Castle Jordan stands in a place that makes sense according to the logic of castles. It has a good view of a remote area, the better to spot siege-minded armies on the march. But castles do not fit the logic of the moon. Exposure and isolation aren’t very useful survival traits here.
A new line of train tracks connect the castle to the rest of lunar civiliza-tion. This place isn’t so isolated now. But it still looks exposed. I have a window seat and I can’t look away, even though I very much want to.
I don’t like visiting the surface.
The sun is out. It shouts down all other stars. Castle towers stand brightly lit at the edge of a crater beneath an otherwise absent sky.
Ms. Gorodischer must have told my whole eighth grade class to count off—um, dois, três, quatro—but I don’t notice when we stall at seven.
Tiago gives me an elbow nudge from the next seat over. It hurts. He should know better.
“Ana?” Ms. Gorodischer prompts me.
“Sete,” I say.
The rest of the class continues to count.
“Are you okay?” Tiago asks in Portuguese.
“Fine,” I tell him.
Most of my school and neighborhood speaks Portuguese. I’m from the drifting island of Miami, originally, but we all came up via the Brazilian equatorial elevator—or else our parents and grandparents did. The rest of my classmates are lunar by birth. I’m the only one with first-hand experience of that elevator.
“Please be on your very best behavior,” Ms. Gorodischer says to all of us. “Castle Jordan is not yet open to the public. We are very lucky to be allowed inside. My brother is in charge of surveying the place, and he will be showing us around personally. Please listen very carefully and respectfully to everything he tells us.”
The train pulls into a temporary station, which envelops the outer gatehouse of the castle walls. Two completely different kinds of architecture look like they’re trying to eat each other. I can’t tell which one is winning.
We all file out. Tiago knocks into me with his shoulder. I can tell it’s an accident, so I don’t hit him back. He usually knows when to give me and my cane extra maneuvering room.
Canes and crutches are not unusual on the moon. Recent arrivals use them all the time. It helps to have more points of contact with the ground when your whole body is accustomed to a full Terran G and the ground doesn’t behave the way you might expect it to. I’m not such a recent arrival, though. My family got here three years ago.
We all pause at the drawbridge. I twist the handle of my cane in a slow circle. It makes faint but satisfying clicking noises.
A man comes bounding across the drawbridge, waving and grinning. He is very obviously Ms. Gorodischer’s brother. They look exactly alike. But they don’t move the same way. He’s a puppyish version—all enthusiasm and no dignity.
“Welcome!” he calls out. “Welcome to Jordan Castle. My name is Carlos Jorge Gorodischer. Call me Cajó. I’m running this bizarre archeological dig, and approximately half of the place is still blocked off, unexplored, inaccessible, and probably haunted. You shouldn’t be here at all, really. I shouldn’t let you inside. Don’t stray from the path I’ve set out or else very loud alarms will sound. Okay? Okay. Follow me.”
Cajó leads the way through the castle gates. A gold-plated shield hangs on the wall above. It has a picture of a dragon on it—or possibly a fish. Inscribed beneath the fishy dragon are the words “Ad astra per aspera.” To the stars through hard work.
“This place was first constructed in Wales at the behest of Edward Longshanks,” Cajó tells us. “Eight hundred years later it was transported across the vacuum of space, stone by stone, and rebuilt here by a man named John Jay Jordan, Jr., who made a fortune mining rare metals on Earth before the war, and ice on the moon afterwards. He spent his entire fortune to bring up a castle. He used rockets to do it, since the elevators weren’t quite up and running yet. Let me repeat that: Jordan used rockets to carry rocks to a place that already had plenty of rocks.”
We all crowd inside the gatehouse. A gramophone stands in one corner on a little wooden table. It plays ancient European music. I’m curious, so I run a search and blink up some identifying data on the song itself: “The Fairy Round,” by Anthony Holbourne. The music is four hundred years younger than the castle, and four hundred years older than the very first gramophone. That has a nice mathematical balance to it. The anachronism still bothers me, though. Gramophones aren’t medieval. They’re just old.
