AUTHOR: Rachael K. Jones
NARRATOR: Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
HOST: Divya Breed
- The 1st Annual Lunar Biathlon originally appeared in Crossed Genres October 2015.
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about the author…
about the narrator…
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives and works in Houston as an oncology nurse. She is married and the mother to three brilliant artistic children. She writes because she loves to and also because she has a story (or two, or three…) to tell.
By Rachael K. Jones
Raji and I were always designing new torments for ourselves, and then calling them good, and running around the Moon was just the latest idea. We tattooed wedding bands on each other’s fingers after our courthouse elopement, and for good measure, each other’s names. Raji ran down my thumb, and Valanna nestled in his palm along the fleshy crease. We honeymooned outdoors in the dead of winter on the Appalachian Trail, eating garlic couscous boiled in a bag. When we got the flu, we shared it between us like a good book, like a tissue box passed from one nightstand to the other. He worshipped at the mosque, and I at the cathedral. We sinned extravagantly, and we repented extravagantly too. We prayed and fasted with devout abandon. We prided ourselves on our self-denial, on the stares we got when we kissed in our congregation parking lots.
We punished our bodies with crash diets and binge drinking. We took up brutal sports. We ran farther and farther each evening. Eventually, we quit our jobs to seek our limits.
We liked making love on beaches in the rain so the chill drove us closer together. We relished the friction of sand. We got sunburned just to drip aloe down each other’s backs at night. These things reminded us we were alive. Our families called us damned, and most days, we agreed, but this too delighted us. Like Dante, we wanted to pass through Hell at least once before we saw Paradise.
If we sound like ascetics, know that we found our tribe on the open road, worshippers of hot asphalt and burning calves, though not for the same reasons. Roads ran both directions: toward and away. There was a day three years ago that I dragged behind me like an invisible weight, dogging me wherever I went. I ran for fear, but Raji ran for faith, like he heard the voice of God calling to him in a dream.
The important thing was that we didn’t stop running, not for anything.
The First Video
The camera is stationary in the first film. As in all the subsequent clips save one, Latoya Barton is alone on the lunar surface. She has wedged the camcorder in a rock cleft, her face hidden behind her reflective helmet. At this point in terraforming, the atmosphere is very thin. While on duty, she monitors the gases, tracking the rate of generation needed to compensate for loss into the void, and to solar wind. Off duty, she creates these videos.
It is nighttime. Moondust ghosts around her ankles. The crater is Earth-facing, far from the comet strike zones where ice is being thawed to create lakes for the next terraforming stage. The camera displays the date in white blocky letters in the lower lefthand corner: one week into the lunar night. Latoya scrambles up the crater’s edge. Her movements are effortless, like a gymnast–an illusion of the one sixth gravity. At the time of filming, she is forty six years old.
When she reaches the top, she stands out against the starry horizon. Earth is just visible as a blue sliver in the upper right of the panel. Latoya snaps open her homemade glider–some Army green nylon bags stitched together over fiberglass tent rods–and threads her arms through the loops. The apparatus looks like a DaVinci drawing, which isn’t too far off base. Latoya is an accomplished engineer.
The glider wobbles as she tries a few test flaps. She jumps off the crater’s edge, toward the camera, arms open, and hangs for measurable seconds, suspended above the forty-foot drop. Then the glider’s left wing flops limp as a pole snaps. Latoya careens to the ground.
The footage runs another ten minutes as Latoya drags herself toward the camera, arms still tangled in the wreckage, one wing tilted up over her head, the rods cutting a furrow in the sand behind her. She is limping. She holds her left arm cradled close to her stomach. Her environment suit is miraculously intact. The last thing visible before the camera shuts off is her lime-green boots.
We didn’t invent the Lunar Biathlon, but we were among the first to sign up when word spread on the ultramarathon trails, the year we bought environment suits and stacks of oxygen tanks and invaded the research station in Crater Tycho.
Raji and I did it for different reasons. He wanted bragging rights, while I wanted to fly. These were both the truth, although not the whole of it.
