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from the June 2016 issue

Genesis

Only a few machines on this moon-base remain working. The satellite camera that always faces Earth, the monitor connected to that camera, the memory device, and the replay device. They run on solar power, so I suppose they’ll stay on as long as the sun exists. They’ll keep their vigil over Earth after I’m gone. The sun won’t last forever, but at least I’ll have disappeared before it goes out.

It’s sad to disappear. I guess it’s like being an old radio that breaks down one day and goes forever silent. So I won’t count the things that will break down. Actually, I’ve been counting every day. Just to know how long I can continue to survive. But you don’t need to know all that.

You don’t have to worry about me. I’m at peace. If you could see me now you’d probably swipe your hair over your ear and make a face. Your nose would get those tiny wrinkles. You’d say, “Lia, how could you . . .” and bow your head, touch your forehead with your fingertips, not finish your sentence, and smile. I can see it before it happens. I’ve spent more time with you than anyone else in my life, roomie. I close my eyes, and imagine you, humming the songs you like. Muttering the lines from your favorite films. I can see the views from your favorite places to sit. I see the color of the peppermint candy tin on your desk in the office. If it has to do with you, I can see it.

I think of you as I watch our no-longer blue Earth.

 

They say that’s what people said when they left the atmosphere on a spaceship for the first time.

That the world was a blue planet.

They say because the Earth is mostly ocean, the world looks blue from space. Somewhere on that Earth is the Genesis Corporation and the school it established, the Special Training Center for Space and Aeronautics, where we grew up together. But Earth is no longer blue. It’s covered with clouds of ash, impossible to tell whether there’s land or ocean underneath. And I’m on a small satellite orbiting the Earth. The moon.

It’s been six months since I came to the moon. You were so angry when I told you of my assignment. “Why are you the only one being punished?” And of course, being sent to fix the old “Moonwriter” message recorder is in itself a de facto penalty. You sighed as you slowly took in the split lip and bruised limbs I earned from fighting the boys. “Lia, why did you do it? I refuse to believe you would hit someone for no reason.” I didn’t answer and you added, in a small voice, “And during the final evaluations period, too . . .” But don’t worry. Robin’s gang is probably more pissed off than I am. Idiots who thought they could push us around just because they were a couple of years older and almost adults.

When our principal sighed in front of the huge “Special Training Center for Space and Aeronautics” sign at our front gate, I still wasn’t scared of the consequences. “Lia, a little girl like you, how could you think of fighting three older boys?” That’s what he said to me after he had sent the boys back to the dorm after dealing with them. I tried to smile but I couldn’t. My busted lip from that Robin bastard hurt too much. The principal called up my grades and frowned. It was only fair to take off the same number of points as the boys, but I didn’t have enough to take off. I had bad grades and no outstanding accomplishments. Which is why I was always being compared against you, the overachiever. My only real fear might have been expulsion. But you know that never happens at our school. We don’t have anywhere to go. The point of Genesis’s school was to provide opportunities for helpless orphans with potential. So they’re not going to kick out a seventeen-year-old girl for being troublesome. I wasn’t worried. Whatever they did to me, I’d still be with you.

So the principal’s assignment for me came as a shock. It was the first time since I’d met you that we had to be apart for a whole month. Robin’s gang probably got at most ten days suspension and forty hours of community service, but I got solitary assignment for a month. And to go inspect that hunk of junk? The Moonwriter has been around since before I entered school.

I don’t resent Genesis. I’m grateful to them for bringing us together. It would’ve been nice to have entered with you, but it’s you who passed the exam at ten. Despite the exam’s instructions assuring us that no one under twelve could possibly pass.

It’s funny if you think about it.

What idiot, or genius, thought to invent a machine that writes on the moon. To fill in the craters and scratch out human language with its giant arms.

That’s the only thing I know more about than you do: the Moonwriter. You’re in Space Weather Control and I’m in Mechanical Repairs, of course I know more about it. Which is why I kept talking about it all night, under the covers, when I began learning about it. I was glad to have something I knew better, and before you did.

You were my roommate for the five years that passed since I entered school, you were my mother and older sister, and sometimes my cute baby sister. But you were also the school’s greatest hope, the star who passed the Space Weather Controller Level 3 exam in three years while it took others at least five. And you climbed up the ladder to Manager of Space Weather Control Division A. They couldn’t name you chief because you were too young, but everyone knew you were the best officer in the Space Weather Control department after Director Singh. You wore the white blazer and indigo slacks of the school uniform, but were superior to ten adults combined. That was you, Saeun Choi.