Cajó cheerfully describes the unwelcoming features of the gatehouse, which was originally designed to slaughter people the castle didn’t want to welcome. “Those trapdoors in the ceiling are ‘murder holes.’ Guards used them to drop heavy things down on unsuspecting heads. Those things might not fall with such deadly force here, in our gravity, if anyone tried to drop them on us. Boiling oil would still hurt, though.”
I do not enjoy standing beneath murder holes.
My cane handle clicks as I twist it twice.
“Castle Jordan still has guards looking after the place,” Cajó says. “Watch this.”
He approaches the doors at the far side of the gatehouse passage. Two automata emerge from alcoves in the wall. Both use fifteenth-century suits of armor as their bodily chasses. Both wear nineteenth century tuxedos overtop. Both look ridiculous. The clothes don’t fit around the armor very well.
John Jay Jordan, Jr., was obviously unbothered by anachronism. He compiled Ye Olde Stuff indiscriminately in this place.
The pair of butler knights open the doors for us and we all file through. Slowly. I try to be patient. I try not to rush my classmates through the doorway with a few choice whacks of my cane. I really want to leave the gatehouse and its murderous welcome, though.
“Easy there,” Tiago signs at me, his hands low and whispering.
“Have a cookie,” I sign politely back, which means I am very close to punching you in the teeth. I don’t know why cookie = fist in this expression, but it does.
He smiles and signs “Yum,” with deliberate misunderstanding.
I’m not Deaf. Neither is Tiago—though his older brother is. Lots of people sign here. It’s helpful to have a language that doesn’t require atmosphere between the people speaking. It likewise helps to have Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua on school field trips, because Ms. Gorodischer has all of our eye-to-eye texting blocked. She has most network access blocked. But not mine. My abuela helps me stay connected at all times. She gave me military override codes that I’m not supposed to have.
Outside the gatehouse is a wide-open space between the inner and the outer walls. I wished I hadn’t hurried to get here. A vast lack of atmosphere looms above us.
“We’re perfectly safe,” Cajó assures us. “There’s a ceiling of thick, solid quartz to maintain the illusion that we’re standing outside. Windows inside the castle are grown of the same stuff.”
I can see stars. The walls block enough sunlight to let me see them. Then I look more carefully. Several of the “stars” are points of impact where small asteroids whacked against the quartz ceiling and made starburst fractures on its outer surface, which fractures my already fragile sense of our perfect safety.
Part of me notices with calm, cold clarity that adrenaline has just flooded my bloodstream and altered my breathing. Look down, that calm part of me says. Look away from the sky. But I can’t. I wonder what space is made of. Matter bends it, but what’s the substance of the stuff that gets bent? What do light waves make waves in? We live in the Space Age, but we still don’t know what space is.
I feel skinless.
Looking up makes my lower back ache even more than usual, but I still can’t stop looking—not until I pinch my hand hard enough to distract. The brain can only take so many signals at once. Pinch a nerve and pain from some other part of the body fades a little. Just tapping those pressure points is supposed to work, but mine only really notice when I dig in with fingernails.
The hard pinch works. I look down and notice real grass under my shoes. Jordan must have spent a whole lot of effort on decorative irrigation when he built this place. He owned the first ice mines, so I guess he had water to spare on a lawn.
“Go ahead and run around,” Cajó tells us. “None of the outer ward is fenced off.”
Most of my classmates take him up on it. They leap through space that seems simultaneously wide open and penned in. Tiago can jump higher than anyone else. He looks back at me to make sure I notice.
“Any questions so far?” Cajó asks.
I raise my hand. “You said that Jordan came here and built a castle after the Eugenic War.”
I blink up more details. Then I blurt them out loud without meaning to. “He fought with the Eugenicists. He volunteered.”
Ms. Gorodischer makes a thoughtful noise. Oops.
Cajó drops a little of his puppyish demeanor. “He also received a full pardon afterwards, and maintained control of his mining enterprise—at least until he spent everything he had to build his own private castle and retire here. Jordan was wounded in the fighting, apparently, and found lunar gravity a little easier to take.”
I didn’t know that part. John Jay Jordan, Jr., earned himself a crip membership while fighting to kill us off.
Cajó glances once at my cane and looks quickly away. I turn the handle. Click click click.
“How did he die?” I ask.
