3.9.06

Sunday Scribblings: A Story About a Fortune Cookie, sort of...

I think I must have supernatural powers. Last week I was thinking, “You know, I want to write something a little darker for Sunday Scribblings this week, maybe something with a monster in it!” And what was the prompt? This week the prompt is ‘fortune cookie’, and lo and behold a fortune cookie dropped into my lap today! It must truly be fate! What message from the gods would my fortune cookie have for me?

Part Exchange your current home*

visit [a website]

*Subject to terms & conditions

Who am I to argue with a fortune cookie? If it was really accurate, however, it would have read, "You will have a productive weekend researching and writing a story and thereby placating your many fans who missed out on the monster story you never finished."

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit Arthur C. Clarke this week, as I believe everyone should at some point in their lives. The names Chehooit, Manit and Tukupar Itar are borrowed from Tongva gods. The Trans-Neptunian object Quaoar was named after the Tongva creation deity, which is where I got the idea from. Reference: http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~chad/quaoar/

Wikipedia was helpful in numerous ways while writing this story. In particular the articles on trimix breathing gas and Vesta may be of interest if you want to learn more.


Fortunes and Alien Walnuts

I aim the dish into a yellow sky painted wet shades of grey by expansive but diffuse clouds. The powerful wind makes it difficult to hold it steady and distant electrical storms crackle and pop in my earpiece. The ruins of a dead civilisation protrude from the ground around me: domed buildings sinking slowly into a mire of dirt and detritus; curved walls bursting at the seams with overgrown blue-green plants.

“Tukupar Itar, are you there? Tukupar Itar?”

A female voice croaks through a thick haze of static. “Tukupar Itar receiving. That you, Eduardo?”

“It’s me Captain,” I shout. I can barely hear myself over the wind and the static. Perhaps my voice is reaching the microphone by my mouth perfectly clearly, but I’m not sure. “Listen, I’m at Site One-Seven with Dr Morgan. Our vehicle’s broken down in the open and we could use an airlift before this storm hits us.”

“Why us? What about Primary Site?”

“They’re already in the storm. All their craft are grounded. There’s a shuttle at Site Seven, but it’s too far away. Any help for us will have to come from above.”

No answer. Just a powerful hiss of static.

I long to press my earpiece further into my ear, but the transparent dome of my helmet is in the way. “Captain? Are you there?”

“I’m here. Eduardo, I only have one atmosphere capable craft in service at the moment and I can’t afford to risk it just to keep you out of the wind. Find shelter, protect your distillery, and ride it out.”

Damn. This isn’t as prosaic as it seems. The Manit probe has monitored weather patterns on Chehooit for the past seventy-odd years. In an atmosphere six times thicker than Earth’s, even a summer breeze can knock you off your feet. With the gale force winds that are predicted to pass over Site One-Seven, we can seriously expect our five tonne RV to end up on its side if we leave it in its current location, exposed to the elements on an elevated alien highway.

“Okay, understood” I say, feigning confidence. “Site One-Seven out.”

“Good luck Eduardo. Keep your head down. Tukupar Itar out.”

I fold up the little dish and stick it back in my belt, then turn back down the road, looking at the bulky, rectangular RV. Dr Morgan is a dark figure on all fours beside it, the various tubes and protuberances of her environment suit making her silhouette strange and inhuman. I’m walking upwind. It feels like walking against the tide.

“Eva, any luck?” I ask, my voice carrying across to her on storm-blighted radio waves.

She gets to her feet and dusts down her knees, her voice crackling in my ear. “I think the axle is broken.”

“That doesn’t sound very fixable.”

I’m not quite close enough to make out her face in detail, but I know the kind of mirthless smile she’s wearing when she says, “Not really, no. What about that airlift?”

I shake my head, although I doubt she can see it. “Nope. We have to find shelter.”

“Great.”

“We’ll need to take the distillery with us. We can’t afford to lose it. Also, make sure you have a full air tank in your suit. And… we can only leave behind things that we can stomach losing, so I guess we should take as much water and glucose as we can carry.”

She glances up at the sky. “We don’t have much time. If we’re carrying all this crap we won’t reach shelter before the storm gets here. I vote leaving everything except the distillery, the water and glucose.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s all we need.”