We were fifteen when we decided on our careers. We were done with primary school, and we knew the moment our next education track was decided, our jobs would be set in stone. Of course you applied for Space Weather Control, the most competitive track. I didn’t apply to Meteorology or Statistics where I could be close to you, but to Mechanical Repairs where there were lots of dispatch jobs, not to mention its weaker kids being carted off to the infirmary once a week.

I got in by the skin of my teeth, to be honest. It was a miracle I got in the school at all, considering how badly I’ve done since. But there are lots of kids like me. The teachers like to disparage us, saying that after working so hard to get in, now we slack off. But I want to say this: I wasn’t slacking off. I had to do my best to watch over you, and that meant concentrating less on studying. And the reason why I didn’t apply to the same track despite this was . . . I’ll explain that a bit later.

Were you upset that I’d applied for a different track? Or were you too caught up with the joy of having been accepted to your first choice, hugging me and jumping up and down with elation? I remember how the name plaques on our room door were changed. Yours had an insignia for Space Weather Control below your name, “Saeun Choi,” mine one for Mechanical Repairs under “Lia Yu.” And I thought we would live on like that, roommates until we turned twenty, you the star of the school and me the ordinary girl. That we’d fall asleep together, eat together, talk about our day together, and sometimes share secrets together.

I wanted us to live on.

 

It all seems like a dream now, a time out of reach.

 

I can’t blame it all on Robin’s gang. Even if he did lie about your passing the Space Weather Controller Level 1 exam, saying it was because you put out for the Director, leading me to strike him.

 

It wasn’t Robin’s fault that the meteor hit Earth.

 

I ran my mouth off during that fight, saying things like he wouldn’t come to his senses if a meteor hit him on the head. But that’s . . . that’s not why Earth was destroyed. Like, just because Robin saw you exit Director Singh’s office around 1 a.m. a week before the exam, it doesn’t mean you made some kind of unsavory deal with him to pass.

 

Sorry, Saeun. If you could hear me now you’d be shocked. I’m glad you can’t hear me.

I knew everything. That a week before the Level 1 written exam it was Director Singh’s birthday. That for a full moon before that you were running to the department store at every break, looking at neckties. That the necktie you wanted was more expensive than the amount you could come up with from our allowances.

That you snuck a flashlight under the covers and wrote letters all night. That you took the present to him after lights out around midnight. I knew everything.

How could I not. With Director Singh’s initials marked on your calendar, the necktie catalog underneath your pillow, the crumpled letters in the wastepaper basket. How could I not notice your tiptoeing to our dorm window and slipping out. What I don’t know is what Director Singh said when he refused you. Because you were back in twenty minutes and crying silently underneath the covers. I only know how you felt. Because what you felt when he turned you down was how I felt whenever I looked at you.

When Robin called you that “W” word that stands for prostitute and lied about you, I wanted to dispute each and every detail: You couldn’t have come out of Singh’s office at 1 a.m. You were in your bed and crying by 12:30. But my fists went flying instead. Because Robin didn’t care about the truth, he just wanted to slander you. He’s like all the other “promising” kids who eventually wash out. The ones whose dirty looks were as sharp as the razor blades inside the anonymous letters we would find in our mailbox.

I wanted to tell him that I knew Saeun Choi better than any friend or family, that if he crossed her I would kill him. That I knew you better than anyone else because I loved you. But I couldn’t say that. Just a word of that would’ve made me burst into tears, and that’s just pathetic. Plus, I hadn’t even told you that I loved you, and I sure wasn’t going to tell Robin first.

I thought about it a lot. Love. Whether this emotion, which I’d never received from anyone, was really love. If it’s not jealousy or yearning that makes kids put razor blades in our mailbox or leave gifts on our doorstep, maybe what I’m feeling shouldn’t be called love, either.

But would these kids who yearn for you also watch over you in your sleep every morning and think of being with you for life? Do they also wish they could cry your tears for you when someone says hurtful things to you? Why would I have thought of the word “love” when I’ve never learned what it is . . .

Don’t worry. I won’t leave these words behind. Not even on the dark side of the moon. I won’t do anything you wouldn’t like. And I’m now the only person in the universe who can operate the Moonwriter. It’s been over five months since Earth was deluged in clouds of ash. This record may be the only record of Earth that will remain. The Moonwriter is running out of battery power. If I knew I’d be marooned here for so long, I would’ve studied harder.