Cajó doesn’t know, either. “Jordan’s postwar life was isolated, and he set up the castle to run autonomously. It’s still running without him, and it informed us last year that Jordan had died. Not that we’ve found him yet. Some passages are still locked. But he must be here somewhere…”
Our guide’s grin is back. I can’t tell if he’s kidding.
Ms. Gorodischer helps her brother muster my galloping classmates. We all pass through the inner gatehouse. This time we don’t linger beneath murder holes, which is nice. A gramophone in the corner plays more European music. I blink up the data. J.S. Bach wrote that song four hundred years after the castle was built and four hundred years before it flew to the moon. History squishes together here. But at least it does so in a mathematically balanced way, like two sides of a solved equation.
“There’s a dome of quartz protecting the inner ward, too,” Cajó tells us as we step outside again.
I take tactical putty out of my pocket so I’ll have something to dig fingernails into without drawing blood. I call it “tactical putty” simply because I keep it in my pocket. Abuela is a semi-retired military engineer, and she told me that a pen in the pocket of her uniform automatically becomes a tactical pen. A pocketed spoon is a tactical spoon. Her whole unit carried spoons around. They called them PTPEM, or Pala Táctica Para Eliminar Mierda. A tactical shovel for bullshit removal. Army people like acronyms. They also like to bond over how awful it is to be in the army.
(That was Spanish, by the way. It would be a ‘pá tática para eliminar merda’ in Portuguese. I think. I’m not completely sure, and I can’t really ask Ms. Gorodischer for a proper translation of tactical shit shovel.)
Don’t look up, I tell myself while digging nails into tactical squeeze putty. Don’t look up. Look anywhere but up.
That turns out to be easy.
A huge golden statue dominates the very center of the inner ward. Sunlight shines bright on its surface.
Cajó gestures at the statue with both arms and a horrified kind of delight. “Jordan fancied himself an art collector. He commissioned this piece from the famous sculptor Linus Hapka. It’s a scale replica of the first Voyager spacecraft rendered in solid gold. Very heavy. And again he had it shipped here via rocket fuel. The figure standing on top of the craft is Jordan himself, dressed as Galileo. His telescope is always oriented toward the Camelopardalis constellation whenever those stars are visible, because that’s where Voyager 1 is headed. The craft will reach the star system Gliese 445 in approximately 40,000 years.”
That statue is the gaudiest thing I’ve ever seen.
I blink up some data on Linus Hapka.
That statue is the gaudiest thing I have ever made, he said. Jordan sued him for saying so, but the charges were dropped.
“Do research later,” Ms. Gorodischer whispers next to me. Of course she knows about my override codes, and of course she recognizes what my face looks like whenever I gaze into the middle distance and try to fill it up with info. “Pay attention to what’s right in front of you first.”
“Yes, Ms. Gorodischer.”
I try to pay closer attention to the thing right in front of me. I stare at Jordan-Galileo’s sculpted and beatific face. Who was this guy? Who thought a huge, golden statue of himself would be a tasteful thing to make?
“The next room might be my favorite,” Cajó says as he ushers us all across the grass and back indoors. “This is the Great Hall.”
We’re in a very big room. A wooden table takes up most of it. Another gramophone sits on the table and plays a violin solo. Tapestries cover most of the white plaster walls.
“Look up,” Cajó says.
Now that he’s suggested it I would really rather not, so I squeeze tactical putty before looking.
Costumes hang from the ceiling. Dozens of medieval European outfits dangle on wires and fill up the whole volume of the space above. It looks like a crowd of invisible people with visible clothing is falling out of history and onto our heads.
“Jordan enjoyed dinner theater,” Cajó tells us. “He kept a whole company of actors here for a few years, and penned the scripts for most of their plays himself.”
I raise my hand. “Were they any good?”
“No,” he said. “Not at all. His scripts are floating around on the commons if you want to check them out later. Go ahead and explore now, but note that some of these walls and exits are fenced off. We’ll be leaving through the kitchens.”
I can’t help blinking up more about the plays, even though I’d promised Ms. Gorodischer I would save such searches for later. I pretend to examine tapestries in the far corner so she won’t notice my distracted, faraway stare. But I have to be careful not to get too close to the tapestries. A waist-high piece of rope blocks my way.
