Clayton Bardell stared at the letter, cursing his good fortune. Five minutes peace they won’t leave me, he told himself. Five minutes—it might be enough, but they won’t give me even that. Already he could hear the creak of Elder Stinson’s buckboard approaching from the main road.

Bardell returned to the letter, determined to afford the dream as much life as possible. The paper was cream, heavy, the weave of pulp fibers fine, yet distinct. The company name—Branson–Plaxis Resorts—stood out, embossed in gold foil; the watermark, the BPR logo, subtly visible beneath his name and the word Congratulations. The matching envelope had been delivered unsealed.

Three hard raps cracked through the silent parsonage. Each blow to the front door, he knew, bore the full force of Elder Stinson’s knuckles and the meat of his right palm. How many times had he gone on “social calls” with the man? Where he, Bardell, might use a single knuckle to rap on the door, or pinch the proffered doorknocker and meekly tap an apology for interrupting an evening meal, Stinson always charged ahead, daring the door not to collapse under the punishment he dispensed all too eagerly.

Bardell dropped the letter facedown on his desk. Maybe he’s come about something else. Moll Pritchard hadn’t been to services in two weeks, perhaps the problem was hers. He turned for the door of his study, pressed his eyeglasses further up the bridge of his nose, shook his head at himself. As he reached for the doorknob, illusions crashed about him. Housekeep’ had let Stinson into the entryway.

“Where is he?” The throaty bellow more command than question.

Back at his desk after a quickstep across the faded rug, Bardell leafed blindly to the middle of his Bible. Jeremiah. Prophet of woe and doom. How fitting.

Behind him: an autumn leaf’s whisper down half the length of his door, then the creak of hinges. “Here he is Elder, gentlemen. Pastor, you’ve guests this afternoon.”

Bardell turned, knowing not even Housekeep’ believed his idle lack of concern. “Peter, Dylan, Steve—how nice of you to stop by.” Better to keep your mouth closed, let people think you are a fool, and all that.

“It’s about your letter, Pastor.” Calling Elder Stinson by his Christian name had made no difference in the man’s attitude. “We must know that you repent of your folly.”

Folly. There was no uglier word in the Brethren’s lexicon.

“And what is this foolishness of which you speak? Surely not enjoying the Lord’s creation on a Sabbatical? Among the Brethren there’s a long tradition of—”

“Among the Church of Christ’s Brethren here is no tradition of enjoying the moon beyond its biblical purpose—appreciating its glow by night—and you know it!”

Bardell looked at the two other men, Dylan Landau and Steve Tinnock, saw in their faces the desperate wish to transmogrify into hat racks or umbrella stands. He had made such wishes often when paying calls with Elder Stinson.

“Well maybe there ought to be, don’t you think?”

Brother Hat-Rack and Brother Umbrella-Stand stood mute. Stinson’s face turned from plum to boysenberry as his lips flapped open and closed, a sound proceeding forth akin to the Claverton boys at the table tennis championship during last summer’s all-church retreat.

“Have a seat, gentlemen. We may be a while yet resolving this.”

Landau and Tinnock disappeared with grateful sighs into the wingback chairs framing the davenport. Stinson perched on the edge of the sofa, scowling as if something uncomfortable were lodged beneath the cushions. As if Housekeep’ would ever allow such a thing.

Bardell retrieved the letter and his office chair from his desk and brought both opposite Stinson in the grouping. He sat and pushed his glasses back up before he began reading. “Dr. Clayton T. Bardell: Congratulations, you have been selected winner in the Branson–Plaxis Moonshot Hotel sweepstakes. It is our pleasure to invite you and a guest to a four-day/five-night stay at our luxurious four-star resort. Zagat–Cri called it ‘the best—’”

“That’s enough. You’re not going.”

After a silent prayer for patience, Bardell answered Stinson’s command. “I don’t think that’s for you to say, Peter. I have vacation scheduled for the end of next month. I don’t see where it’s any of your concern where I spend it.”

Stinson crept further toward the edge of the davenport. Much farther and he’d be crouching on his haunches. “When you intend a display of folly that will lead the Brethren astray, that is my business. Not only as an elder, but as one of the faithful as well. Brothers Landau and Tinnock agree with me on this.”