 

Let me talk about the Moonwriter. But before that, the orphanage I came from. It held religious services every Sunday. While the older kids sang in the choir, I’d be nodding off to sleep. The Sunday school teachers told us all kinds of stories to keep us awake, but I can’t remember any of them. I do remember the first line of the Book of Genesis. Because it was also the first message Genesis wrote on the moon.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

I was nine, and the Moonwriter was a big deal at the time. We all gathered around the small television at the orphanage, watching the Moonwriter write the first sentence on the moon using its giant pen.

Appropriate, really. The name of the Moonwriter’s company being Genesis. The people who accepted the Book of Genesis as literal fact believed the Earth was the center of the universe with the sun and moon in orbit of it, and here comes the Genesis Corporation using the moon as a giant, profit-creating billboard.

Genesis bought out the moon from all the countries of the world, and smoothed out the side facing Earth. People used to say they could see a woman’s face on the moon, or even a rabbit, but it was now just a round, white page. The old videos show scenes of the great big shovels and backhoes of the Moonwriter cultivating the surface. Maybe the memory card has copies. After that was done, the Corporation sent out a live broadcast of the Moonwriter writing its first message. The moment the line from Genesis was written, the moment the Moonwriter’s huge pen nib was lifted from the surface, all of us orphans ran outside and looked up at the moon. Our orphanage didn’t have a good telescope, so we looked up at the sky with our naked eyes. “Do you see it? Do you see it?” We were nine. We were looking up at the sky from our different orphanages.

Before we knew each other.

That was the first time I thought of going to the moon. I always knew I was somehow different from the other kids. But when I came to this school and met you, I forgot it all. The moment I laid eyes on you for the first time, I thanked God. Because God made the moon, and made humanity. And humanity made Genesis, which created the school where I met you.

 

Just a second. I need to lower my oxygen a bit. I’ve no choice if I want to survive for a bit longer. My body is getting used to the lower oxygen density. My movements and my breathing are slowing. I can imagine everyone’s surprise, or the surprise of any survivors from Earth who manage to find me here. My assignment was for a month. The emergency rations and oxygen in the Moonwriter were to last four months, tops. How could I, a seventeen-year-old girl, have managed to stretch that out to six? And have another month of oxygen and rations remaining.

We learned more than just the history and structure of machines in the Mechanical Repairs track. One of our harsher lessons was how to survive in space.

I underwent G-force training every week, as well as survival training every six months, the latter of which meant learning how to live off of minimal rations and oxygen. The kids on our track tended to be thin and were shallow breathers. Simulated launches made me want to vomit, and I’d rant in my sleep on those nights, but now I’m grateful for it all. Even if the only meaning in my life now is thumping on the Moonwriter keyboard, recording into the memory device.

 

I was shocked at first. It was ten days until my scheduled return to Earth, but the Moonwriter was long fixed. The assignment was really about punishing me rather than the Moonwriter needing repairs. During my free time I was channel surfing through the cameras installed up here, thinking of which messages to keep and which to erase. A matter of profit, completely unrelated to the romantic prospect of writing on the moon.

Genesis’s tagline was, “Your message engraved on the face of eternity.” They meant the message would never wear away, because there was no weathering on the moon. Eternity, of course, in the sense that it would remain as long as the client paid for maintenance. If they didn’t, it would be erased and someone else’s message would take its place. So many plots for rent, filled with writing in different styles, languages. I was looking through all of them, when one monitor went dark.

 

The one connected to Earth.

 

I don’t like noise. I rarely even listened to music on the moon. So the speakers were turned off. And all I knew was that the Earth monitor had gone dark. So I don’t know whether the moment it happened was loud or silent. When I turned my head, the monitor was simply black. It wasn’t showing me the night sky, it was as if the camera had come unhitched. All other systems were normal. I just sat there, blinking, at first. I input the other channels into the brightly lit main monitor. They came up fine. I input the channels into the Earth monitor. It wasn’t a monitor malfunction. They came up fine there, too.

I found myself digging my fingernails into my thighs in order to prevent myself from running out of the base. I realized what had happened. Communications with Earth were cut off. Their transmissions no longer reached the moon. I switched the base to movement mode, and drove it to where I could see Earth. The two-legged, one-person moonbase lumbered forward, avoiding the inscribed messages. When I got there and looked out, Earth was already clouding over. Its surface was fading into something resembling fog, the shining blue parts succumbing to haze. I rubbed my eyes but the fog didn’t clear.

