Short story: Man on the moon

Rupert Pollen never dreamt of being famous. In fact, if he had ever been given a chance to be famous, he would have passed. But there came a time when he had to face the cold hard truth that in a world as dumb as this, fame doesn’t come at a price; it’s handed out as a free sample.

All you had to do was do something different. It didn’t have to be good or heroic or epic or useful. It just had to be different. So long as it was different, you could become famous overnight.

Of course, doing something different meant that you had to go out there and look at what was already there, and then come back and do your own, different thing. You had to explore, socialise, interact – and none of those were talents that Rupert possessed. See, when Rupert was eight, his dad thought that it would be a good idea for his son to gain some IT skills. So he brought home an old computer from work, he set it up in Rupert’s room and switched it on.

That was it – the world lost its meaning. Little Rupert sat on the chair, looked at the screen and when he looked away again he was twenty-five. He was also a valedictorian programmer, a notorious hacker, an accomplished geek, and on his way to being very, very famous. Problem was that along with his IT skills Rupert also gained two hundred and seventy pounds.

Not that he cared much. As long as the chair could fit and hold him, as long as the mouse and the keyboard sang their song, Rupert was happy. Who needed that crazy world outside anyway – was there, wasn’t there, it didn’t matter. The world that did matter, Rupert’s world, was made of pixels. The screen’s glow was his sunshine and programming the wind in his sails. And Rupert, he didn’t just sail – he cruised. He didn’t just have a ship, he had a fleet. And it wasn’t long before companies around the world clamoured for his skills so much that he quit his day job and went freelance.

Rupert was King; General; Emperor. His desk was his throne. He named his own prices. He made his own deadlines. He worked only from home. He sent the files, they sent the money. He never had to meet anyone face-to-face and nobody ever asked to meet him – although he was popular in the chat rooms. In fact, he was so popular that he started his own website, providing expert advice on everything from coding to hacking. Within a month it was receiving a quarter of a million hits every day and companies fell head over heels to place an add in there.

And meanwhile, Rupert stayed home. He ordered pizza, Chinese, Japanese, fried chicken, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, Jamaican and the full dessert menu from the nearby Hilton every week. When his clothes didn’t fit anymore, he sat at his computer in his underwear. And when he ran out of those, heck, he just bought underwear online. Boxes of them.

Slowly, Rupert turned into a shut-in slob – and he didn’t mind it one bit. He was the best at what he did, and the world respected him. Well, at least his world did.

It wasn’t long before Rupert crossed the 300-pound line. And there was no going back.

One day, as a joke, Rupert wrote a betting program and put the beta version online asking others to download and test it. The idea was that they could apply his source code to their needs and calculate the odds of say, a football game or a horse race. He called it “Pollen’s Polls”.

Twenty-four hours later, it was being downloaded across the globe. Thirty-six hours later, Rupert had to set up twenty mirror sites to handle the traffic. Fourty-eight hours later, he had to buy the entire domain and patent the software.

With the patent, Rupert decided to put a small price on the program – not much, but just enough to make people think twice. He said that he was hoping it would reduce the downloads, but deep down, he was hoping that with the price the world-wide attention he was receiving would just fade away like a fad.

He was wrong. Six days after “Pollen’s Polls” went online, he became a billionaire. Instead of deterring users, the price he put on the program gave it a commercial boost. Market analysts said that “it was just enough to make ‘Pollen’s Polls’ hard-to-get and give it that commercial quality”. Rupert didn’t understand any of this real-world nonsense – as far as he knew, he just wrote a decent program. Thousands were written every day, millions every year. Good ones, useful ones, cheap ones, free ones. And most of them worked, just like his.

What Rupert couldn’t see at first was that his program was different. But he did realise it one night, six months after “Pollen’s Polls” had gone online. By now, Rupert weighed over four hundred pounds.

He caught it on the news, over a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and mushroom: “Pollen’s Polls” had given the most precise estimate of the national election outcome, even calculating the percentage that each party would receive.