*


The native life on Chehooit relies on oxygen, just like life on Earth, and the atmosphere here certainly has plenty of the stuff. But that doesn’t make it breathable for humans. The high partial pressure of narcotic nitrogen and argon, the choking sulphur particles and the vaporous sulphuric acid all add up to a pretty nasty cocktail for any organism adapted for life on Earth. After four years here, there’s already been one death and sixteen injuries due to exposure to Chehooit’s atmosphere and we know for a fact that breathing it is both lethally dangerous and unpleasant. Of course, experiments - and a few accidents - have also demonstrated that our own atmosphere is equally noxious for the animals of Chehooit, as they rapidly lose consciousness, seize and die from hypoxia.

So that’s why the single most common and important piece of equipment we have is the distillery. We can remain on Chehooit indefinitely, at least from the standpoint of how much breathable air we have - the thing is we first have to extract and remix the oxygen and nitrogen we need from the atmosphere. That’s what the distilleries do - liquefy the air and boil off the oxygen and nitrogen. They then scrub the CO2 from our spent air canisters and refill them with oxygen and/or nitrogen as required. Weirdly the only gas we can’t afford to lose is Helium, which is produced in bulk from natural gas at Primary Site. To keep things simple we operate at an atmospheric pressure of six bars in our suits, vehicles and habitats - the same pressure as the alien air outside. That means we don’t have to worry about making things extra sturdy to avoid them collapsing under the weight of the atmosphere. But at this pressure we can’t have too much nitrogen in the mix, or we’d suffer from nitrogen narcosis, so we replace some of it with Helium. The symptoms of nitrogen narcosis are largely identical to intoxication. You know, from alcohol. In this environment, the last thing you want is a team of drunk astronauts.

But, okay, all this is kind of a tangent. All you really need to know is, one: that the distillery is really important; and two: that we all sound like Donald Duck.

*

Behind me Eva says, “My nose is itching.”

“Scratch it then.”

“Ha, ha, bloody ha.”

We’re carrying the distillery on a medical stretcher between us, as if the bundle of cylinders and hoses were a critical patient. A few lose air canisters clink around next to it, cushioned by bottles of water and packets of food. The highway descends at a steep angle, and we take small steps. The wind is a strong hand at our backs, as if Chehooit wants us to pick up the pace.

We clutch the stretcher awkwardly through thick gloves laced with coolant-filled tubes. It’s hard work. Static crackles in my ear, accompanied by the soft murmur of the city’s plants being brutally buffeted by the wind, leaves rippling like turbulent water. A part of one old, crumbling structure snaps off and rolls down the street with a metallic clattering.

“We need to pick up the pace,” Eva says.

“When we’re on level ground. I’ll slip if we go faster now.”

“This is really annoying,” Eva says. “If we lose the RV we’ll have to bring another one up from Site One-Six.”

“Also,” I add, “there’s a chance this storm might kill us.”

“That too. Fuck! Eduardo, look left!”

I turn my head. My suit is partially in the way, but I can see it. One of the city’s great spires, a gnarled ochre tower, seems to have snapped in the wind. Its bulk pummels into a nearby dome, shattering it, dust rising high into the air and snaking out a path in the wind.

My knees give out and I end up flat on my arse. Both of us scramble to keep the distillery off the ground. In the process a few loose bits and pieces fall off the stretcher and roll away.

As I get uneasily back to my feet, Eva yells over the rumble of the tower’s demise. “You want us to shelter in one of these fossils? They’re like glass.”

“Well we’ll find a sturdy one,” I say.

When we get to the bottom of the ramp, we set the stretcher down and I unfold the little transmitter. I aim it at roughly the same part of sky as I did earlier, watching to see how the signal from Manit grows. We may not have much of a world wide web on Chehooit, but it’s there and full of up-to-the-minute information. The guys at Site Five managed to translate some sort of list of military bunkers. It’s widely circulated because we have this notion that it’s more likely important archaeological information may have survived in these places. They also sound like structures that might still be capable of surviving a little wind.

*

Eva and I are a pair.

A hundred people on this mission, nine years together so far - not including time frozen. Five years training on Vesta, four years on Chehooit. Eva and I were probably the last two people to meet one another properly, although we knew one another by sight. We were both rather quiet, outsiders to an extent.