The pair demonstrated their assent by staring directly at each other across the vast Berber plain between davenport and office chair.

“You’re hasty, Peter,” Bardell said, standing. Hastiness was far shy of folly among the everyday sins of the Brethren, still the accusation would sting well enough. “How do we know travel to the moon is foolishness? Christ’s commission to carry the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth didn’t include this nation when he gave it.”  Bardell paused. When he was a child in Springfield, before his family moved to Hawker’s Glen and joined Christ’s Brethren, little Clay Bardell had made a model of the solar system. Each planet revolved around the sun, rotating on their axes, in their own period. He spent a month devising a way to enable a miniature moon to revolve around the Earth. Viewed from above, the circuits the planets made, each colored sphere jouncing on the end of a bent wire coat hanger, reminded him of the whorls in God’s fingerprint. “How can we say the moon isn’t an uttermost part yet to be evangelized?”

“A sinister den of serpentine sin. You know what the moon colonies are.”

“All the more reason for the Gospel to be spread there.”

“Go, and I’ll have your name and position put to a vote before the Brethren. Pastor Wilcox can fill in for you for two weeks, he can fill in permanent.”

Stinson’s threat was as obviously phony as the earlier feigned innocence. Wilcox, 80 years old when he’d been forced into retirement by Bardell’s arrival, was in his 90s now and more doddering than ever. “Do it, Peter, and I might just let him have the job.”

A month later, Bardell inhaled the scents of fir and lupine as he loaded two leather-bound suitcases into the back of Ryan Claverton’s pickup. Spring was ebbing, and Bardell regretted missing its final days; summers here could be miserable. Ryan, cousin to Tim and Tom of ping-pong fame, wasn’t a member of the church, hence his automobile. Stinson had frightened off the flock from offering him a ride to Springfield, though elders Graylock and Havisham had played their parts, as well. Frightened them all to the point that no one came to say goodbye. Even Housekeep’ found somewhere else to be a half hour before Claverton arrived

From Springfield it would be a long train ride to the Houston SpacePort; long but permissible–aircraft were forbidden. Spacecraft? That was among the things Bardell was to settle, or at least make an attempt to. The Brethren’s bylaws allowed simple motorized travel when horse- or ox-drawn vehicles wouldn’t work (trains, ships: yes; airplanes: no; cars were a gray area: ownership was out, but riding in someone else’s was permissible), and all only to sanctioned destinations. The moon was not yet sanctioned.

Bardell traveled alone. The elders had been as efficient in dissuading potential companions on the trip as they had been in blocking his hitching a ride on a buckboard. Not that he had expected different, and not that he had wanted to ride three hours on a horse-drawn cart. If he were to be excommunicated for his folly, he didn’t want to drag anyone else along with him. He had offered the extra ticket to Ryan Claverton, but the poor man was acrophobic. 

His private berth was at the end of the coach adjacent to the club car. Bardell spent the trip reading at the small desk beside his bed, leaving only for meals. Nights were spent with bits of foam rubber wadded in his ears; the muffled cacophony from the club car lost to the driving rhythm of the rails.

After saying his prayers, Bardell lay on his bunk and through half-closed eyelids watched city lights and country lights streak northward. He imagined the lights carrying the future to Hawker’s Glen, encamping around it, waiting for an opportunity to move in. An hour later he said his prayers again and fell asleep.

Houston had changed considerably in the decade since he’d taken his Th.D. Prosperity and poverty displayed themselves in plenty, and both to a higher degree than he recalled, certainly more than he’d grown accustomed to. The train was late in arriving and his plans to visit his alma mater had to be scuttled. Just as well, his high hopes in leaving seminary had amounted to nothing. Upon his return he could make time for a visit, present his completed trip as a minor accomplishment.

Following the last of his physical exams at the spaceport, Bardell was greeted by a uniformed Branson–Plaxis agent and escorted to the BPR departure lounge. A honey-blonde hostess greeted him, informed him that since he hadn’t brought a guest he would receive a ten-thousand dollar credit account upon his arrival at the Moonshot.

“Really?” he asked.