Suddenly, Rupert was pushed into the nation’s spotlight, and the nation came looking for him: The media laid siege at his building, TV networks offered him cash for an exclusive and cameras pointed at his shut windows. And then came hordes of pubescent geeks camped outside holding banners and chanting to their mysterious cyber god.

Problem was, Rupert now weighed close to five hundred pounds. He had no clothes that fit and he simply draped himself in a king-size sheet. His apartment was stacked with pizza boxes and smelled of rotting exotic cuisine, while fungi on the walls were evolving into new species every second.

Even in this dumb world, you couldn’t be famous without a physical appearance. And when he realised that, Rupert felt the first pangs of panic that somehow, somehow, the world outside would have to lay eyes on him. And now, in the harsh limelight, Rupert felt embarrassed. He was a national icon, a hero of the computer world, the saviour of modern hackerdom. He had become a fashion, but he was a prisoner in his own house. He probably couldn’t fit past the door anymore. And the world, well, the world has zero tolerance for heroes that can hardly move.

So, for a while, Rupert went for the “shut-in/paranoid” shtick, but that only added to the craze. He barred the doors. He barricaded the windows. He pulled the phone off the hook. He ate canned food. He stayed out of the chat rooms. He didn’t even update his website.

Meanwhile, the media continued their search and their siege. Every night, on every network, there was a report on the ongoing Rupert Pollen investigation, as if he was some kind of fugitive.

And then it happened.

One night, a large network managed to get Rupert’s parents on the air to plead for him to come out. Rupert was fumbling for the remote, when his mom looked straight into the camera and said “Rupert honey, we know you’re ashamed about your weight, but we love you, all of us.”

That was it. Rupert saw red. He connected the phone, found the network’s number and after the ads were over, he went on the air and gave them a piece of his mind, live. Problem was, because Rupert hadn’t really spoken to anyone in months, and because he could hardly breathe under the tectonic plates of his fat, his voice stumbled out with slurred vowels, choked consonants, unintelligible stutters and incoherent phrases while he went out of breath every three syllables. The first time the great Rupert Pollen addressed the world, he came out sounding like a retard on national television.

The coronary hit shortly after he hung up. Fortunately, he still had the receiver in his hand. Struggling for breath, his face purple and his eyes bulging, he summoned inhuman strength to dial the emergency number. He hissed something down the line, and things went dark.

It was a shame that he came too so quickly. It was a shame because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have seen the crane they used to hoist his bulk out the window; he wouldn’t have seen how they broke down the wall, the crowds below looking up at their god, their golden cow, their big fat Buddha suspended naked in the air, his arms thicker than the paramedic who rode with him; he would have missed the produce truck they had to put him in because the ambulance buckled under his weight; he would have missed the cameras filming him from side to side, and the geeks from across the road staring at him, pointing at him, laughing at him. Laughing. Laughing. Laughing.

To be mocked by your fans…

When they got Rupert’s heart going again that night, all that was left in it was pain, shame, and bitterness.

This big dumb world.

The doctors put Rupert on a strict diet, which he couldn’t break because he simply couldn’t move from his hospital bed. They planned liposuctions, physiotherapy, stomach reduction surgery. And since he could hardly move, exercise was out of the question. Just diet. Diet. Diet. Diet. Rupert goat-chewed on bland spinach and dull carrots, struggling to recall the taste of melting cheese on pizza, of steaming cannelloni, of tender crispy fried chicken, of succulent aromatic duck with noodles. But the memory of those glory days faded away and slipped through his fingers leaving him with heartache and mouthfuls of steamed broccoli.