We were at a diner off the Appalachian Trail taking shots of Tabasco while we waited for brunch, the damp heat of Southern summer sticking our thighs to the cracked plastic booth. We watched Latoya Barton’s videos on my phone to pass the time. Latoya, the terraforming surveyor who invented lunar flight, who walked in the months-long dark beneath the stars, charting the peaks by foot, laying some of the trails the biathlon would eventually shadow. Even ten years ago, there was a thin atmosphere. Latoya got curious about the properties of the lunar wind, so she built a kite that lifted her off the ground in the low gravity.
I watched her videos obsessively. All of us did. I thought if I could leap from one of those peaks–if my feet could kick off the ground–I could leave behind what scared me back on Earth once and for all.
“I want to try it,” I told Raji between Tabasco shots, my cheeks damp from capsaicin tears and summer. “I want to fly on the Moon.”
“You’ll kill yourself, Valanna.” His voice came out pained and gut-punched. He handled spiciness even worse than I did.
I pinched his arm. “Anything worth doing is worth dying for.” Cliche, but true. It was the third anniversary of the motorcycle wreck that shook my brain to jelly, stole my fearlessness and my career. Ever since the accident, words wouldn’t stay put on the page. The letters scrambled under my gaze, their meaning a country for which I had no passport. I raised another spoonful of Tabasco, toasted Raji, and swallowed.
Our waiter appeared at my elbow with our eggs and a badly suppressed look that said brown people are trouble. Raji might’ve given up on our game, except for that. He twisted off the Tabasco cap and emptied half the remaining sauce onto his plate. His eggs poked through, yellow-bellied islands in a red sea.
“Seriously. I mean it. I don’t want to miss this.” On my phone’s screen, Latoya crashed into the ground again, and picked herself up. She always picked herself up. On the Moon, you could fall from such ridiculous heights and walk away.
“It’s going to be expensive,” said Raji, but it wasn’t a no.
We sold our house to a Buddhist temple sight unseen at three quarters value. Our suits we bought new from an online startup marketing to the burgeoning lunar tourism industry, and our oxygen tanks came from Sea World. We made our own wings from the template handed down from Latoya Barton herself.
“You look like a flying squirrel,” Raji said the first time I slipped on my wings — tarps stitched over fiberglass tent poles, accordioned beneath my armpits.
“Flying squirrels have nothing on us.”
Once, not long after my accident, I went for a run on a wet summer morning after a heavy rain. The sidewalks steamed and smoked with yesterday’s leftover heat, the sun just spilling red-gold over the treetops. I took the sidewalk through the park beneath the dripping oak trees. Adventurous worms sprang from the grass and threw themselves on the pavement. They inched over the sidewalk slowly, undulating painfully, their bodies arrows pointing toward the green.
I ran on my toes to avoid them. I didn’t want to crush them. Their lives were so short already. That other stretch of grass signified something. Maybe you had to be a worm to get it.
On the way home, I found most of them dead. They shriveled up beneath the intense iron heat of Florida summer. Their dry, stiff bodies looked like old shoelaces snipped to pieces and scattered. Some had been partially crushed by runners less careful than me. By the next day, they had baked into the sidewalk, shadow-worms swirling against the gray.
I avoided stepping on them all the same.
The Fifth Video
Latoya’s wings are broader in this film, the green nylon swapped for a thicker blue tarp without visible seams. The location has changed to a mountainside, steeper than the first. The footage shows three progressive leaps. Latoya has lost the tentative demeanor of earlier films–now she runs up the slopes at a flat-out sprint and snaps open her wings without stopping. The momentum sends her gliding further toward the camera. On the second jump, she manages to touch down and stumble before falling.
On the third jump, she wobbles midair for a long, tense moment. The wing collapses again. She crashes hard, rolling head over feet twice before she stops. If you watch closely, you can see the rip in her suit’s leg at 08:33, just for a second, before she rolls again–probably a sharp rock. She slaps a sealing patch on the tear, but struggles to stand, and finally she slumps in the moondust. The camera runs another twenty minutes before the battery dies.
