To the Moon & Back
By Patrick Hester
© 2010 All Rights Reserved
Young David Armbrust wove a broken, back and forth path along the bustling streets of London, his thinly gloved hands clutching his newspaper wrapped lunch tightly lest it be jostled loose by passersby. Between dodging the occasional horse pulling a cart or carriage, and avoiding bumping into the better dressed peoples crowding the streets this morning, his eye kept wandering to the oddly placed advertisement on his lunch. Oddly placed because it seemed almost as if his mother had purposely wrapped the food therein just so the ad would appear directly on top, center, to catch his eye.
A few days old (the paper, not the lunch), the advertisement was for a possible job posting that was interviewing that very morning. From The Times (which his mother often said was better for wrapping food than for actually reading), the unusual advertisement read, “Professor Waldemar Douglas Ahlquist, Adventurer, seeks like~minded individuals for a journey to the uncharted lands of Earth’s own Moon. Applicants must present themselves in person on the morning of the 5th of November at half past 9, prepared to explain why they should be chosen above all others for this most auspicious and dangerous undertaking.” It went on in a particularly flowery manner about destiny, among other things, and then gave an address in Arbour Square on the East End.
Looking up at the street sign, David realized he was only a block or two away. His position as delivery boy was not particularly satisfying at the moment, though it was a bit of an adventure trying to get from point A to point B without having hooligan C rob him blind (had happened three times in the past year). Still, he couldn’t get past the idea that his mother, knowing where he’d be heading on this morning and about his dissatisfaction with his current employment, might just have put this ad front and center to get his attention.
Rubbing his runny nose on his sleeve, he looked up at the cloud covered sky and wondered. The Moon?
# # #
When the bell rang, Professor Waldemar Douglas Ahlquist (his friends called him ‘Wally’, though he hadn’t had many friends for a very long time) had his head (and the rest of his body down to his ankles) buried deep within the copper enclosure of the homes heating system (his own design), trying to unclog the intake pipe whose mesh cover seemed to collect hair, dirt and other particles as if they were metal and it a magnet. As such, he left attending to the door to his manservant, Henry, who was quite capable despite his pronounced limp and surly attitude.
“Ah,” his voice echoed inside the mostly empty copper tub. “How do you manage to get into this sealed system?” he asked the mess of slime-covered hair-glomp that slightly resembled a disheveled rat. A plump one. Without the tail. With some effort, and no rationing of colorful language, he managed to pull it away, watching as the trickle of water quickly changed to a torrent. Precariously perched head first into the container, his free hand was bracing him on the floor while his legs spread wide at the opening to keep him from tumbling in. As the water flooded in through the now clean intake pipe, it began to rise very quickly. “Ah, yes,” he said with an ominously less amount of echo. “Ah,” he repeated trying to remember how he’d managed to extricate himself the last time this happened, one hand in the water, the other holding the mess that had clogged the system, and his legs straight up in the air.
Before he had a chance to puzzle it out, something grasped his ankles firmly and yanked. He yelped as he was hauled free from the tub and set on his feet again by Henry, who immediately began brushing at his master’s suit with a critical (and somewhat accusatory) eye. Immediately, Wally remembered and then forgot again that he’d been in the workroom before any of this started, trying to grease the axels on his latest invention and that, unfortunately, some of the grease may have gotten on his trousers, shirt, vest, jacket, apron, hands, shoes, forehead and hair.
“Ah! Yes,” cried Wally. “I remember now.” Smiling to himself, he held the hairy mess like a trophy and put his other, still wet hand down on Henry’s shoulder. “Good show! Well done!” He clapped the man’s shoulder several times, beaming while sending several cascades of water down on the man and the surrounding accoutrements.
“We have an applicant,” Henry announced icily, then he produced a small silver tray and held it under the hairy mess to catch the dripping water. It took several heartbeats for Wally to put two and four together, staring at his manservant in his black jacket with its long tails, white cummerbund, black tie and white gloves. His ring of short, neat brown hair did not appear to be any worse for his moment of physical activity, though his deep emerald eyes seemed to sparkle challengingly.
“Oh!” Wally said suddenly, turning and releasing his grip on the hairy mess. Just in time, Henry swooped the tray and caught it before another drop or drip touched the ancient Persian rug beneath their feet. Wally was already walking away, eyes on the young man standing in the entry.
# # #
David was fidgeting before the strange man with his wild black hair sticking (mostly) straight up as if held there by grease as thick as molasses began walking towards him. The house seemed to indicate that whoever lived here was well off enough and he felt suddenly inadequate and underdressed (though he wore his best coat and shoes).
“My good young lad!” boomed the strange man. He wore a brown suit covered by a white apron and smeared with something foul smelling. His right hand up to the elbow was soaked through and water slashed a line across the room as he brought it up to shake. David accepted it and was immediately ushered into the sitting room where he was offered a chair. Hastily and as surreptitiously as he could manage, he wiped his sodden hand on his pant leg.