But when we did meet we became fast friends. We’ve spent so much time together these past nine years. I mean nine years, it’s difficult to believe. We’re always doing stuff though. Working together as often as being together. We talk about everything and anything, but a lot of the time we don’t talk at all, don't need to. We take lots of jobs that take us into unexplored territory. She’s a geologist, interested in working out the lay of the land; I’m a biologist, trying to categorise as many different creatures here as I can, figure out where they fit into this whole new tree of life. Neither of us need much infrastructure to support us, although we often end up setting up basic facilities at new sites of interest that we uncover. A more rigorous team of biologists and xeno-archaeologists will come along then to get down to the real business of documenting this world.

And Eva and I will move on, still exploring and running errands. We’re happy enough with just each other. We’re very much a pair. We’re also ‘just friends’, apparently.

*

“We should have brought some lights,” Eva says.

To the civilised creatures of Chehooit, when they were alive, light was an abstract concept. Their primary sense was echolocation. As a result, electric lights, windows, photographs and co-ordinated colour schemes would all have been strange, alien concepts to them. Inside, their buildings are dark warrens, designed to allow sound to travel freely, albeit in a weird, echoing way that sounds rather eerie to human ears. They are also wonderfully, intricately textured, presumably so that they would appear interesting and attractive to the Chehooitians.

Eva and I sit opposite one another at the entrance to this bunker, our shoulder lamps lighting one another up. The tunnel quickly disappears into pitch blackness either side of us. The sound of the storm reverberates up and down the passage like an extended, anguished moan. The distillery sits between us, humming softly as it recharges an old air canister.

I turn to shine my lamp back the way we came. A shadow flickers at the edge of the beam. I scramble to my feet. “I think I saw something move.”

Eva follows suit. We both aim our lights down the tunnel, the powerful beams struggling to pierce the pitch blackness. Suddenly Eva’s light flickers and dies.

“Also,” she says, awkwardly fiddling with the lamp on her shoulder, “we should have brought some light bulbs.”

“Crap. Okay, one light will have to do.”

“Your light.”

“My light. Well, you can have the bulb if you want…”

She laughs. “I trust you. Keep the damn thing.”

Something flickers in the beam again, a hint of a thick black tail. “What we really should have brought, was the rifle.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the biologist.”

“This is an entire planet, Eva. Millions of species. And we’re further south than anyone else has ever been. It could be something we’ve never seen before.”

“It’s a rat,” Eva says as the creature steps warily into the light - not that it can perceive the light, of course.

It’s not really a rat. There’s a type of animal here that we think of as the Chehooit rodents, and a lot of the non-biologists like to call them ‘rats’. The creature we’re looking at is a rather large variant - knee-high, bipedal with small grasping limbs folded under its long and streamlined body, a face like a questing flower with large stamen. Its skin is a slick black. It inflates its stomach menacingly and hisses.

“I think it’s trying to sense us passively,” I whisper, “to hear our ultrasonic clicks. But we’re not giving anything off. It knows we’re here, and it thinks that we must be really dangerous if we’re this stealthy.”

I step back against the wall and it suddenly bounds right past us, moving with quick, almost terrified movements, hopping like a kangaroo.

“I think we scared it,” I say softly.

Eva grabs my shoulders and aims my lamp in the direction it ran, further into the building. “If I bumped into a pair of giant aliens in a dark tunnel, I think I’d be pretty scared myself.” After a pause, she adds, “Shall we follow it?”

“Why, to scare it some more?”

“No. I’m curious. And I’m going crazy sitting here in the dark.”

“You’d rather go crazy getting lost in the dark?”

She pulls a glow-stick from her belt and snaps it. A soft green glow fills the tunnel. She starts walking after the rat. “I’m curious.”

Eva’s curiosity sends her up active volcanoes and down sheer crevasses. It’s also driven me into a nest of fat, startlingly intelligent worms and the midst of a herd of creatures that made Elephants look dainty. But outside of our spheres of knowledge - of biology and geology respectively, we start to get into really dangerous territory.

“No way, Eva,” I say firmly. “We don’t know what we’d be walking into.”

“Fine, I’ll go without you,” she says walking away, knowing full well that I’ll follow her.

“What about the distillery?”