I tried to recall the manual on what to do when the network goes down. One, check the connection of the transmitter. Two, send an emergency signal to the unmanned satellite control center in orbit between Earth and the moon. Three, input your ID and password and wait to be reconnected. Nothing worked. The transmitter was connected and I sent the emergency signal. No one on Earth acknowledged my message.

And I couldn’t connect to the emergency channel. The login screen for the Aerospace Network wouldn’t come online. I waited in order to input my ID and the password, an anagram of your name, but the screen never came up.

My breathing quickened. I scrolled through the transmission logs. What was my last communication with Earth? My regular report, given once every three days, was two days ago. And, I talked to you yesterday. That was last night, or twenty hours ago Earth time.

What did you say to me last?

What did we talk about?

I felt my hair turning white. I tried calming down, and brought up our communication recording.

 

—INCOMING TRANSMISSION FROM MOONWRITER BASE. SPECIAL TRAINING CENTER FOR SPACE AND AERONAUTICS LIA YU. CODE UH-E-20258. PRIVATE CHANNEL REQUESTED. CODE UH-C-C0886 SAEUN CHOI. PLEASE RESPOND.

—CONNECTING. PLEASE HOLD.

 

Some muffled machine sounds. I heard a cough. It was early evening where you were, but you looked tired and there were bags under your eyes. You rubbed your eyes and gave me a weak smile.

 

—Hey. How’s the weather up there?

—Rainy. Windy. The base is just about to flip over. You?

 

Joking, of course, but there was something serious about your expression.

 

—Nothing much. Some stupid meteor changed course and wants to pay Earth a visit. Hope it’s not expecting a visa from me.

—Meteor? The one you said would miss us?

 

Taking care of incoming meteors was one of the Space Weather Control department’s chief priorities. At some point, these meteors kept unexpectedly turning toward Earth. Oddly enough, it was when Genesis started using the moon as a billboard, so the corporation found itself with religious groups constantly protesting at its doorstep. We’d visit corporate headquarters for training, and the multilingual prayers, graffiti, and shouting that would greet us would make our heads spin and ears ring. Even if all the messages on the moon were turned into noise it wouldn’t make that racket. They glared at us like we were the devil. They said God was judging us for having our way with the moon, His creation.

As if to mock them, Genesis invested in the development of an expensive anti-meteor device. It shattered smaller meteors and diverted larger ones. It’s true the number of meteors heading for Earth these past few years were more than all the meteors that had ever come its way combined. But you and the Space Weather Control department were effective, declaring emergencies at the right time, using destroyers and diverting satellites to keep meteors out of the atmosphere. People would be scared by hurricanes or tsunamis, but not meteors. So I thought you were joking. You were calculating the path of the meteor even on the night before I left, but your face was as peaceful as if you were solving an easy linear equation.

 

—It’ll miss. Probably.

 

I saw Director Singh walk by behind you with a mug in his hand. You were just rubbing your eyes again, unaware. But I saw. Clear as day despite the blurry video feed. Director Singh, whose neckties were always the same patterns, the same colors, was wearing a tie I’d never seen before. The kind of tie a girl our age might pick out. A flashy, cheap tie, light years from your own good taste. You were rubbing your eyes as he said a friendly hello to someone. I was glad you couldn’t see my hardening expression.

 

—When are you coming back to Earth?

—I’ll shuttle in in ten days. Five days of gravity readjustment therapy after that.

—Come home quickly.

—Why?

 

You brought your coffee mug to your lips and sipped. Coffee, I knew, with so much sugar and milk, it was probably closer to milk than latte.

 

—I don’t like sleeping alone in the dorm.

 

If what you felt for Director Singh was just a playful, light spring breeze kind of thing, I would’ve cracked a joke. Something like, Are you still heartbroken over him? But we were seventeen. We’d never learned how to accept love, much less give it, and love was less a spring breeze and more like a hurricane.

I wanted to run to you right away. I wanted to say, Hey Saeun, after I go back and write up an apology, file my report, and let the principal finish reprimanding me, do you want to go on vacation? Somewhere on the beaches of the Southern Hemisphere? We can build castles in the white sand and drink coconut milk. At night we can sneak into the hotel bar and have cocktails. Like we’re adults. We’ll forget about everything else. I hesitated, and opened my mouth.

“Saeun. You’re being summoned.”

