Auntie Moe just had to be the first one to kick it on the moon.
I sat next to Auntie Lou at the long white table in the long white room. A handful of other visitors from Earth and colony members whose names I couldn’t keep track of filled the other seats. Static flickered over the wall’s holoscreen and the audio hissed.
“Damn thing never works right.” Herman Starkweather, the colony’s Events Coordinator and self-appointed MC for Auntie Moe’s service, smacked the wall console. The static spiked. He hit it again. “Bah.”
“Why don’t you try hitting harder? I don’t think you quite broke it yet.”
Auntie Lou shot me a look. “June.”
Mr. Nakada, Auntie Moe and Auntie Lou’s attorney, cleared his throat and crossed to the front of the room. He gestured to the console.
“By all means,” said Mr. Starkweather with a sweep of his arm. He stepped back and pecked at his minitab while Mr. Nakada looked over the console. He opened up a small panel beneath the screen and flipped something. The hissing stopped.
“Should be good as new.”
Mr. Starkweather looked up from his minitab and slipped it into his suit jacket pocket. “Thanks, Hideki.”
Mr. Nakada nodded and stepped aside.
“Oh, there they are!” My mother popped up on the screen and waved. A slight echo in the audio gave her voice a tinny quality. “Hello, everyone.”
“Hey, Mama,” I said. “Everything coming in okay?”
She frowned into her camera for what I counted out as 10 seconds, then smiled. “Loud and clear.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Starkweather stepped up to the screen. “Let’s get this under way, shall we?”
Mama stepped away from the screen and sat with the other mourners who hadn’t made it from Earth. Thanks to the holoscreen, we at least had the illusion of them being here.
Mr. Starkweather cleared his throat and continued in his most practiced speaking voice. “We’re all here, of course, to honor the memory of Moira ‘Moe’ Dawes, member of the first lunar colony mission.”
While he droned on, I thought back on the day Auntie Moe had left Earth. I remembered the sun glinting off the rocket while it climbed into the ice blue sky, and Auntie Lou watching it disappear. My mother had whispered something to her, and she had nodded. She followed Auntie Moe up six months later.
“…and of course, being the first person, civilian or otherwise, to receive a burial on the moon, she is again making history.”
Everyone clapped, and I jolted in my seat, earning another of Auntie Lou’s looks. My face went hot.
“Hideki, if you would?”
Mr. Nakada, minitab already in hand, took the place Mr. Starkweather had vacated. “To everyone here, Ms. Dawes has left her final requests and goodbyes in a file that I’ll transfer to each of your tablets after the ceremony.
“We’re all here, of course, to honor the memory of Moira ‘Moe’ Dawes, member of the first lunar colony mission.”
“She has also requested that her niece, June, distribute those files meant for those on Earth upon her return there.”
I blinked and leaned back in my hard plastic chair. Auntie Lou slipped her hand into mine and gave it a light squeeze.
“I’ll discuss matters of Ms. Dawes’ estate with each of you in private. Thank you.”
The room was quiet for a moment, then Mr. Starkweather reasserted himself up front. “Well, that’s that. Please help yourselves to some refreshments out in the hall and we’ll proceed to the interment ceremony at oh-nine-hundred. To our friends on Earth, we’ll of course have a video feed running from the ceremony.”
The other mourners filed out of the room. Mr. Starkweather laid his hands on mine and Auntie Lou’s shoulders. “Aloise, June, if you’ll wait here a moment, Dr. Mendoza will be with you shortly.”
He left the room, and my mother’s face filled the screen again. Her eyes had a sheen to them. Her smile rippled when she faced Auntie Lou, but she managed to catch it. “Lolo, I wish I could be there, honey.”
We all did, but she hadn’t passed the health clearance for spaceflight. It had just been me, Mr. Nakada, and a few friends from Auntie Moe’s days on Earth—strangers to me—who had made it.
“Don’t you worry about me, sissy.” Auntie Lou patted my arm. “June has been keeping me together.”
“I’m glad. I’ll talk to you soon.” She blew a kiss to the camera and it went on standby.
Mr. Nakada joined us at the table, and he and Auntie Lou chatted about colony stuff. I zoned out until someone knocked on the door. Mr. Nakada told them to come in.
A woman that I had never seen before stepped into the conference room.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Mendoza. The colony’s remains specialist.” Dr. Mendoza had sharp high cheekbones and her hair was pulled back in a tight sleek ponytail. She held out a hand. Her grip was firm, and she gave my hand a sharp pump, then turned to Auntie Lou. “Are you ready to see her?”
Auntie Lou’s lip quivered, and her voice came out in a whisper. “Yes.”
“Bring her in, Herman.”
Mr. Starkweather returned and placed a glossy black box on the table. It was about a foot long, almost as wide, and maybe five inches deep. The end facing us bore an inscribed plaque. Auntie Lou placed a hand on top of the smooth black container. Her other hand went to the two gold bands dangling from the chain at her neck.
