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A 6,000 word short story (approximately 40 pages in paper).
Think you’re smart enough to survive on the Moon? So did Kenneth…
Kenneth Morgan is a young man who took Lunar Survival School on a lark. He knows he’s smarter than the grunts in his class, smarter than his instructors even… smart enough to handle anything Luna can throw at him.
Luna is about to teach him a lesson in humility…
This one started a little differently for me. Usually my Old Town Tales start with a character “talking” to me about his or her life or work on the Moon. With this one, though, I wasn’t sure what to write. I knew I wanted to tell an Old Town Tale, but I had no guess who the protagonist was, nor what his crisis would be. So instead, I thought about things that could go wrong that might make for an interesting story. And the first thing I thought of, naturally, was a story about the risks of vacuum. But then immediately I heard the following words in my head:
Look, what you don’t want to hear is another vacuum story.
Oh, we’ve got plenty of them here in the Old Town. They’re older than this bar, older than Tycho Under, older even than space travel. They’re our essential folklore, as my old lit prof called it: tales that teach you how to survive in your culture. The most important lesson on Luna is: keep your vacuum on one side, and you and your air on the other. So our essential folklore includes lots of variations of How I Almost Breathed Vacuum or They Screwed Up, and So They Breathed Vacuum.
But you’ve heard them all before. You could tell me all the same stories. So while I may spin you a tale now and then, the one thing I promise I’m not gonna tell you is another vacuum story. Ever.
And with that, I had made myself a promise: vacuum stories go back before Asimov and Heinlein; so unless I have something new to add, I would not tell another vacuum story!
But then before I could even stop and think, the voice in my head kept going:
But sit down, order a drink, and I’ll give you something different. Let me tell you how a young smart ass—OK, it was me, back when I was younger and more of a smart ass than I am today—got in trouble from too much air.
And with that, I met Kenneth Morgan, the not-so-young, not-so-smart ass who was telling me his story. And I honestly had no idea what that line meant. I had to write the story to find out!
From there, I needed to know more about Kenneth. And the first thing I knew was: he was alive to tell his story. This is a constant problem with first-person past-tense narratives: unless you’re going to pull a ghost story trick (I’m lookin’ at you, Piers Anthony!) or unless you’re going to add a postscript telling how the protagonist died and left behind this record (and the motif of Old Town Tales is a living narrator), the reader knows the narrator will survive. Oh, anyone else is fair game (unless they’re also mentioned in the present tense), but the narrator survives.
So that left me with a problem: what could threaten Kenneth enough to add jeopardy to the story even though the reader knows he will survive? And after thinking about it for a while, I struck upon an idea: embarrassment. Humiliation. I needed something that young Kenneth would not long live down.
And that told me about young Kenneth’s personality: he was a cocksure type, and he was heading for his comeuppance. I wanted the reader to be torn between rooting for him to succeed and gloating when he gets hoist by his own petard. I leave it to the reader to decide how I did at that.
That realization also led me directly to Kenneth’s antagonist: Sergeant Armand Fontes. I needed someone in a superior position over Kenneth, someone who would ride him and laugh at him and make the embarrassment worse. And in particular, I needed someone whom Kenneth would go to any length to prove him wrong. So Fontes was born, a drill sergeant in the Lunar Defense Reserves and Lead Instructor at Lunar Survival School. I only saw a little of Fontes, but I really came to like him. I think he’ll return in Eliza’s next story.
This story originally appeared in paper in The Glass Parachute.