Most people agree that the plays were not good.
Eurocentric Narcissism in the Wuxia Adaptations of a Lunar Robber Baron
by Juna An
…Jordan loved Chinese cinema, especially those based on the wuxia literary tradition of martial arts fantasy. He was, however, unable to reconcile that love with his loathing for the competition: Chinese mining ventures that rivaled his own. So Jordan personally translated his favorite films into live performances and changed the settings from mythical China to medieval Europe. Crouching Lion, Hidden Unicorn was a favorite in his household. They say he wept at every show.
Jordan displayed similarly nostalgic Eurocentrism in his musical choices. He enjoyed selections from Voyager’s Golden Record. The original NASA project was a diplomatic gesture intended to represent the entire planet, but only European music ever played in Castle Jordan—a miserly subversion of the original intent. This narrow obsession with ancestral Europe is consistent with the aesthetic and ideological foundations of the Eugenic War that Jordan himself willingly participated in.
Several theaters in New Jakarta’s Chinatown district show more faithful adaptations of wuxia stories. The gravity-defying leaps of skilled martial artists, once fantastically exaggerated in film, remain a realistic part of lunar stage combat…
I feel a sudden draft on my face, which wrenches my attention back to my immediate surroundings. Drafts are dangerous and I don’t trust the structural integrity of this place. Castles were not made to fit the logic of the moon.
Two butler knights have just opened the doors to the kitchens. Cajó is boasting about open flame and other marvels of pseudo-medieval astroengineering. The class is gathering to follow.
I should join them.
But the draft made one of the tapestries move.
It has a picture of a fenced-in unicorn on the front, and it seems to have a passageway behind it.
I need to know where that passage leads.
Cajó promised loud alarms if we stray from the path. There’s a whole fence of sensors right here. Some are obvious and must belong to the excavation team. Others are older and cleverly hidden in the walls. But they can’t hide from me, and none of them matter. I ignore locked doors whenever I need to.
Do not abuse this privilege, chica, my abuela has told me several times. I don’t want your override codes confiscated.
I’m sorry, Abuelita, I pretend to tell her. But the unicorn moved. It looked at me with a plea and a challenge, and I can’t walk away. I need to know what’s hidden behind it, just like the absurd front lawn in this place needs sunlight and hoarded ice, and just like the way people in your favorite stories need to kiss each other with urgency that feels more like a gravity well than an actual choice.
She doesn’t buy it. I can’t even pretend that a daydream-conjured version of my grandmother would think this is anything but a terrible idea. But she isn’t really here, so she can’t stop me.
I ignore the guilty ache and get Tiago’s attention.
“What is it?” he signs.
“Make some noise,” I tell him. “Show everybody how high you can leap.”
“I’ll explain later.”
“You owe me,” Tiago says, hands and posture resigned.
He takes a running, bounding leap from the ground to the table, and then from the table into the costume-crowded air. The violin solo skips a beat, jarred by his passage.
Tiago smacks into a dangling coat of armor. It all comes down in clattering pieces, which is pretty spectacular as distractions go. No one notices me—not even Ms. Gorodischer, who usually pays particular attention to me while pretending not to. No one sees me slip under the rope and through the wards and sensors that also fail to notice my passage. I slip behind the unicorn tapestry and into a hitherto unexplored part of Castle Jordan.
The passageway leads to a spiraling staircase. Back on Earth I wouldn’t be able to climb anything so steep. But ability is contextual. Whatever we’re able to do—and whatever meaning we make of that—changes from one environment to another. We make all of our own environments now. To design a place that others can’t possibly move through or inhabit is the same as raising up a drawbridge, dropping down a toothy portcullis, or punching a row of murder holes through a ceiling. It writes down a clear, solid message in the language of architecture: You are not welcome here. You don’t even have the right to exist here. Please cease to exist as soon as possible.
That’s what the stairs would have said to me, back on Earth. But we aren’t on Earth. I bound up that staircase, which cannot object.
The first tower room is full of harpsichords and fancy beer steins. That’s all. Musical instruments and stacked piles of ornate mugs clutter up the entire space. It doesn’t look like anyone has ever played these instruments, or drank from these mugs.
