1202 executive. Glitch. Data overflow. Stop if you can and reboot.
It's Sunday, July 20th, 1969, 3000 feet over the Sea of Tranquility. Descending 70 feet per second. Standing on a rocket engine in a flimsy box of steel and gold coated mylar, 100,000 miles from home. At this speed they'll leave a big stain when they crash.
Two short guys dropping onto the moon.
They got this far by computer. Now their computer gives up. Throws a code. The software asserts. 1202 Alarm.
Of course nobody in Mission Control has ever seen this one before. Two humans are about to become a new lunar crater. With fuel running low the machine that got them there tosses up its electronic hands. "We give," is what it seems to say.
Neil Armstrong takes control. Manual. Buzz Aldrin reports the telemetry like a machine. Not a trace of emotion.
This is going to happen.
Back at Mission Control a software engineer looks up from his listing and reports it probably isn't going to matter that much. Probably.
Gene Krantz, who's been holding his breath, bursts an exhalation that sounds like laughter, but it's the word "probably". Probably stopped being an issue hours ago. This is real. This is happening now.
Thirty seconds of fuel left. They never got this low on fuel in any of the simulations.
Neil has to negotiate over a boulder field and past a big crater. When they land they have to be going straight down, gently. Any forward motion will bust off the flimsy landing pads. He has to get past the boulders and the crater and stop moving forward and descend gently with 25 seconds of fuel left.
The computer that's supposed to help him is on vacation. 1202 program alarm. Some programmer is going to get a stern talking-to, but not until man lands on the moon.
Everybody in the world is following the flight, but not one person knows what Neil's doing. Heartbeats and holiday picnics are reduced to a stream of humanized data. Men become machines.
The lunar module is drifting and Neil doesn't know why. He's not happy with his flying, pulses the thrusters to arrest the motion he doesn't understand. More fuel gone.
When he's 50 feet from the surface he's supposed to shut the engines down. The backdraft of dust could clog the engine bell. They'd explode.
Neil forgets to shut the engine off. Lands anyway, so smooth Buzz doesn't realize they're down until Neil stops flying. No explosion.
Man's first words on the moon are Buzz Aldrin's checklist: "Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. Four-thirteen is in."
Armstrong, more poetic: "Houston, Tranquility Base, here. The Eagle has landed."
Hollywood Beach, Florida, 1977. Breezy Sunday afternoon. Ten feet down and ascending. One hundred pounds of pressure remaining in my tank. Fifteen pounds of weight around my waist. Vented fins. Kicking hard.
On the way back to shore Eric and I get caught in the current. We're being pulled horizontally south as fast as we can kick toward the surf. We must be 1/2 a mile away from the beach already.
Eric touches my shoulder. He wants to kick inland along the bottom. The sand is filled with half-buried rays and skates, but there's less current down there because the sea bottom causes friction on the water and slows it.
I've got so little air left I know I'll be sucking rubber before we get to shore. Besides, one of those devil rays is bound to spike us with its tail if we get too close.
Eric doesn't wait. He deflates his buoyancy compensator and descends into a cloud of silt. Soon I can't see him. Now I'm alone in the ocean, being pulled down the coast. My head breaks the surface and I can use my snorkel. But the going is even slower. I know I should go down.
So I deflate my BC and drop like a stone to the sandy bottom, nearly onto a ray who scoots away. I kick for what seems like ten strokes when my air gives out. A wave of panic goes through me. I'm only about 12 feet down, but there no air in my lungs to inflate my BC. Kicking upward is a fight against my weight belt and empty lungs.
It starts to hurt to have no air. The hurt turns to panic which makes it hurt more.
And I'm drifting south at a rapid pace. Now more than a mile away from the beach where we started.
Without thinking I yank on my emergency CO2 inflator. The sucker's dead. I violated protocol by not checking it before the dive. Get what I deserve.
I drop my weight belt. Try to kick up. I get my snorkel above water and inhale a slug of saltwater.
Coughing, I try to get my mouth out of the water but keep getting hit in the face with waves. My empty tank is buoyant, but it wants to push my face into the water.
I tear at the quick release buckles. Drop my tank. The regulator pulls off my shoulder.
