Jeff is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, he enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, music, and procrastination (see above). Most of his ideas for fiction arise from random thoughts that strike in the middle of the night when he should be asleep.
The door clangs shut behind Cain, and air squeals through the seal while his inner ear registers the dropping pressure. He stoops over and tucks in his arms, but his shoulders and the gray stubble on his dark scalp still brush against the curved ceiling. Lights flicker and hum as they leech precious wattage from the solar panels.
Cain parts a row of space suits that hang like body bags from the ceiling and presses his forehead against the curved porthole, which distorts the acne-ridden surface of the lunar landscape outside. He briefly recalls a time when giant dumpling clouds floated across a blue soup sky. A girl in a sundress sprawls across a patch of dandelions, eyes wide and uncomprehending, a dreamy smile on her lips.
In the present, the cold room gnaws at his toes. He hasn't felt warmth in decades, but every time he looks out a window, he still expects to feel the hot kiss of sunlight on his face.
There are only two settlements up here. The first is the Eden colony, established by Christians who built their own paradise off world. His is the other colony, the one where the worst criminals are sent. Heaven and hell are separated by 2 kilometers of barren, phosphorescent rocks.
"Prisoner XL728F," says WARD3N's cybernetic voice. "We are granting parole according to Earth ordinance 7B-2134, subsection 2, paragraph 4. Confirm."
Cain stares into the monochrome green face on a monitor. In a few days he will breath air alive with apple blossoms, hints of lilac, and freshly-cut grass. This thought brings another image with it: a girl shaking violently, foaming at the mouth, trying to purge her system of the poison she has ingested, clutching the silver cross around her neck as if she can squeeze salvation from its cold metal.
Cain's eyes pinch off the scenes looping in his brain. "I have paid my debt to society."
The monitor confirms his vocal pattern.
"Put on a space suit. You have 30 minutes to leave before the room runs out of air." WARD3N's pixelated mouth is out of sync with its words.
A clock ticks off the seconds and minutes.
Cain picks the largest suit, but the inseam crushes his balls while his shoulders strain against the sleeves, trying to find a few spare inches to increase movement and comfort.
He scans the horizon before putting on his gloves. "How am I getting off this rock?"
"You cannot leave the moon, pursuant to ordinance 8A-4130, subsection 3, paragraph 1."
The words freeze in his sternum, then thaw into fingers that reach deep into a knotted cluster of hysteria in his gut. As these feelings untangle, more memories assault him: the arrest, the charges, the rejected plea deal, the cynical judge, the terrestrial expulsion.
"You have paid your debt." WARD3N flickers and then resets. "Enjoy your freedom."
A howling erupts in his chest, as Cain grabs a helmet and smashes it repeatedly against the screen. Both the screen with its monochrome AI and the helmet’s faceplate crack.
He seizes a golden splinter large enough to end his pain and slashes at his calloused hand and smears dark red blood against his chest. Two swipes. One from armpit to armpit. Another from throat to crotch. A giant red cross seeps into the dingy white, air-tight cloth. Then he dons his gloves.
When the airlock opens, the sudden vacuum tugs at the secured spacesuits, and the ruined helmet rolls past his feet like a metallic tumbleweed.
To his right, earth beckons with its blue oceans and porkchop-shaped continents partially obscured by swirling clouds. Its lower half has been gobbled up by the moon's shadow. Cain takes a few quick steps toward earth, an irrational voice in his head insisting that he could leap off the edge of this barren rock and swim the distance separating him from home.
He ignores this impulse and the dozens of helmetless, frozen bodies scattered across the lunar landscape like discarded rocks. Each step toward Eden reminds him of needles hunting for veins, scars tattooing his back where WARD3N biopsied the liver and kidneys, thighs swelling from years spent on treadmills to weigh the effects of atrophied muscles in low gravity. Bone grinds against bone in his knees as he hobbles toward salvation or damnation.
Perspiring and dizzy from exertion, Cain spots Eden's dome rising from an austere, cratered horizon. It is so much larger than the prison. Inside its translucent walls, green forests rise to impossible heights. A small waterfall spills over a granite cliff, its mists fogging a portion of the glass. Butterflies float from branch to branch, tasting the nectar of mouthwatering, vibrant fruits. It practically glows like Miriam's irresistible smile.
Miriam wanted to skip church that day and go to the park. Miriam bought the drugs. He has been paying for her mistakes all these years because a jury couldn't believe a pastor's daughter capable of a drug overdose. Maybe they refused to believe that she'd date a man like him. Or maybe he really is the worst sort of man.
His oxygen is gone.
Cain raises his arms in surrender or prayer, but the tears in his eyes won't fall. They collect in his eyelids, slowly blinding him.
The last thing he thinks he sees is four people in space suits emerging from a rectangle of light and rushing toward him. He fumbles at the latches on his helmet, but they forcibly remove his hands. They drag him across the lunar dust into their compound.
The door clangs shut behind them, air squealing as the room seals.
It takes several moments for his eyes to clear and when they do, he is staring at a young woman with an irresistible smile and silver cross at her throat.
"Welcome home," she says.