Another gramophone sits in the corner, but it doesn’t play anything I recognize as music. Alien and unsettling noises came crawling out of it. I blink up identifying data by reflex, without expecting the search to recognize anything, but it pulls up a match anyway: “Sounds of Earth,” another track from NASA’s Golden Record. I’m surprised those sounds come from the same place I do.
I keep climbing.
A scale model of the castle itself takes up most of the second room. It’s made out of Legos, which I haven’t seen since leaving Earth. Not Lego bricks, though. Lego heads, each one a classic shade of yellow. Thousands of tiny painted faces watch me from the surface of the walls and towers. The Jordan-Galileo statue in the middle of the inner ward turns his little plastic telescope to look at me.
I leave quickly and bound up the rest of the stairs.
Who was this guy? Who would rebuild a real castle, fill it with random things, and then make a toy version of the very same castle out of dismembered plastic heads? Why would someone who needed lunar gravity to move around make a home with such steep staircases? Maybe he had something to prove to himself. So far he has failed to prove it to me.
Records take up the uppermost chamber, which smells faintly awful. The disks cover the plaster walls like framed paintings and lay scattered all over the floor in cylindrical piles. There is nothing else but a gold-plated gramophone, a cold stone fireplace, and a big leather chair.
A corpse sits in the chair. Shriveled hands clutch the golden handle of a cane.
“Found you,” I whisper.
A golden record sits inside the golden gramophone. It’s probably a replica of the Golden Record, the one currently hurtling through space, but I can’t tell because this one isn’t spinning.
English words have been chiseled into the mantle above the fireplace: To the makers of music—all worlds, all times. —Timothy Ferris.
I take two cautious steps further into the room.
Metal creaks behind me. A butler knight stands guard by the door. He turns his helmet to look in my direction. Then he shuts the door and locks it with an actual, physical key. I hear the suction of an airtight seal. My uplink disappears, blocked by something Abuela’s codes can’t override.
“Greetings, your lordship,” the armored thing says in English. “Would you care to listen to the answer this evening?”
“What answer?” I ask, once I remember how to ask. Few still speak English in Miami, but I learned a little. The question doesn’t matter, though. I am neither heard nor understood.
The butler knight’s body is obviously heavy. He moves across the room with an almost Terran gait. But his movements are precise as he winds up a crank on the side of the gramophone with his gauntlet-hand.
“Please make sure that your breathing mask is firmly attached,” he tells me.
The corpse in the leather chair is wearing a breathing mask—one that clearly didn’t work very well. I don’t have a mask.
The door doesn’t budge when I yank on it.
The imaginary abuela inside my head is trying not to say, I told you so.
“Are you ready, your lordship?” the butler knight asks.
“Very well,” he says. “We will recreate the atmospheric conditions described on the surface of the answer.” The knight removes a stone from the side of the fireplace and pulls the lever hidden there.
A sudden draft comes whooshing through the room.
I feel skinless again. The air is leaving, abandoning me. My brain drinks adrenaline, but I can’t move to spend it.
The calm part of me notices that I am currently experiencing two places at once—a tower room in Castle Jordan and an airlock on board the Brazilian equatorial elevator. That airlock memory is three years old, but it hasn’t stopped happening since.
Elevators are big. They scrape the sky, containing whole entire towns with distinct neighborhoods on different levels. It takes months to leave Earth and reach station orbit. Most disembark when they finally get there, but lots of people make permanent homes in that in-between place.
I spent most of fifth grade on the elevator. My school put all of the disabled kids into one classroom. None of us used the same sorts of strategies or accommodations, but they lumped us all together anyway. That used to happen in Miami, too.
One day they lumped us into one small classroom with a window. It had a few snacks and toys scattered around, but no teacher.
A soft-spoken woman with a clipboard dropped us off there. The paper on the clipboard said “T4” in the top right corner. I still remember the woman’s hair. I don’t know why I remember her hair. It was very straight, with bangs so precise they seemed laser-cut.
A security guard flanked the woman with the clipboard.
“Do it now?” he asked, in English, once we were all inside the room.
“No,” she said. “I have more names on the list. We’ll do it all at once. Easier to hide a single egress.”
They left and shut the door behind them.
