Friday, April 13, 2018

A Trip to the Moon

The Outer Space in Film Blogathon is an event about films set in space, hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the host site.

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PARIS, 1969

Eugénie opened the door and saw six solemn men in grey overcoats and suits. The white-haired one closest to her spoke.

"Bonjour, Mademoiselle. May we come in?"

Mère sacrée. They came after all.

"Of course." She widened the door and they entered one by one, removing their caps. Once they were all in, she shut the door. The leader took off his monocle.

"How is he?"

"Struggling, but by the grace of God he lives still."

"Mademoiselle, I assure you if the doctor continues to cling to life, it is by the force of his stubborn nature, not any divine intervention." His scowl gave her a tremble. "May we see him?"

She felt her ears burn. You could at least say please.

"This way, messieurs."



Eugénie straightened her black dress and led the party through the foyer and up the stairs, past the sculpture on the landing the doctor said was a Copernican model of the solar system; in front of the gaudy framed poster for that American movie serial, Flash Gordon. She saw one of the grey men point to it and whisper to another.

She made them wait in the hall while she peeped into the bedroom and told the doctor of his guests. A moment later, she opened the door all the way and invited them inside.

The four-poster bed had drapes and blanketing that matched the wallpaper. Weak sunlight streamed through the casement windows.

The grey men gathered to the right side of the bed as Eugénie stood like a sentinel at the opposite side of her employer, former astronomer Dr. Jules Micromégas, at one hundred nine the oldest human alive — for the moment.

The monocled man crossed his arms.

"Micromégas."

"Passereau." The doctor's voice was wispy, but firm.

"To think I would finally see this day. We had come to believe you would witness the millennium."

"If there's one thing I know for sure... life is nothing if not full of the unexpected."

Eugénie suppressed a titter, but Passereau noticed.

"Please dismiss your housemaid, Micromégas," he said, adjusting his bowtie, "we have things to discuss."

"Forgive me, monsieur," said Eugénie, "but the doctor's physician left me standing orders to monitor his condition this close to..." She sighed. "Ah, this close to the end."

"It doesn't matter, Passereau," said one of the grey men, "let's get on with it." Passereau looked at him, then at Eugénie. For a moment she was back in Mother Superior's office at Our Lady Queen of Heaven for talking back to the Sisters, anticipating the public humiliation to follow. She forced herself to look him in the eye.

Passereau harrumphed.


"Très bien." He turned to the doctor. "You saw the lunar expedition?"

"Wouldn't say I 'saw' it, these eyes being what they are, but Eugénie here provided the details." His laugh resembled a wheeze. "Good job they didn't get any snow up there, eh?"

Eugénie grinned. The doctor's yarns about what the moon was "really" like always made her laugh. It was a pity he never thought to turn them into children's books.

Passereau, however, shook his head.

"Micromégas," he began, his voice gentler, "you were a pioneer in astronomy when I was in swaddling clothes. I have always respected you."

"So say we all," said another grey man. They nodded in unison.

"So say we all." Passereau nodded also. "You inspired my father to enter the field, as my father inspired me. Your name must not go down in disgrace. Therefore, I — we — are prepared to offer you reinstatement within the Fellowship."

"What makes you think I still want it?"

"No reason at all." Passereau put on his monocle. "Except I know about the Barbicane inquiry.

"I know what it meant to you and the rest of the crew when Professor Barbenfouillis' logs of the mission were disavowed, his funding cut off, the professor himself declared insane. And I know how it must have felt for you when the rest of the crew, fearing the same fate for themselves, forswore their testimony of the mission, and disassociated themselves from the professor — but not you.

"You accepted discreditation." He paused. "Has it been fulfilling, all these subsequent years: teaching grammar school science in Zurich for a fraction of the pay, being ostracized by other astronomers, unable to publish in a respectable journal?" He lowered his voice.

"Now you lie there in that bed and tell me you did not miss working in the field. Tell me you did not miss the Fellowship."

The grimace on the doctor's face grew until he had to turn away.

"Damn you, Passereau."

Eugénie bit her lip. The doctor had always spoken of his years in Switzerland with affection, helping young people comprehend the wonders of God's creation, but there was also an undercurrent of melancholy he had never addressed. This must have been why.

What was all this about a mission, though?


"We waited too long to make this offer, and that is our mistake," Passereau continued. "Therefore, we will wipe the slate clean. You will die an honored member of the Fellowship once more — if you renounce your account of the Barbicane mission." A grey man opened a briefcase, revealing a portable tape recorder. "For the record."

Was the doctor about to expire? No, no, but his countenance lost its defiance. He rocked his bald head to and fro on the pillow, muttering to himself.