“Afraid the rats will eat it? It’ll be fine.”

I follow quickly after Eva, down the winding tunnel. Almost too quickly, we emerge into a cavernous expanse. My light stretches across it feebly. It is impossible to say how big it is, or to shake the feeling that we have arrived at the edge of the world and are staring into empty, infinite space.

“Cool,” Eva coos.

Something rises up out of the ground before us, a thin, spidery tower, wrapped in strange machinery. I shine my light up its length. It extends up as far as I can see. Protruding at Chehooitian-head height, is an object that vaguely resembles a walnut. It is shiny and molasses black.

Eva approaches it warily. “What do you make of this?”

“Giant walnut. Military issue. Very dangerous. Keep your distance?”

Eva scoffs and peers closer. “You can see pretty much the whole room reflected in it. Or the parts that are lit, anyway. Hang on…” She looks quickly back and forth between me and the walnut.

I step towards her and stumble over something on the ground.

“Bloody hell!” Eva exclaims. “Your reflection tripped over before you did.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Can we go yet?”

Eva pulls back sharply from the walnut and looks at me anxiously.

I step up to the walnut to get a closer look. Eva backs away from me, eyes wide with fright.

“Eva, what are you-”

“Just stay where I can see you!” she says firmly.

“What? What’s the matter?”

“I saw you kill me.”

“You saw me what?”

“In the reflection. You picked up a rock, smashed my helmet open and left me to writhe and die on the floor.”

I step towards her holding out my hands. “Why would I do that, Eva?”

“You tell me,” she says, stepping away from me, her voice quivering.

I reach out to try and take her hands, and she snaps. She runs off into the darkness.

“Eva! Come back! Eva!”

Where the fuck is she going to end up, running through an alien bunker with no light? I want to run after her, but I imagine that chasing her is only going to add to her paranoia. Paranoia… Paranoia is a symptom of both nitrogen narcosis, from too much nitrogen, or high pressure nervous syndrome from too little. Her mix must be out. It seems so unlikely, though. We spend so much time out by ourselves that we’re dab hands at mixing up breathable air. Then again, it’s when you’re confident that you make the silliest mistakes. I have to try and find her before she hurts herself. I have the light. It shouldn’t be too hard.

I set off in the direction she ran, rehearsing in my mind what I can say to try and make her see reason. As I pass the shiny black object, I catch movement in its reflection. I look right at it. Crystal clear, I see the rat emerge from the darkness and into the light from my lamp. I look straight ahead. Nothing there.

And then the rat emerges from the darkness and into the light from my lamp.

I look back at the reflection, my stomach taut and clenching. Is it true? Is this the future?

As I stare at the reflection I start to feel apprehensive. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I feel numerous urgent butterflies swarming in my stomach. Above all, I feel fear. As I stare at the reflection, dumbstruck, I see the rat leaping at me, knocking me to the ground and tearing my guts out with its forelegs.

I panic. I try to step backwards quickly, not a good idea in a top-heavy environment suit. I end up on my arse scrabbling back from the rat fearfully. I know with complete certainty that it is going to kill me. I have to get away from it. It’s going to kill me.

Actually, it doesn’t look all that well. The rat takes two steps forward and then it collapses forward, legs spread-eagled. I notice for the first time how it foams at the mouth. What the fuck is going on?

I cautiously stand, shaking like I never have in my life, and step over to it slowly, half expecting it to leap up and attack me at any moment. When I’m still a few paces away I can see the chewed-up glucose packet in its mouth.

“You little muppet. Can’t you tell that glucose is no good for you?”

I kneel down beside it and pull the packet from its jaws, clearing the foam from around its lips. It belches pathetically and tries to push me away with weak (mercifully blunt) paws.

“You should be okay if you don’t have anymore of this stuff. Okay? No more glucose for you.”

I shine my light around as if I expect to still find Eva in the chamber. The beam catches what I tripped over when I approached her earlier. Two alien corpses, skeletal hands wrapped around each other’s thoraxes as if still strangling one another all these centuries after they died.

I look back at the reflection in the molasses. I see the rat leaping to its feet, smashing through my helmet and ripping my throat out. To look into the reflection is to feel fear. I look down at the lethargic creature at my feet. “Military issue walnut,” I say. “Very dangerous.”