No one signed up for the Lunar Biathlon without understanding that once you get here, you either finished the race or died.
The registration waiver was novel-long, an endless list of all the ways you could bite the moondust. You could suffocate. You could starve. You could shiver, blue-lipped and forgotten in the half-month lunar night. A pebble could scratch a hole in your reflective suit, blinding you or burning a hole in your skin. Away from the protective blanket of Earth, you could get novel space-cancers from the radiation. This is to say nothing of the regular biathlon dangers: the dehydration, the heat exhaustion, the strokes and heart attacks and organ failures that have taken down runners since Pheidippides.
One thing they should’ve added just for Raji: Devout idiots might die trying to run while fasting for Ramadan. Of course, Raji failed to mention it until we were at the starting line with our fellow forty ascetics, the sun a faint bright line at our backs, Earth floating in the black void. We had to run 6,874 miles to circumnavigate the Moon. At a reasonable pace, it translated to a one month run in the low gravity, until we’d reach the final leap and glide. One lunar day, and Raji intended to do it without food or water during most of his waking hours.
“You’re going to kill yourself,” I snapped through the radio. I huffed every third syllable. We made good time from the starting line, helped along by low gravity, but the regolith was treacherous, full of sharp rocks and sliding sand. A surface rover passed us on the left, zipping ahead to set up the day’s supply drops at the checkpoints.
“Anything worth doing is worth dying for.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic. He’d kept the fast his whole life, and I’d always supported him, just as he supported me during Lent. But never anything like this.
“You should’ve told me! We could’ve cancelled.”
“This race is a one-off deal, Valanna. We both know it. We might never get the chance again. It was now or never.”
He had a point. The terraforming was an international effort. Shuttles were just starting to run civilians out. That’s what got the ultramarathoners talking. We were always hungry for the next challenge, the next grand height or depth. For the right price, you could hire someone to dump you on the Moon, and for a little more, you could sleep at the research stations until your permit expired. Soon settlers would move in, lay roads, civilize the place. It would change the moonscape forever.
I sent my anger off-road toward a new target. “What idiot scheduled this thing during Ramadan, anyway?”
“Probably the same ones who don’t check the calendar when their husband is Muslim?”
Ever since my accident, I struggled to read the calendar just like I did with books. The numbers and words fell together, and I couldn’t sort them out again. It embarrassed me to admit it, though. Even to Raji. Especially to him. He’d been patient enough without babying me through such small details.
I choked back the rest of my words until that evening in our tent at the checkpoint, halfway to the next research station. Together we laid out the tent and hooked up my suit’s environmental regulator to the valves, along with a couple gas tanks. The suit pressurized the tiny tent, creating a safe overnight habitat just big enough for the two of us. We crawled in through the airlock, shaking off most of the grating moondust before we wriggled into our sleeping bags and dug into our provisions.
While Raji chugged water and broke his fast on dates and lentil granola, I slipped his Koran from his pack and thumbed through the little onionskin pages. The letters scrambled under my eyes. With much effort, I could force them to line up and stand still for an instant, but it was slow going.
“What’re you looking for?” he asked, bemused. Still chewing, he did the evening suit check, checking the pressure, looking for leaks and signs of stress.
“A loophole. The sun’s not going to rise, right? We’re on the Moon. Nights last a month. So maybe God will give you a pass, or something.”
“If we’re going by lunar nights, I’ll be fasting for a lot longer than a month, Sweetheart.”
“Well, what do people in Alaska do? Just starve to death once a year? Maybe there are no Alaskan Muslims.”
Raji gently slipped the Koran from my hands and tucked the pages closed. “There are too Alaskan Muslims. It’s okay. I can go by Mecca’s clock. It’s not that bad, you know. Look! Food!” He chewed granola in my face.
“You’re taunting me.”
“You’re taking this too personally. It’s for Allah. It’s not about hurting you.” In the cramped space, he offered me his arms, and I nuzzled his neck. He smelled like stale sweat. “It’ll be fine. I’ve done this my whole adult life. I know what I’m doing. But I need you to support me on this, okay?”