Eugénie looked at Passereau, then at the doctor.

"Doctor? What is he saying?"

"You mean you haven't told her?" said Passereau. "Go on, old boy. Don't leave her in the dark."

The doctor sighed and faced Eugénie. It felt like several minutes before he spoke.

"My mentor, Professor Georges Barbenfouillis... designed the world's first spacefaring vessel, the Barbicane. In 1902, a group of astronomers and I accompanied the professor on a trip to the moon. Long before the Americans accomplished it three months ago."

Le pauvre homme, he had gone mad at last — but wait. She looked closer at him. He appeared completely rational.

Passereau rolled his eyes.

"But... I thought those were just stories." She peered over the bed. "The man in the moon, the mushroom garden, the insect men —You made that up for your amusement, did you not?" She looked at Passereau, then at the doctor. "Such things cannot be real!"

He nodded. "Tout est vrai."

"But how can you call it truth when the whole world has just seen evidence to the contrary?" Passereau flailed his arms. "Dammit, man, do not go to your death clutching delusions — whatever you saw, wherever you went, it was not the moon!"

Ce n'est pas possible. What would make the doctor believe this?


"Excusez-moi, monsieur," said Eugénie, shrinking from Passereau's gaze, "was there nothing from this — voyage that could corroborate the doctor's story?"

"L'extraterrestre," said a grey man, snickering. The others followed suit.

"Ah, yes," said Passereau. "Reports spoke of a creature that accompanied the Barbicane back to Earth, which the professor claimed was one of the 'insect men.'"

"The Selenite..." whispered the doctor, coughing.

"It met with an unfortunate demise when it collided with a horse and carriage. Eyewitnesses claimed it disintegrated into dust upon impact, the wind sweeping the particles away before they could be examined."

The doctor's coughing increased, so Eugénie checked his vital functions the way Doctor Leroux taught her.

She furrowed her brow. Insect men — real? Sacrilege! Men were created in God's image, were they not? More than that, she saw the Apollo 11 landing herself. Messieurs Armstrong and Aldrin reported no signs of life. Did the doctor deceive people with his fairy tales?

One of the grey men had medical training; he helped her stabilize the doctor, for the moment.

"Can you continue, Micromégas?" said Passereau.

"Oui..." His breathing slowed. "Oui, je peux continuer..."

"So will you do it?"

"I will not."

Passereau gritted his teeth. "Bloody hell, man—"

"I have heard you out, Passereau. Now hear me." The doctor inched higher up towards the headboard with his shoulders and neck. "Eugénie, aidez-moi..."

He mumbled instructions to her, and with the help of one of the grey men, they maneuvered him into something resembling an upright position, with all his pillows stuffed behind him. She thought she saw pity in Passereau's eyes.

"Micromégas..."

The doctor struggled for breath.

"Do you know," he gasped, "do you know why Professor Barbenfouillis designed the Barbicane to begin with?"

"Opportunity, I assume." Passereau shrugged. "To expand his knowledge of the cosmos."

"More than that. When he looked at the stars, he saw — angels. He wanted to shake hands with them."

Les anges? Eugénie blinked. Was he saying his teacher had an epiphany?

Passereau smirked. "Angels."

"To the professor... his dreams of the universe as it is were dwarfed by those of the universe as it could be. Life on other planets? The means to travel to them? Why not, I ask you? In time, those of us who knew him best shared his dreams — and would have gone to any lengths to see them realized."

She could see why. She had watched the U.S. and the Soviet Union take faltering steps forward into the void this past decade with a growing envy. For the first time, she had given thought to traveling amongst the stars, not in some distant future, but within her lifetime. If the doctor was correct, the professor attempted space travel before man could even fly.

Still — mushroom gardens on the moon?


"What are you saying, Micromégas," Passereau said with a sneer, "that you and your colleagues helped the professor... conjure his fantasies into life somehow, like a sorcerer? He had that ability?"

Was this conversation taking place between men of science? Only God had the kind of power of which Passereau spoke — the power to make miracles. But wasn't the Americans' achievement a miracle in itself?

She looked at this shriveled old man lying in bed, who had already lived longer than anyone alive today, who told those tales of life on the moon with conviction and certainty.

Mushroom gardens on the moon would be delightful.

The doctor stared into the middle distance at a target only he could see.

"I have spent the rest of my life, from that fateful day forward, pondering that question. I am no closer to an answer now, at the last, than I was then." He sighed.

"I know this much, however: the professor... he had an imagination ten times the size of other men. It ensnared all of us who followed him... and after having witnessed two great wars that tore this world apart, I have concluded more men like him are needed." He turned towards Passereau.