At first, he didn’t watch TV. He avoided the news. He didn’t even ask for a laptop. But he saw it everywhere: the Mockery of the Fat One. It was in the doctors’ eyes, in the nurses’ giggles, in the get-well cards geekdom sent him every day (“looking forward to chewing the FAT online again”; “You’re our HEAVY-duty hacker!”; “Your software is still HUGE”). But mostly, he saw it on the window of his room, every evening, his own reflection that didn’t even fit in the frame. A bloated face over a torso you could project an IMAX feature on and still have space left. His bed was king size, with two mattresses. He couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being hoisted like a puppet.

It was the lowest point of Rupert’s life.

And then, one night, disgusted with his reflection, he looked past the glass and into the sky. And he saw it there, big, white, full, inviting.

The Moon.

Earth’s only satellite, 238,857 miles away, and 2,160 miles in diameter.

The Moon.

Centrepiece of a million poems and the biggest small step for mankind.

The Moon.

3,344 kg/m3 in density and about one-sixth of Earth’s gravity.

Rupert actually sat up.

One-sixth of Earth’s gravity.

One-sixth. Up there, Rupert would weigh less than a hundred pounds.

There was no treadmill in the world that could do that.

One-sixth. Rupert got on the intercom and bellowed for a laptop, wireless.

It took close to eighteen months to put together, and most of that time was spent trying to get Rupert in a decent physique. NASA objected something fierce at first, but when Rupert threatened to turn to the more interested ESA, they complied. Besides, “Pollen’s Polls” was paying the bills with cash to spare.

The plan was simple. He’d land, he’d set camp, he’d live there – probably longer than he’d live on Earth, and certainly happier. He arranged for a monthly supply of food, and threw in some funds for an Internet connection via satellite.

The world was once again abuzz with Rupert Pollen: he was going to be the first man to live on the Moon. Talk shows, demonstrations, forums, TV, radio, Internet – they all went crazy. Rupert was a rock star: Instead of dealing with his weight in conventional ways, he gave the world the finger and left the planet. Geeks across the world created Rupert cults; a company made Rupert t-shirts with “I only fit in XXXL” printed on the front. His hometown even made him a statue with an inscription: “THINK BIG”.

It was the Rupert Era, and Rupert lapped it up like chocolate moose: only a world this dumb would make a star out of a planet. Rupert wasn’t out to conquer new territories – he was just chickening out.

But it was different chickening-out. And if it’s different, they’ll love you for it.

The launch was broadcast in every country with a television. More people watched it than when Neil Armstrong hopped around the Sea of Tranquillity in ‘69. Rupert Pollen’s shuttle landed in the same area, but when he finally stepped out, scared, hesitant and weighing a mere sixty pounds for the first time in three decades, he didn’t say anything about steps and leaps and man, he just hopped around for a while, giggling in his helmet, and did his first ever somersault.

Then he went back into his shuttle and started on a huge pizza with extra cheese.

Weeks passed, then months, and Rupert never contacted Earth. He didn’t write any new software. He didn’t blog his lunar experience. He just went back to being a shut-in slob, a recluse, but this time with the whole Moon to himself.

From time to time, telescopes would catch glimpses of him, hopping around the Moon happily, bouncing from rock to rock, leaping in the air, standing on his hands. And then, he’d disappear into his shuttle again to wolf down another pizza.

It was a year later when Greenwich Observatory reported that they had seen Rupert Pollen bounce behind a rock and never re-appear. A week later, NASA confirmed that he had not returned to his shuttle.

Rupert was out of sight, on the far side of the Moon.

After two years, the ESA sent its first team on the Moon. They landed close to Rupert’s old shuttle, and set their own camp.

Two of them, a French woman and a Dutch man, found Rupert laying facedown behind that same rock, half-covered in moon-dust, as big as he always was. They lifted him up – he was so light – and brought him into their shuttle. In the medical chamber, a camera was set up with a direct link to Earth, and the whole world watched once again.

And when they pulled his helmet off, it was there, Rupert’s big fat bloated face, white as snow, with the biggest smile the Moon had ever seen frozen across his lips, and crusts of old cheese stuck between his teeth.

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