“I’ll try,” I promised, but it was a difficult thing. I knew I could make him miserable. Make the tension between Allah and his wife sharp and painful as a needle. Instead, I played the part of the angel, and slept at his side.
There on that dry satellite, where the horizon loomed low and the void felt close enough to dip in my toes, I dreamt of falling water and lapping water and making love with Raji in the rain beneath a tarp in the long grass above the shoreline.
My body craved what I denied it. This was what it meant to love Raji, and for him to love me.
The Sixth Video
This film is dated three months after the last one. The lapse coincides with the time Latoya spent in sick bay after her injuries from the previous experiment. She favors her left leg as she climbs the crater ridge, but the limp goes away when she unfurls her wings (now glued right into her suit’s armpits). She charges for the edge at a dead sprint and leaps. She glides downward, rocking side to side like a falling leaf. She pinwheels one arm, spiraling in a tight corkscrew. When she lands, the wings snap closed like a jackknife.
She practices it again. Again. Again.
Despite his big talk, the fast was crushing Raji. When we stopped to rest, he would take a few moments alone to make salat while I sucked energy gel and sipped water through my suit’s. He would rise a little slower each time, gloves coated white with moondust. We’d begun the race leading, but each day we pitched our tent a little further back on the trail, the lights ahead dim against the still darkness of lunar night.
If we were in walking distance, the other runners would congregate at the nearest research station for meals, showers, and conversation in the rec space. Sometimes we swapped stories of past races, sometimes songs. I met a runner from Nigeria who invented his own races, summoned friends to frozen wastes and long, flat stretches of desert for no trophy at all, and no prize money. In the rec space after showering, you could see the bones of his legs overlaid with thin muscle cords and black, pitted skin, like an anatomical model. When he laughed, it sounded like strong wind on water. I’d never met someone with so little fear.
After two weeks, Raji stopped attending the gatherings. He wanted to sleep more. Finally I quit them too, and stayed with him. We would read from the Koran together, massage cramps from our tired legs, ice our knees with water packs frozen on the surface outside our tent.
It wasn’t all bad, being away from Earth. In the one sixth gravity, we could cover a lot of ground quickly. We had to carry extra weight–balancing the day’s oxygen supply on our shoulders was an art form–but you felt stronger on the Moon, younger and lighter. Sometimes I felt like I could run forever.
The suits also helped. Tech had come a long way since the days of puffy suits that allowed the grace and dexterity of a pregnant elephant. Private companies had begun manufacturing fashions to suit the taste of tourists. Light, strong materials held in pressure while allowing natural movement, coupled with insulation against the lunar night. During lunar day, you had to wear a different suit made to shield you from heat.
Still, Raji lagged. On Earth, on an average day I’d trail him. On the Moon, he lagged far behind.
The other runners sometimes stopped to check on us when they loped past. Running legends, old friends, complete strangers. A man named Mosheh carried two of Raji’s empty oxygen tanks to the checkpoint to ease his load. Ngo Bian, two-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100, topped off our water supply. Once, the Kenyan twins, a brother and sister running as a team, offered their medical expertise when they found Raji retching over the commlink, but I waved them off. It was just the dry heaves. He got like that around midday. After the twins bounded so far up the trail they stopped craning their necks backwards, I eased him to his feet, and when he was steady, we ran as a unit, me supporting his weight beneath his armpit so his useless wing flap wrapped round my back.
I wanted to say, You can’t continue like this. But I recalled the long, hard hospital days when my scrambled mind slowly pieced itself together, and the long, aching shuffle toward the bathroom, each step strangely eternal, each meter a marathon. I thought of violence and bruises and weeks spent assuring everyone It wasn’t that bad and I’m feeling better, really, when the truth is violence done to the body will bruise you all the way down to your center, set you to wearing loops in your own thoughts long after your cuts have healed.
At night, I got out Raji’s Koran. “Read it to me,” I asked, pressing it into his hands.
“We’ll read it together.” I tucked myself into his arms, and followed his finger across the page as it pinned the wriggling letters down. One by one, they became words, and I spoke them.