She pointed to the fine print in the letter.

He asked if he could apply the credit against Polly Landau’s leukemia treatments.

“Sorry, non-transferable, Mr. Bardle,” the hostess said. “Some other restrictions apply.” She handed him a leaflet and a waiver to sign.

He began to correct her mispronunciation, but she was already on to the next guest.

Bardell’s first round of “second thoughts” came onboard the shuttle as he fastened the safety harness over his plain brown jacket. With the exception of the uniformed crew, everybody else was dressed in eveningwear: tuxedos, primarily, for the men, silk pantsuits for the women. A few ladies had disregarded the zero-gravity warnings and wore sequined gowns. Vanity, he told himself, discouraged.

His second round came when the champagne trolley was brought out and he had to decline. Not because he disapproved of alcohol to the degree that Elder Stinson did—the apostle Paul had advised Timothy to take wine medicinally, and the Savior not only drank often enough to be called a winebibber, a drunk, but he provided an excellent vintage at Cana—but because he knew Stinson would use it as an example of the corrupting influence of space travel.

Round three came after he returned to his seat after using the zero-G restroom (successfully, he thought). After he sat and fastened his harness, Bardell noticed the woman next to him, as well as the man across the aisle, looking at him oddly. Then he became aware that the man and woman also looked odd, out of focus. He glanced up to find his glasses spinning slowly two feet above his head. He reached up and snatched them down. From behind him, someone snickered.

Bardell spent the rest of the flight nose buried in his Lunar Visitor’s Guidebook or turning fitfully in his cocooned berth.

Upon arrival at the Moonshot, Bardell went straight to his room and huddled in the center of his king-sized bed. If he had been on edge by the contrast between wealth and poverty in Houston, here he was terrified by it. On the rail-shuttle trip from the moonside spaceport to the hotel he had been enthralled by the view: neon and chrome everywhere, like a fantastic 1950’s storybook illustration brought to life. Then the shuttle had stopped to let another tram pass and Bardell had gotten a good look down an alley between a restaurant and a nightclub. Two men stood next to a side door of the restauant. They were dressed in rags. While he watched, the door opened and Bardell saw the men pantomime their hunger. A foot shot out from behind the door and caught one of the men in the gut. The other man cringed backward as the door silently slammed shut. Bardell noticed there was neither chrome nor neon on the buildings at the end of the alley.

Certainly there was a need for the Gospel here. But could the Brethren bear it?

He got off the bed and walked around the suite until he found the bathroom. As he turned on the cold-water faucet a fan within the drain hummed on, drawing the water downward. Bardell splashed his face and dried himself with a towel that felt like buttersoft suede.

Beneath his bedroom picture window the resort courtyard sparkled and gleamed like an oasis. He had come this far, might as well face it. Magnetic overshoes were stationed by the door. He slipped them on and almost felt like his old self as he stepped into the hallway and headed for the elevator.

In the courtyard restaurant Bardell ate a steak prepared in a style he knew he’d never be able to explain back home. Steak, potatoes, soup, salad, he’d tell Stinson and the rest. Never mind that they tasted better than anything brought to potluck or served in their homes when he came to visit. Never mind that the menu price was more than his monthly food budget.

After dinner he swallowed thickly and decided to take in the promenade outside the hotel. Lights suspended from the vast dome encompassing the resort town augmented the inky diamond-flecked sky. Music blared from most of the nightclubs, harsh and discordant. Bardell gave these a wide pass, as he did the alleys between the quieter establishments. A quarter mile from his hotel, he stood debating whether to go back or keep searching for approvable entertainment. A door opened behind him and a lilting melody wafted out along with a smiling well-dressed couple.

Bardell hesitated a moment, watching the pair travel down the metallic sidewalk toward the Moonshot. He caught the door as it hissed shut.

The entryway was dark and after the neon outside it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he noticed a curtain to his left. The door behind him opened again and two men entered. Bardell drew the curtain open and stepped through, the men at his heels.

The casino floor was quiet. Several card tables were in use, but there were none of the raucous slot machines that usually identified such places. Bardell stopped when he realized where he was, but he was propelled forward and stumbled down four steps onto plush carpeting. Though his shoes were weighted down, the magnetic field he had grown accustomed to was missing. Bardell rocked forward on his toes. The two men passed by on either side of him.