"You say where we went could not have been the moon because of what happened this summer. I say perhaps there is more to the situation than what the Americans saw... than what they imagined."

Eugénie quivered, remembering when Monsieur Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind." Could he have seen what the doctor claimed to have seen, with a little more imagination? Was it that simple?

God set us apart from the animals when He gave us the gift of creativity, the capacity to dream. Could this be its ultimate purpose?

Passereau looked at his companions for a long moment, then he removed his monocle again. Why could he not decide whether to leave it on or off?

"I'm sorry, but that's not enough for me." He knelt. "This is your last chance. Don't be a stubborn fool. Abandon this rubbish and end your days with honor among your peers, where you rightfully belong."

The doctor went quiet for a minute. Then he turned his head to his left.

"Eugénie... qu'est-ce que vous en pensez?"

She gasped. "Moi?"


"You have heard me speak of the  Barbicane mission, what I saw and did, many times. You know what kind of man I am. You also saw the moon landing. I ask again: what do you think? What do you believe to be real?"

You are a heretic for assuming yourself on an equal footing with the Creator of All Things. You are a charlatan for conspiring in a fraud designed to win fame and fortune for you and your associates. You are a delusional old man who has lived far too long.

You are...

"Yes." She clasped her hands atop her white apron and pursed her lips. "I believe you."

The doctor smiled.

"You must be a wise woman indeed, Mademoiselle," said Passereau, "to deny evidence the entire world knows to be true." He gestured, and the grey man with the tape recorder closed the suitcase in which it was nestled. Passereau stood.

"Micromégas, your loyalty to your mentor is inspiring, if nothing else. May it comfort you in the little time you have left on this earth. We will see ourselves out." The grey men turned and filed out the door until only Passereau was left, standing at the threshold. He turned and looked over his shoulder.

"Adieu, docteur. I shall remember you, even if history does not." He closed the door.

Eugénie frowned. I was too hard on him, perhaps. He cared, in his own way.


She turned back to the bed.

"Are you comfortable, doctor?"

"Oui." He paused. "Eugénie — what made you choose to believe me?"

Good question. She sat at the foot of the bed and thought.

"It — it was not so much belief that made me decide. I thought about your stories of the moon, and the way you described them: fancifully, reverently, with excitement and danger and humor as well." She smiled.

"I do not know if any of it is real, but given the choice between the Apollo 11 and the Barbicane, with respect to les Américains... I know which version I enjoy hearing more."

Was Professor Barbenfouillis a god? Did he and his acolytes will the moon into what they wished it to be, if only for a moment? Such notions may be sacrilegious, but the doctor said it himself: life is nothing if not full of the unexpected.

A man who lives to the age of 109 is proof of that.

"So, doctor," said Eugénie, "what happened when you landed on the man in the moon's eye? Were you frightened?"

"I certainly was, if no one else." He endured another coughing spell, and then Doctor Micromégas continued. "Once we apologized and explained ourselves to him, though, he proved a most agreeable chap. You see, we had awakened him from a dreadful nightmare..."

With thanks to Andréa for French assistance.




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Related:

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8 comments:

  1. Your imaginative story has instantly become a favourite among your work.

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  2. Thanks. I was hoping you'd dig it.

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  3. This post is pure genius. Thanks so much for going beyond a standard film review and doing something this special for the blogathon!

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  4. You're welcome.

    I don't remember where or when I got the idea to write another story for this blogathon, but I see this as being about storytelling in general.

    We demand "realism" in our fantasy fiction these days, almost at the expense of fantasy for fantasy's sake: if it's in space, the constellations all have to be accurate and it has to have Neil DeGrasse Tyson's seal of approval; if it's kaiju, you have to see every last scale or tuft of fur on the creature's hide, even though it doesn't exist; if it's superheroes, they have to wear dark colors and clothing that resembles something you'd see in real life.

    I understand that, I'm little different; I just wish we could also re-learn to embrace the over-the-top, wacky nature of a film like A TRIP TO THE MOON in 21st century fiction without demanding it conform to modern standards. This story tries to reconcile both points of view.

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  5. Magnifique! I'm clapping here, amazed by your amazing story. There are hundreds of articles and essays about A Trip to the Moon, but yours is unique and has more heart than all of them put together. Sometimes, we do need heart and imagination more than science and technology.
    Cheers!

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  6. I was hoping you'd read this. Thanks a lot.

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  7. This would make an excellent treatment for a screenplay. It was so much fun to read!

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  8. I have to admit, the thought crossed my mind, but I'm no Christopher Nolan.

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