The Seventh Video
Many people argue this video should’ve never been released. This film contains none of the spectacular violence of her big crash. It is the least-viewed of the set, the one no one is sure Latoya meant to save.
She paces back and forth on the crater’s rim. Several times she pauses, bends her knees as if to jump before backing away again. Latoya creeps up the trail and runs for the edge, but at the last moment, skids up short. Finally, she walks away entirely. The camera’s battery runs for three more hours before it goes dead.
On the moon, water haunted me. Each night, I dreamed of thunder, and woke to hard, dry grit pelting the tarp over my head when I stretched out sore legs to continue the race. The route took us across Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains, on the approach to the dizzying peak of Mons Huygens, tallest of the lunar mountains, taller than any peak on Earth. Without the force of erosion, the Moon’s peaks have never learned to bow their heads.
I didn’t know why they called it the Sea of Rains, but I liked to think it was the tiny pelting grit that never ended, bits of space-debris not yet eroded by the atmosphere. Moondust was like powdered glass. It had not yet known the touch of wind or rain, only our feet, which wear a new trail through what was only gray before. You had to be careful not to track it into the tents, since it could irritate your skin like fiberglass.
“Someday,” I told Raji, “the Sea of Rains will be a beach.” I missed the sun, but I missed the rain more, and longing plucked at my throat like melancholy guitar chords.
The Moon was dead, and always had been, but would not be forever. Someday, years from now, these trails would become orange tree groves or yellow mustard blossoms or thistly purple highlands. Earth’s life crept in day by day.
The grit bounced off his faceplate. “I see it,” Raji said. “I see the rain. Look at all the green. Everything is blooming, even the rocks.”
I looked up saw the stars trembling through the light meteoric hail, and above it all, the Earth. “It’s just dust, Raji,” I told him. “You’re hallucinating.” Low blood sugar could do that. It happened on long runs when your body, desperate to fuel its muscles, began feeding on itself. Once, during a 27-hour desert race, I ran through a whole ruined city that no one saw but me. Still, it scared me to hear Raji talk like that out here where there were no hospitals.
“You should see it, Valanna. A garden, like ours at home. This is Paradise.” When he said it, I thought for an instant the rocks became hills became orchards–just a flicker, a shared hallucination. Raji picked up the pace, and I had to sprint to catch him. His second wind held until we reached the base of Mount Huygens, the brutal final ascent.
Maybe in the body’s twisted agony, the mind could see beyond and prophesy. Or maybe these were only stories I told myself, because without them, I too would be dead and dry inside. Hope is sharp-edged and grating as moondust. Ascents are always hardest. You lean your body into them and you give them your whole, or else you fall.
The Tenth Video
This is film they all talk about, the most famous of them all. The only one with someone besides Latoya. It’s also the only one with sound, synced with the commlink recordings afterwards. The camera shakes, held in human hands. Mark, Latoya’s best friend, does the recording. Latoya is already positioned at the crest of her boulder, new wings extended and poised like huge flags.
“Go ahead, Latoya! Camera’s rolling!” Feedback screeches over the microphone.
Latoya sprints for the cliff. “One giant leap for a woman!” She throws herself into a smooth, perfect glide. Mark whoops. The shot bounces in his hands. The camera pans to trace her trajectory, zooms in on the mothlike elegance of the glide, the smoothly executed turns as she makes aerial switchbacks, doubling back and forth, gradually descending, until suddenly she’s near ground-level, rushing directly at the camera, the audio drowned in mutual laughter.
Mark, suddenly realizing the danger, attempts to run. The camera snaps away from Latoya, but you can hear her loud and clear over the audio–“Oh, no you don’t!”–just moments before the frame tilts topsy-turvy, flipping skyward into a tangled mass of canvas and limbs, the laughter at a crescendo.
Latoya collides with Mark, and a sport is born
When we reached the mountain’s base, Raji knelt so long I thought he was dead. I shook his shoulder. His arms dangled like dying worms. I was about to blast a call for help across every frequency when his head lifted. “I fell asleep,” he admitted. It was the fasting, the running, all of it. It was taking its toll. Raji didn’t do anything but sleep when we were off the trail, hadn’t for days. He even lost the strength to read with me. “Don’t tell me to quit, Valanna.”