Even more nervous now than he had been before, David sat gingerly on the edge of his seat, wide eyes taking in the room and the man before him. The room was cluttered; even his own mother, who loved to collect things of all shapes and sizes, would think the room cluttered. A painting rested above the mantle, depicting the gentleman seated before him off on some sort of adventure, a long rifle in his hand and the butt resting on his thigh. The walls could not be seen, hidden as they were behind endless shelves filled with things he could and could not recognize; several bones of varying sizes and shapes, what appeared to be a collection of tiny little heads hanging from their own hair tied to a stick that ran the length of a shelf, a ship in a bottle, several hand guns of varying length and sizes, two rifles and a saber with a wider than normal blade and a wicked curve, from what he could tell. The books fascinated him the most, though, because he’d never seen so many altogether in one place in his entire life. Part of him ached to grab one and see what secrets it held, but he tamped down on that like a smoker filling his pipe with tobacco.
A brass contraption with several rings that intertwined and spun was a puzzle to him, as were the silver marbles clacking back and forth on thin tendrils of something, perhaps a thread, though it seemed to be too thin for any thread he’d seen, and the framed clay footprint twice if not three times the size of his own good boot, not to mention the spinning, whirling… thing dead center on the mantle that seemed to be puffing little puffs every two heartbeats or so and had a face full of numbers.
“Ah!” bellowed the man, and David hopped in his seat. The man had wide, long sideburns and a puffy black mustache that framed his mouth down his chin where it ended, abruptly (the mustache, not the chin). His face was long, his nose sharp, and he wore bespectacles that had extra lenses fanned out from the main ones on either side of his head and a strap that wrapped around the back of his head to hold em in place. David presumed that these extra lenses moved somehow or how else could one use them?
“You’ve a keen eye, lad,” the man said with a broad smile. He seemed to sense what David was thinking and began adjusted the lenses on his bespectacles until two sat in place that made his eyes big as saucers. “You’ve noticed my tempentiaometer.”
When the odd man stood up, David jumped to his feet as well. The other stepped over to the puffer and pointed. “This controls the climate within the house, you see?” David didn’t see but he didn’t say that, he merely nodded a ‘yes’. “If you wish it to be warmer,” he said with a flourish of his fingers as he manipulated the device, “You simply tune the device to the proper temperature.” With a practiced hand, he spun the dial face, answered by a boom and a whistle somewhere else in the home that caused David to jump again. “If you wish it to be cooler, tune the device oppositely, thus,” he announced, again spinning the dial to another loud boom and whistle elsewhere in the house.
“Tea?” he asked suddenly. David stared.
“Do you want tea?” snarled another voice and David jumped again. The manservant who’d met him (he refused to think of it as being ‘greeted’, not the way this man spoke), had returned with a tray laden with a tea pot, cups and biscuits.
“Oh,” he replied. “Sure.”
“Excellent!” boomed the man as the servant set the tray down on a table and began to pour. David retook his position on the edge of his seat a heartbeat after the booming man relaxed into his.
“So, you want to be famous?” asked the man as he sipped his tea. “I like that. Shows character.”
“Sugar or honey?” asked the servant.
“Sugar,” he replied, returning his gaze to the man. “Famous?” he asked.
“Of course! As one of the very first people to set foot on the Moon, you will be extremely famous. Why, you’ll never pay for a drink again!” he smiled, sipping his tea.
David accepted his own cup and used tasting it as an excuse not to say anything for a minute. It was so sweet he could feel his teeth rotting in his mouth. Looking up at the manservant, he saw a mischievous smile quickly fade. He decided then and there that the man was a menace.
“What’s it pay?” he asked. The odd man seemed taken aback.
“Pay?” he asked, looking from David to his manservant and back again.
“Yeah,” David said. “Going to the Moon and all, what’s it pay?” The manservant leaned down and whispered something in the odd man’s ear that made his face go from puzzled to understanding in the blink of an eye.
“Ah,” he said. “Yes. Well, what do you make right now?”
“Three a week,” David replied quickly, then nearly moaned. He should’ve said four or five at least. “Shillings,” he added as an afterthought.
“Very well,” said the odd man. “Seeing as you are the best candidate all morning-”
“The only candidate,” said the manservant a little too loudly if he meant not to be heard. The odd man cleared his throat.
“Yes, well, six a week then. You’ll start tomorrow?” he asked, sticking that wet hand out again. David considered it only a moment before shaking it. Six?! “I hope you like the country side, lad!” As the odd man laughed and left as quickly and loudly as he came, David watched the manservant clean up the tea tray.
“What did you say to him?” he asked.
“I told him you looked like you could lift heavy boxes. We have many, many heavy boxes that will need lifting.”
The manservant walked away, tray in hand. David followed him after a moment.