Now I can keep my head up. Cough out the water. Swim to shore without impediment. Roll in on the breakers.
When I reach the beach I collapse from exhaustion. My panic burned the energy out of all my muscles.
After a few minutes I start walking north along the beach. The realization sinks in--I've just ditched a couple hundred bucks worth of rental gear and I only clear about $150 a month on work study at the school's computer center.
Unlike Neil Armstrong who felt disappointed in his flying but landed on the moon, I'm going to feel the results of my failure for a long while.
She says, "Here, talk to Mark," brings him over and leaves the two of us at a sticky wooden table in a noisy dark bar.
I shake hands and introduce myself, one total loser to another.
"Glad to know I'm not the only one she does this to," he says.
We watch Wendy stroll through the bar crowd and introduce herself to a guy she's had her eye on. Some would think it strange. She came with me, presumably on some form of new-age date. As soon as we got into the place she started scouting for fresh meat. She left me at the bar, and then seeing my displeasure, brought over a former victim who looked bored.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," I said.
"What the hell else were you going to do tonight?" says Mark. "I mean, the choices are: stay home and jerk off or maybe get lucky with Wendy if she actually goes home with you. You might as well try. When I was seeing her, she hit a dry spell and fucked me two nights in a row."
"She actually had sex with you?" I ask Mark.
He smiles. "You mean you..." and now he's grinning ear to ear. I don't even have to shake my head. "You poor guy. You really are a loser."
"Thanks," I say. "You know, you go out with somebody the least they could do is talk to you when you're out. Christ. She's just using me."
"She uses all of us," Mark says. "When you look like that, you get used to people laying down like rugs to stomp on."
Of course Wendy looks gorgeous. Long blonde hair over blue eyes. Athletic build. Too cool to be a cheerleader, too pretty to be one of the normal kids.
When she asks me out and I flip with glee. I'm Clark Kent turned Superman for a week before the date. Then it happens. Thank god they lowered the drinking age to 18 or I'd hang myself from the depression. Wendy arrives with me and goes home with someone else every night.
Sometimes she even drives.
"I'm going home with Matt." She came up behind me while I was talking to Mark. Didn't even see her. "You can get a ride home with someone else, right? I don't like anyone driving my car."
"Wendy, we're an hour away from my house. How am I supposed to get a ride from here?"
She says, "Mark can take you," but Mark is shaking his head. He's staying down here, sleeping in his van which won't start. Needs to get a part for it tomorrow.
"You'll figure something out," Wendy says, smirking as she walks away.
Mark says, "Well that sucks," which doesn't begin to describe the feeling I have. Anger. Frustration. Fear of not being able to get home, or of having to ask my dad to drive an hour south at 2AM to come get me. Would be better to sleep on the beach...
Just then, two women walk in. One makes eye contact with me and glances away quickly.
I tell Mark I'm switching to manual. He doesn't know what it means. Neither do I, but against everything that makes me a geek I walk toward the woman who looked at me and introduce myself when I get close.
She saw me talking to Mark--knows him. I tell her I'm an old friend of his. I negotiate over the boulders and the crater fields. The bartender signals last call. There's not much time left.
Because it's the New Jersey shore, there's a diner down the road. Do I want to go have a cup of coffee with her and her friend?
Yes I do.
Wendy meets up with me and the women, jingling her keys in the dark gravel parking lot. Her one-night stand has evaporated leaving her dateless. She can drive me home now. She bats her eyes. Let's me know what I can do to her if I go home with her.
I put my arm around the girl I just met. I'm silencing 1202 alarms all over the place. Bells going off in my head as I wait for the woman to slap me. Fear rising I'm abandoning my ride home at 2AM. Fear this woman will reject me. Fear I'll hate myself for not going home and having sex with Wendy on the way. Fear fear fear fear, alarm alarm alarm.
I tighten my hug on the woman I don't know, expecting her to push me away. She doesn't. Goes along. Puts her arm around me. Leans into me.
We both tell Wendy to get lost. I never see Wendy again.
I have coffee with the woman and her friend. Five years later we get married. Twenty years later we have three kids and live in California.