He turned for the curtained entry, but stood frozen, staring at the woman wrapping herself around a pole to the left of the curtain. All legs and arms, bronzed skin and strategically placed rhinestones, the woman spun in the reduced gravity from one pole the next in time with the ethereal music. Her long blonde hair trailed behind her like the tail of a comet. Bardell became aware of another woman, a redhead, spinning toward the curtain as the blonde spun away. The redhead’s hair danced like flame. He couldn’t tell if she wore coral-tinted rhinestones or nothing at all.

Bardell hurried through the curtain, collided with someone coming in. He felt his glasses lift off the bridge of his nose. In the failing light from the street as the door closed he saw the glasses arc and begin to drop to the floor as if in slow motion. Bardell flailed his arms as someone pushed past him in the darkness. He felt his palm connect with an earpiece, but his hands closed only on air. The curtain flapped open behind him and in the dimness he saw the glasses still falling, though faster. They hit ground, and as he knelt to retrieve them he was kneed from behind. A spit-shined shoe stepped on the frames. Bardell’s resolve shattered with the sound of breaking glass.

He scooped up his broken glasses and stagger-ran down the street for the hotel. Every few paces he brought the good lens up to his left eye to make sure he wasn’t veering into traffic.

The concierge kept Bardell at arm’s length as he examined the glasses. No, there was no repair shop in the hotel. No, he didn’t know anyone who could help—well, maybe. Bardell imagined how he must look, disheveled in his cheap brown suit, glasses broken, one overshoe in his hands because the strap had broken in his rush to get back to the hotel. The concierge hung up the phone and wrote an address on a piece of stationery. A few quick lines later and a map was drawn beneath it.

“I believe you can find assistance here,” the concierge said. No, rail service wasn’t available for that area of the dome. Yes, you may have another overshoe.

Two blocks from the hotel Bardell turned down the alley indicated on the map. Three turns later he found himself outside an optometrist’s office in an area that looked worse than anywhere he’d ever been on missions trips while in school. He stepped into a narrow reception area that smelled vaguely of cloves and ham. Pictures of mallards were hung above the plastic chairs that lined the room.


A small man came through a sliding door at the far end of the room. “What do you want?”

“I’m, uh…” He held out his broken frames. “I need my glasses repaired.”

The man looked him up and down. “You’re the man the hotel called about? Mr. Bardle?” He read the name from a scrap of paper.

“Yes, Bar-dell. Can you help me?”

The man took the frames and tsk’ed. “Gonna take money and time, neither of which you look like you’ve got.” He quoted a figure in excess of his hotel account and a delivery date six days after his departure.

“What can I get for ten thousand?” He imagined himself returning to Hawker’s Glen with his one good lens converted to a monocle. Stinson would have a field day with that, finding inflated airs where only humiliation dwelled.

“Buff out the scratches on the one lens, replace the other with plain plastic, see what we can do with the frames. Tsk, be a hundred bucks maybe, but you’d have a hell of a headache. Eight grand, though, hook you up to Robo-Doc in the back and you can get rid of the glasses forever.”

Coming home without even a monocle and Stinson would howl. Cosmetic surgery was not among the ways of the Brethren.

“I think I’d better just have the repair done.”

“Really? Most workers here, first thing off the shuttle they get their eyes fixed so stuff what happened to you doesn’t happen to them. I work out payment terms with ’em, if cost’s your problem.”

“It’s not that, it’s just…the glasses are just a part of who I am.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Pride. Well, we can Robo-Doc you and replace both lenses with plain. Only you’d know the difference. Eighty-two, fifty.”

Bardell stood still as a truck rumbled by out in the alley. When it had passed though, the ground continued to shake. For a moment, he thought a sinkhole was opening up beneath the optometrist’s office. He turned for the door, then back to the man, the ducks, man, chairs, door swirling about him.

He stood, the floor jouncing beneath him.

He stood still and wondered what he had come to after all.

© 2007, 2024. Originally appeared at Dragons, Knights & Angels; placed first in 2007 fiction contest.

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