I stood at the window and watched the curve of the world. It didn’t seem to get further away no matter how long I stared at it. The elevator climbed too slowly to register as movement.
I still liked windows, back then.
Most of the other kids scarfed down snacks.
Beatriz joined me at the window. Or maybe her name was Brigida. I can’t remember. I hate that I can’t remember her name. She taught me ISN basics. Right then, at the window, she stood close to me so no one else could see her hands. I do remember exactly what her fingernails looked like.
“What’s going on?” she signed.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But I think this is an airlock.”
She looked around, and understood. “What should we do?”
“I don’t know,” I signed again.
Since then I’ve thought of several dozen things I could have done, and should have tried. But the only thing I did at the time was look out the window and whisper-sign with my closest friend whose name I don’t even know anymore. We haven’t kept in touch.
The door behind us opened.
I expected to see the guard and the woman with the clipboard.
Abuela stood in the doorway instead. She was in uniform. She seemed very calm and very cold, like an automaton that only knew how to be formal.
“Come with me, my heart.” She pushed her Cuban accent to compress words so closely together that few other Spanish or Portuguese speakers could possibly understand her. She didn’t want to be understood by anyone but me. “Come out of there. Lead the others. Try not to let them look at the dead men out here in the hallway.”
Once upon a time someone put me in a room with a few other kids. Then, an hour later, my grandmother came to let us out again. That’s it. That is all that happened to me during a recent skirmish in the Eugenic War, which never really ended. History doesn’t ever really end. It just overlaps and squishes all together.
I’m still in both places at once.
Move, I tell myself, and then pinch my hand until I listen. Do something.
“Stop this.” It comes out as a croak rather than a command. I try again. “Restore standard life support immediately.”
The butler knight draws an ornate sword. “Who goes there?” The glitchy thing has only just registered that I’m not who it thought I was.
My cane handle clicks as I spin it around, just once more, building up a substantial kinetic charge. Abuela gave me this cane. She built it herself soon after we arrived.
Sir Butler takes two heavy steps toward me.
I discharge my cane directly into his armored chest.
He falls down hard.
I’m a dragon now, and not a captured unicorn. I am here to fry knights who guard golden treasures and dare to challenge me.
Air is still leaving the room. But my tactical putty was engineered to patch hull breaches. It stays strong even when stretched very thin. I stretch it across the entire fireplace. Putty bulges toward the still-tugging vacuum. It doesn’t tear. The seal holds.
Sir Butler stirs.
“Want some more of this?” I crank the cane handle to build up another charge, but the automaton doesn’t stand up. He starts babbling instead.
“I apologize, your lordship. We are having difficulties recreating the atmosphere the answer requires. Its music will not sound precisely as it did when first recorded on its homeworld orbiting Gliese 445, which is a star in the Camelopardalis constellation seventeen-point-six light-year’s away. Camelopardalis is a giraffe-shaped constellation created by the seventeenth century Flemish cartographer Petrus Plancius. The cartographer Petrus Plancius is also known for—”
I gently remove the door key from Sir Butler’s tuxedo pocket. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“This record is from another planet,” I say out loud, testing the idea.
“Yes, your lordship,” says the glitchy automaton, which makes me jump. I didn’t expect him to hear me. “It arrived early and by a balanced paradox. The craft that carried it landed in the Andes forty thousand years ago, in response to a message that will not be delivered until forty thousand years from now. The craft was discovered in your Peruvian lithium mines and its age determined via analysis of the surrounding rock. I must again apologize that we cannot recreate the pure atmospheric conditions of the original recording. Sound quality will be compromised.”
I take a good, long look at the dead man.
“That’s okay,” I tell Sir Butler. “Those atmospheric conditions killed the master of the house. He died of delusional purity. But I’d rather hear music through air I can breathe.”
The answer sits in the gramophone, already spinning.
Someone will record this in the distant future. Then they’ll send it into our distant past. Their civilization might not exist yet, but it will. They’ll be there by the time Voyager arrives. Someone will hear our music and share their own.
I set the needle in the groove and let it play.
(Editors’ Note: “The House on the Moon” is read by Erika Ensign and William Alexander is interviewed by Haddayr Copley-Woods on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 24A.)
© 2018 by William Alexander