*

I would say that I could never hurt Eva, but the fact is that I once hurt her more than anyone else ever has.

We all gave up everything we had to come to Chehooit. Chehooit is twenty three light years from Earth. At the Tukupar Itar’s maxmimum speed of 0.75c, that’s thirty years travel each way - frozen, naturally. If any of us went back home, we would find that everything we knew was changed, or dead and buried. What kind of people that must make us, I don’t know. This trip was always going to be one way. The Tukupar Itar expended all its fuel getting here. Eleven years from now the Deep Space Explorer 5 will pass through the system and take anyone who desperately wants to go back to Earth. The people on DSE5 left Earth a hundred and twelve years ago. When they meet us, it will be like they’re meeting people from the future. I don’t think many of us will want to go with them, and they should only have space for forty passengers anyway.

So here you have this group of one hundred people who are going to spend the rest of their lives together. And the policy was: no fraternisation. We were prepared to give up everything we had to come to Chehooit, including, apparently, any chance of romantic love or companionship. Before we left Vesta, we had a big blow-out party. Eva told me she loved me and tried to kiss me. I put my fingers to her lips and told her I just saw her as a friend.

I was lying, naturally. I didn’t want to get kicked off the mission when we were so close to leaving.

After we defrosted in orbit around Chehooit, we skimmed through the last thirty years of transmissions from Earth and found that the policy of no fraternisation had been scrapped two years after we left. Apparently it was now clear that romances between people on the same mission had no detrimental (or beneficial) effects. Besides, if they had been enforcing the rules they would have had to fire pretty much all of the astronauts already irrevocably out on long-term missions.

So now they bloody tell us, I thought. It was too late by then. Eva and I were a distinct pair, but we were trapped in limbo. I guess it was all on my head really. I could never figure out how to undo what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t let Eva do.

But this is all academic now that she thinks I want to kill her.

*

I emerge into murky twilight. The air is still and the city is strewn with even more rubble than when we arrived. I fumble with the transmitter and aim it at Manit.

“Primary Site, Primary Site, this is Site One-Seven. Chief are you there?”

A gruff North American voice: “Eduardo, are you okay?”

I’m okay. Have you heard from Dr Morgan?”

“No, isn’t she with you?”

“No. We sheltered in one of those military bunkers and found some sort of psychological weapon. She thinks I want to kill her.”

“She thinks you want to kill her?” the Chief repeats superfluously.

“Yes! Can you send us a shuttle? You can pick us up separately if you want. In fact, that might be for the best.”

“We’re still reeling from the storm Eduardo. I have two shuttles airborne, but we’re using them as ambulances. We have a number of critical casualties. I can’t divert them. Can’t you just… I don’t know, talk to her?”

If only things with Eva were ever that simple. “What about the other shuttles? You have more than two, I know.”

“They were damaged in the storm. I can’t risk them, Eduardo - if we lose any of our shuttles we won’t be getting replacements for over twenty years, if at all. You’re just going to have to deal with this situation yourself. Primary Site out.”

Right. Thanks a bunch.

I should have mentioned that Eva has the distillery and that I only have a couple of hours of oxygen left. As it is there’s probably a lot more CO2 in my suit than there should be. I’m going to have to have a word with someone about installing scrubbers in the suits rather than relying on the distilleries for everything. If I get out of this mess alive, that is.

I fold up the transmitter and broadcast on my suit radio. “Eva, if you wait two hours you’ll be the one who killed me.”

No answer. If I can find the RV I may be able to track her. I can see the highway from here. It seems to be still standing. It must be pretty sturdy. We should have sheltered underneath that instead of wandering into the secret vaults of a civilisation that annihilated itself.

I yawn explosively. Not a good sign from the stand point of how breathable the air is in my suit. “Eva! For fuck’s sake.” I sigh. “Is this what it’s come to? A talk-show confessional on an alien planet? Do you want me to say how you should know that you’re the last person I would ever hurt? You know I’m no good at this kind of thing.”

I look at the ruins around me, mis-coloured shapes sculpted so intricately they look almost like they must have been writhing energetically just an instant before you laid eyes on them. “Eva, if you had ever tried to kiss me again, I wouldn’t have stopped you. If you’d said what I said to you, I’d probably have broken down and cried. But I wouldn’t have tried to kill you. Because… I love you. Okay?”