Robin, who still had a bandage on his face, called you from behind. He probably saw me on the monitor. I gracefully stuck up my middle finger and he made a face. You turned to him and spoke to him for a while. Probably something like you were on a call and whether the summons were really that important. Robin must’ve won, because you shrugged and stood up.

 

—Come home quickly.

 

With the bags under your eyes, fatigue heavy on your face, with that smile that makes me want to hug your shoulders and pat your back, our communication blacked out.

That was my last recorded connection with Earth.

I’m glad. That the last person I talked to on Earth was you.

That the last person on Earth who reached out to me was you.

 

What could’ve happened? Within the twenty hours we were out of contact, what went on there? You must’ve done everything you could. You must’ve recalculated the meteor’s path tens of times, trying to save Earth. You wouldn’t have let go for a second to sigh or cry. You were probably at your station to the last second, ignoring the order to evacuate to the bunker. And . . . yes, unlikely as it is . . . you might’ve thought, instead of Director Singh . . . you might’ve thought of me.

 

I can’t cry.

Crying speeds up breathing. Which uses up oxygen. It’s also dehydrating. I don’t want to forfeit an extra day of survival just because I cried.

When the Earth was covered in ash, I spent several days in numb silence. In the beginning I screamed and threw things, feeling like I was in a nightmare, I cried as I beat against the walls. All useless. I kept the batteries on all day, waiting for word from Earth. But soon I just . . . gave up. Maybe some people got away, to unmanned spaceships or other bases. But you, you wouldn’t have.

We couldn’t escape. Throughout our school years we had no parents to cry to over the phone about our harsh training. We could achieve so much because we found love in school, and we had to fight if we wanted to keep our loves. The fight crept into our bones. So you wouldn’t have left for the bunker, or fled the atmosphere. You wanted to protect Earth for my return. Brave Saeun Choi. Never crying in the halls or in class, or in front of me, but always in your bed. You were seventeen.

 

I was left at the orphanage at birth, so the words mother and father were as distant as stars. But not you. Your name was different from other words. Here, where everyone obsessed over their work because they were lonely, where we lived in fear of becoming useless and losing our hard-earned places; on a blue planet as cold as its color, you were my warmth. The word on my mind. That word was you.

You were strong and beautiful. You always did your best and produced the best. When you walked down the hall, your determined grace commanded our gaze. Boys loved you, girls, too. But no one dared confess it to you.

No one was deserving of your strength and perfection. No one could be your equal. Only I knew that you sometimes had nightmares that left you in silent, tearful agony, that you grimaced into the mirror every morning as you tried to tame your bedhead, that the drawers of your desk were always a mess. Me, who was always by your side. I didn’t care if the only reason you had me as your roommate for five years was because you knew you could count on me to keep your secrets. If that’s what you wanted, I will do so to the end. Your anxiety, your tears, your love, all of it. Even if there is no one to listen to those secrets anymore.

You were like the moon. The moon would only reveal one side of itself, and until the invention of spaceships, the other side was a mystery. Like you were, to the others around you. The moon showed the same face because its rotation period was the same as its orbiting period. Which is about one month in Earth time. If a rotation is a day and an orbit is a year, a day on the moon is a year, or about a month in Earth time. I’ve been on this moon for six days, on it for six months, or, in other words, six years.

 

I’ve blabbered on. But I’m not going to write this story on the moon. I’m going to erase it. And I’m going to erase all the old messages written on the moon’s surface, too. By then there ought to be just enough energy left in the Moonwriter to engrave a short fairytale.

Do you think it’s pointless?

I’m having trouble just banging on this keyboard and checking my words on the monitor. My body sleeps for longer hours, and waking up is getting harder. But I want to write just one more story on the surface of the moon before I fall asleep for good.

Your story.

The child who entered the most exclusive school on Earth at ten, and became its star. The child who was strong and wise and kind to everyone. In my story, you won’t be the far side of the moon, afraid of being found out, but the sun. You won’t be known for living happily ever after with some prince, but for being the bravest princess who ever was. And when I’ve finished writing it, I’ll go searching for you. To a place that’s farther than the moon or Earth.

I’ll be leaving to meet you, my world.

They say God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Whereas I will have rested for six days before creating my fictional world. But in it, I will make you into the world’s happiest, most brilliant person. So good-bye. I will delete everything I’ve written thus far. And a new story will begin.

You were my world, and so I give you, too, a world.

 

© Jeon Sam-hye. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.

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