I frowned at the box. It was so small.
Dr. Mendoza raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”
“I guess with all the planning I didn’t really think about…” I swallowed. “Her remains. I didn’t realize she’d be cremated.”
“Cremated? No.” Dr. Mendoza uncrossed her arms. “Cremation is dirty and expensive. It can still fly down on Earth, but not up here.”
“So how do you get an entire person to fit into that? Oh.” I looked at Auntie Lou. She patted my arm.
“It’s all right to be curious,” said Dr. Mendoza. I’m sure I wasn’t just imagining the glimmer in her eyes. “First the body is freeze-dried with liquid nitrogen. Then it’s pulverized, using sound waves. I could demonstrate the process if you’re interested.”
“I’ll…think about it.”
Mr. Nakada gently touched Dr. Mendoza’s elbow. “Thank you, Doctor.” He turned to Auntie Lou. “If you’re ready, we can start.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Starkweather, snapping out of his own thoughts. “Aloise, June. If you’ll follow me.”
I stood in the vestibule, on the threshold between the safety of the compound walls and the burial dome. I was far from the first person to walk on the lunar surface without an exosuit, but butterflies beat around in my stomach anyway.
“It’s perfectly safe out here,” said the attendant handing out goggles, gloves and dust masks at the door. “The dome is pressurized and temperature controlled. Keep your safety gear on at all times while you’re out here, and don’t play too much with the moon dust. I’ll walk you through decontamination procedures once we re-enter the compound.”
We filed out onto the lunar surface. Auntie Lou squeezed my arm “So this is it. This is where she’ll rest.”
I returned the gentle pressure, and we walked arm in arm out into the eerie quiet of the dome. Though it had the same clear panel and metal web structure as the orchard and garden domes, the naked surface of the moon gave it a completely alien feel. The field of regolith had been hatched like math paper.
“Now you’ll have a little extra bounce out here since it’s technically an exterior,” the attendant said, coming up from behind us. “So keep that in mind.” She led us to the near corner of the grid where a slot had been dug out in the lunar soil.
Everyone gathered around, a woman with a small camera fitted to her goggles taking a place next to me and Auntie Lou. The attendant held out her hands to Mr. Starkweather.
“Oh, right.” He handed Auntie Moe’s remains over to her, and she knelt down and fitted the smooth black box into the open slot. She swept her gloved hand around it, filling the crevices with lunar soil.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to moondust,” Mr. Starkweather mumbled.
The attendant stood and we all bowed our heads. The plaque glittered from its place on the lunar surface. I read the words etched across it.
Moira “Moe” Dawes
The First Human to Die on the Moon
“The first human to die on the moon.” I fought down the lump in my throat, but that of course made it hurt more. My eyes watered. “Putting that on there was totally her idea, wasn’t it?”
Auntie Lou sniffled and slipped a knuckle under her goggles to wipe at the corner of her eye. I put my arm around her trembling shoulders, laid my head against hers, and held her under the dark expanse of sky bearing down through the crystal clear panels of the dome.
“You’re not taking the shuttle back to Earth tomorrow?”
Mr. Nakata shook his head. “I need to help your aunt finish up some legal matters.”
“Oh.” I wrung my hands in my lap and focused on the sterile white tile floor.
Mr. Nakata’s chair squeaked. He leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’ll be fine on your own. The attendants will walk you through launch, just like on Earth.” His gentle smile actually reassured me. He gave my shoulder a pat and pulled out his minitab.
“Now, about your Aunt Moira’s messages.” I pulled out my own minitab and held it to his. He made a few keystrokes, and flashed his teeth. “There! All done.”
“Thank you, Mr. Nakata.” I hugged my tab to my chest.
“All in a day’s work. But there is one more thing.”
He flipped open his briefcase and pulled out a small drawstring pouch and handed it to me. “Moira wanted you to have this.”
The velvety pouch sat like a weight on my palm. “What is it?”
“A surprise,” he said with a wink. “Open it before you read Moira’s message. She said it’ll make more sense that way.”
“You’re welcome, June. Now go on, don’t keep your Aunt Aloise waiting.”
Back at quarters, I sat curled up in Auntie Moe’s armchair. It didn’t match the ultramodern colony decor, which meant she had somehow smuggled it up. Auntie Lou had gone to bed hours ago and had urged me to try and get some sleep before launch. I couldn’t, though.
I rolled the little pouch over my palm, then undid the drawstring and poked my finger inside. My fingertip came out covered with a fine gray dust. Regolith.
I closed the pouch and set it on the arm of the chair, then pulled out my minitab and found the message meant for me. It was a video file. I bit my lip and opened it.
Auntie Moe came up on the screen, smiling and full of life. “Hey there, Junebug.” She peered into the camera, as if waiting for an answer. I mouthed “Hey Auntie,” and she continued on cue.