It took all my strength not to say it. It scared me to think he could die out there. We were so far behind. No one could help us, because they had all gone ahead. The last runner, a 70-year-old woman named Estelle, had passed us yesterday evening. I grabbed his armpits and hauled him up. “Don’t ever quit, Raji.” I hauled him to his feet. He swayed, even in the low gravity. “Let’s run again. Not much farther. We’re going to fly today.”
“You can be a real asshole sometimes.” He started trotting. I made him go in front.
I laughed, because I knew he didn’t mean it. “Be nice.”
“Why should I?”
“Because it’s Ramadan, and God says so.”
Here’s the thing about the Lunar Biathlon: on Earth, you could train for the long run. You could prepare for the weight of oxygen tanks. You could weigh yourself down, run where the air is thin, up the mountain trails and between the rocks. You could teach yourself to watch your feet, chin slightly down, scanning for loose, jagged things that could puncture your suit and steal your air.
You couldn’t train for the flight, though. That had to be learned when you got there, the first time you tried it.
But Mount Huygens was tall. People spent years preparing to climb Mount Everest, and this was so much higher, unmarked and unblazed, save by the runners who went before us. We could see their footprints pressed into the dust like the ghosts of worms. We threw ourselves forward and inched along slowly, painfully. Raji wilted. His body had soaked up suffering, and now it flowed out from his every joint.
How do you save a man from breaking when voices and visions have called him into the desert? And what if you’ve heard those voices, too? Running could be a punishment, another self-flagellation. It could also be a calling.
“Faster,” I said, and it became a mantra, a goad, a wellspring. “Faster, Raji. Faster.” On Raji’s heels, my mind bound away from the scarred places, and wilderness overgrew the old, worn tracks.
At the top of Mount Huygens, we came to the leap at last. The point was marked by one of the cylindrical atmospheric monitors scattered across the Moon. I touched my glove to it. It thrummed like a living thing. The mountain’s shadow reached back and back into the night. Before us, far away, I could see a glow: the barest hint of a terraforming research station, the finish line. Below us, my heart stuttered and my insides seized, seeing the distant points of floating wings making their way down. We pitched our tent one last time to do a safety check before we jumped. Inside its atmosphere, we stripped off our environment suits and ran our fingers over them inch by inch.
“I’ve got a present for you.” In the cramped tent, Raji dug out a metallic packet of freeze-dried chocolate cake and presented it with a flourish. “Happy anniversary.”
“It’s our anniversary?”
He laughed. “You really don’t check the calendar, do you?”
“That’s still hard for me,” I admitted, but it was without bitterness or regret. “Hard as books. One challenge at a time. I’ll save this for tonight so we can eat it together.”
Raji’s hand rested on my shoulder. I loved his arms. They made me think of stone bridges over canyons. “You know,” said Raji, “there are also days when fasting is forbidden, and today is one of them. Eid Murabak, Valanna.” He broke the round little cake in half and fed me like it was our wedding day. I’d never tasted anything so good. The world bloomed green around the edges.
“Eid Murabak. You take such good care of me.”
“We take care of each other.” Raji kissed me gently. “There are billions of people up there on Earth, but only one of you.”
I returned the kiss hard, full on the lips, forcing him to the tent’s floor. When I let him up again, we were both gasping. Before I pulled on my helmet, I blew a kiss. “See you at the finish line.”
We collapsed the tent and rested our packs and extra tanks in the pile of castoffs at the peak. Less weight was better for the glide.
I pulled the strap that released my wings, and prayed they would bear me up the first time I tried them. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Let’s go,” said Raji.
We were ascetics. We were damned, but saving ourselves. We were enterprising worms flinging ourselves across the stars because somewhere beyond the desert, we smelled green life, and we would reach it, or die.
We ran, we leaped, we caught the newborn air with outstretched arms, and flew on borrowed strength.