand the stresses? Flying was one thing; being able to rely on it 100 percent in space was another. There was no room for errors up there.
As far as Nadolski knew, the decision to use the almost fifty-year-old design, as opposed to building something newer and better, had come from the top, maybe from the president himself. At least the marketing department was satisfied. The classic design looked familiar to a lot of people and would unquestionably elicit memories among the oldest audience members.
Ultimately that’s what it came down to: the audience. And money. NASA’s popularity had been sinking steadily in recent decades following a couple of serious accidents and some missions that were not exactly audience-friendly. The space agency had sent astronauts up to repair satellites, solar arrays, and particle detectors. There had been no indications that a manned mission to Mars was going to happen anytime soon. NASA’s websites were getting as little traffic as a mothballed museum.
Nadolski scratched his head. It was hard to find sense in all this. The questions started nagging at him again, as they had periodically since he’d heard about these teenagers he was supposed to bring on the mission. Who knew how they were going to behave? What if they panicked? Messed around with equipment on board without anyone realizing what they’d done? Space was no place for children.
He shook off the thought. He’d been working at NASA long enough to know that its system of checks and balances was absolutely top-notch. And this time they had even less room for error. The worst-case scenario was that this mission would be the death knell for the whole organization.
“Well,” Nadolski said after a long silence, “as long as it goes without a hitch…” He let this statement hang in the air before adding, “If it doesn’t, I can promise you I’ll come back more pissed off than you’ve ever seen me. Heads will roll.”
Engineer Pierce forced a smile. “Don’t give it another thought. I guarantee it’ll do what it has to do.” He turned and left the hangar while Nadolski stood there, giving the lander one last look. You can only guarantee that, he thought, because we both know if it doesn’t work, you’ll never see me back here on Earth again.
Nadolski cautiously kicked one of the wheel struts up by the chassis. It was a kick with almost no force, more like a nudge, but it was still enough that a little piece of the lander came loose.
He bent over, picked up the small, rectangular disk, and decided he’d give it to the evening shift before he went home.
Mia was at the bus stop waiting for a bus that was already ten minutes late. Summer had already arrived, and it should have been a warm, sunny afternoon, the kind of day where you hung out on the beach with your friends until Norway’s subarctic sun finally set around midnight and everyone stole home. Instead it was pouring rain, and her black hair was plastered annoyingly to her face. Mia was shivering in her thin jacket and mindlessly drumming a rhythm with her leg as she sat on the bench.
Her band Rogue Squadron had been around for almost two years now—one year and eight months, to be precise—but it still hadn’t gotten anywhere. Sure, the band members were young; there weren’t many people their age who’d been doing it as long as they had, but still. Mia must have written forty songs in that time, coming up with most of the chords and riffs. And all the lyrics. They had recorded a demo months earlier, but they had never sent it anywhere. Their Facebook pages were receiving a moderate number of hits at best. Their only gig had been one concert the previous year at Metropolis, which hosts a lot of underground music performances as part of Fantastic Underground 10. Things weren’t going that well for Rogue Squadron. Something had to be done.
Excerpted from 172 Hours on the Moon by Harstad, Johan Copyright © 2012 by Harstad, Johan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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