“That little present I gave you might not seem so special nowadays, but back when I was very young it was still considered rare and precious. An old friend told me a story once. A friend of his had somehow gotten his hands on some, and you know what they did with it?”
I shook my head no. “What?”
Auntie Moe, or, well, this digital ghost of her, leaned forward and dropped her voice to a stage whisper. “They sprinkled it on a pizza and ate it.” She leaned back in her chair—the same one I was sitting in now—and beamed at the camera. “Can you imagine that?”
Auntie Moe came up on the screen, smiling and full of life. “Hey there, Junebug.”
I brushed tears out of my eyes and smiled along with her despite the pang in my chest.
“Don’t be too sad for me now, Junebug. After all, how many people do you know who have been buried on the moon? Remember, I love you to the moon, the stars and beyond.
“Now, did I ever tell you about…”
Snuggled up in her chair, I drifted off to the sound of her voice.
“Thank you for helping me get this whole thing sorted.”
Auntie Lou and I stood in the main module’s atrium. I adjusted my carry on strap and bent down so she could wrap her arms around me in a tight hug. Her cardigan smelled like a warm spring day, just how I remembered from before she had left to join Auntie Moe on the moon. “I’m so glad you made it up here, Junebug.”
“Me too, Auntie.”
She broke away, though her hands lingered on my arms. “Give your mother a hug for me.”
“I will, Auntie.” I picked at the gloves of my exosuit. “Have you… Have you thought about coming back to Earth?”
“Oh, honey. I’ll visit, of course. But my home is up here.”
I thought about the quarters that, until a month ago she and Auntie Moe had shared for two decades. I pictured them sitting in their matching armchairs, somehow smuggled up from Earth. I imagined Auntie Lou, in gloves and goggles, standing by the lone marker in the burial dome.
“It is, isn’t it?”
I hung back from the lift rail that would take me up to the capsule, watching Auntie Lou watch me from the tall atrium windows. She waved and blew me a kiss. I mimed plucking it out of the air and held it to my heart.
“Miss?” One of the attendants appeared at my elbow. Her voice came over my helmet comm. “You need to get in the capsule now if we want to make rendezvous.”
Once in my seat, the attendant checked my restraints, and, satisfied, hopped over to her own seat. I leaned back, resting my head against the lightly cushioned headrest. I was happy to have something holding me down. I missed Earth levels of gravity.
A mechanical female voice came over the comm in my helmet. “We are preparing for takeoff. Scheduled rendezvous with CSM slated for approximately 03:00 hours Coordinated Universal Time.” The holoscreen in my helmet flashed to life, and a cartoon shuttle accompanied the voiceover listing off safety protocol.
My helmet chimed and the cartoon shuttle disappeared, replaced by my minitab’s homescreen. The video player popped up, and Auntie Moe’s face smiled at me from the inside of my helmet, like she was right there with me. I pressed my lips together and squeezed my eyes shut. Tears were no good in low gravity.
“Would you like to pause video?”
“Play audio only.”
“Hey there, Junebug…”
I flicked through the photos that Auntie Lou had uploaded to my minitab the night before and stopped when I reached a picture taken outside the compound. It was Auntie Moe in her exosuit, her gloved thumb held up to a pea-sized Earth.
Before the Razor
Inside the Creative Process of “I’m Not Crying, There’s Just Regolith In My Eye”
I listen to a lot of podcasts. True crime, history, science, pseudoscience, folklore, advice. I mostly do assembly work at my job, and that leaves a lot of time to space (ha) out and listen to them, to music, and to just think. And think. And think. I try to jot down thoughts and ideas on my phone (or sticky notes, or scraps of paper) as they come to me.
This leads to a whole mess of notes. This can be frustrating when I need to find something specific, or amazing when I find two or more unrelated things which, hey, would actually work great if combined! Something salvageable is bound to form in that mess, and you can polish that baby right up.
Some of the ingredients that went into this story:
- I originally used the title for a poem I wrote after watching the anime Space Brothers (oh no, now everyone knows I’m a nerd!) I scrapped it, but I couldn’t let the title go to waste.
- The title was my springboard. I thought about how the old “there’s just something in my eye” bit would apply on the moon. “What would make someone cry (or hide the fact that they’re crying) there?” That gave me my “first death/funeral on the moon” concept.
(Jotted down on my phone, probably while I was pressing dowel pins into something)
- Next question: “What would they even do with bodies on the moon?” A colony is going to have limited space and resources, and will need to be self-sustaining. The process used on Auntie Moe’s remains was inspired by a real one called Promessa, which I had first read about in Mary Roach’s Stiff.
- The delay when June is talking to her mother over the holoscreen is something I might not even have considered if not for watching the ISS feed on NASA TV.
- The bit about the guy somehow getting his hands on some moon dust and putting it on a pizza is a story that my geology professor told the class. Was he pulling our legs? Maybe. Was it a cool story? Absolutely!
Here’s a rough bit that didn’t make the cut:
It’s back in the notes bin, ready for recycling.