Silence. Not even the static from the electrical storm now.

“Oh, fuck it,” I say and start walking back towards the highway.

“Are you finished?” Eva says. Her voice is in my ear, no way to tell where it’s coming from. “Behind you,” she adds as she sees me looking around.

I look back at the entrance to the bunker.

She is sitting on lip of the tunnel, the distillery by her side. I must have walked out right beneath her feet. “I’m not an idiot,” she says. “I’ve figured it out. It must be my mix, although I can’t see anything wrong with it.”

“Your mix is probably fine,” I say timidly. “It was the walnut.”

She carefully climbs down from the top of the tunnel. I help her with the distillery. A bottle of water escapes and rolls away. “Of course,” she says, sounding less than convinced. “The big old alien walnut.”

She turns to me. Her helmet is smeared with dust and sulphur, but I can just about make out her dark features behind it. “Eduardo, I’m sorry. As soon as I was by myself I knew that it was preposterous. I just couldn’t imagine you really killing me. It- It felt like a dream. A nightmare, rather.”

“It did it to me too, only it was the rat killing me. Except the rat was collapsing from glucose-poisoning, so, you know, I realised the walnut was lying to me. The archaeologists will love that thing, if they don’t all murder one another while examining it, that is.”

“I love you too,” Eva says.

I swallow dryly. “I need a new air canister.”

She hands me one from the stretcher and I connect it to my suit. She takes the spent one from me and connects it to the distillery. Then she takes my arm and presses her helmet against mine. “I think I will try and kiss you again, when we get back to the RV.”

I’m glad that she probably can’t see me blushing. “If the RV is still there,” I say coyly.

It isn’t. The storm flipped it over multiple times, right over the edge of the highway. It is embedded in a crater of smashed houses. Around it the plants that are taking over the city have been turned a sickly yellow, seemingly in response to the Earthly gases spilling out of the ruined vehicle.

Eva and I sit side by side against the barrier at the edge of the highway, watching the horizon slowly occult the bluish sun. We lean against one another, shoulders touching. Several layers of thick, insulated and liquid cooled material separate us.

Eva snatches the transmitter from my belt and unfolds the dish. With some wrangling she’s able to arrange an airlift three hours from now.

She cleans some of the dirt from my helmet with her sleeve and presses her face as close to mine as she can. Even in the dimming light, I can actually make her out quite well. “Three hours,” she says wistfully, her voice carrying to me directly, albeit muffled by the barriers between us.

“Does your nose itch?” I ask her.

“I’ve been immune to that for like three years now.”

“Three years.” Slightly frightening to think that such a long period of time exists within our relationship. “Where does the time go?”

“We’ve been busy. Training, setting up camp, exploring a whole planet...”

“Are you still going to kiss me?”

“In about three hours, yeah.”

“Good.”

6 comments:

zhoen said...

Ok, slightly off point but you should check out
http://godchecker.com/

Michelle said...

I just loved this. You really had me going, and the ending is just delightful. I've been looking into off-grid living, and it strikes me that this is like off-grid life on crack.

Thanks for your comment--you made my day. Does it mean that if I quit eating sugar I might actually become a decent writer?

I really think that you should do something with this work, if you haven't already. I'm not a big sci-fi reader, but I really like your stuff. You have so much HUMAN in it that it doesn't get bogged down with all of the bloody details which is a trap that many other writers seem to fall into. Yet at the same time it is feels accurate--believable.

Pacian said...

@Zhoen:

Way ahead of you. This page convinced me to use the name Tukupar Itar.

@Michelle:

I guess if I can be said to be doing something with all the stories on here, it's trying to learn how to apply myself to writing. There were several times while writing this story that I wanted to just give up on it. Eventually I hope to be able to write a novel.

PS. Keep eating the sugar. ;-)

tinker said...

This is the best alien walnut story I've read, since the Dick Van Dyke Show (that maybe purely an American reference) - but this was great!
I really enjoy your characterizations and dialogue. Good storyline, too.

paris parfait said...

It's not every day I get to read a story like this! Amazing! What an imagination you have...

Roadchick said...

Very interesting....the 'chick bows to your imagination!