By J. Marshall Morgan
No human is supposed to survive on exoplanet (XO) 259-7. I learned this the hard way.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as my pod hit the planet’s dense atmosphere. The primary heat shield disintegrated like shrink wrap tossed on an open flame, and the secondary shield wasn’t far behind it. I mashed the emergency chute release. It deployed with a jolt that caught my restraints so hard that they nearly cut through my space suit like a cookie cutter, but it was a love tap compared to the pod slamming into the ground.
I came to hours later. Smoke haunted the cabin. The pod’s kaleidoscope of alerts flashed ominously. It had been too long since I had been off-station. For a moment, I wondered if I still had what it took to catalogue an unknown planet or if all my skills and instincts had withered in the year that I had spent caged within the New Clevelander orbital station.
This was all Aldiss’s fault. He kept me away from this for too long.
I extinguished the thought. Cursing my ex-husband wasn’t going to help me figure out how to survive whatever world awaited me outside of the pod.
“You can do this,” I told myself. My voice was flat and thin in the lonely cabin. “You’re the planetographer who traversed The New Flesh River on XO 181-2 and detailed The Valley of Tormented Souls on XO 090-6. This is only a Rank 2 planet. Child’s play.”
Never mind that the other seekers that had also visited this planet never returned. But they weren’t me. Even if my decision to ride the gravitational waves to this planet was a hasty attempt at an easy escape, documenting the life on this planet would surely get me back into the planetographer game. It had to be. I had nothing left to go back to.
I tapped at the cracked screen that was supposed to show the planet’s topography, but no backlight flickered to life. There was only one way to get the lay of the land.
The atmospheric sensors indicated that the air was breathable, barely. Fifteen percent oxygen is right on the cusp of comfortable, but my oxygen reserves had ruptured in the crash. I had little choice if I wanted to breathe. So I pulled off my helmet and popped the hatch.
Adrenaline ripped through my bloodstream as I gasped to find the oxygen I knew was there. It felt like trying to breathe through a sponge. My head was light, my vision blurry. I fought my body’s assumption that it was dying and slowly learned to breathe again as the strange world came into focus.
A pale purple sky stretched across a horizon of floral canopies that looked like clouds. Webbed tendrils sprung from twisted tree trunks and swayed in the breeze, capturing luminous pollen that floated in the wind. Strange humanoid shapes–vampiric shadows against a jagged, glittering mountain range in the distance–swooped about the tendrils, pecked at them and sparred for feeding rights.
I groped blindly for the stunner that was mounted on the bulkhead. I found it, checked that it was fully charged (it was, thank the Makers) and slid it into my suit’s belt. I watched the flying beast men to make sure that they weren’t heading my way. The noise of my pod crashing must have scared them something good because they kept their distance.
I ducked inside the pod to gather provisions–medipacks, a machete, and a fist full of stims. I reached for the pod’s remote access console but decided against it. It was heavy as hell and the pod wasn’t going anywhere. I’d have to find another way off of this planet or enough tech to salvage my pod.
I hacked through the dense forest of bamboo-like overgrowth as I watched the sky through the cage of branches, my thoughts consumed by fear of the flying beast men. The foliage I pushed my way through, however, was just as deadly as any humanoid creature I would encounter.
Razorweed shot up through the forest floor. A patch shredded the heel of my boot and turned my foot into a mass of soft, bleeding flesh. The pain was searing, but the fear of falling onto the razorweed and having my body splayed open like a can of tuna was stronger. I forced myself to dash through densely packed bamboo-like stems, hobbling when I could, hopping when I had to.
Too concerned with the Razorweed sprouting behind me, I failed to keep an eye on the terrain before me and plunged into a rotten swamp the color of toxic waste. It burned my eyes and tasted like spoiled meat as it spilled into my mouth. I broke through the surface, gasping and clawed my way to shore. My stomach relieved itself until there was nothing to heave but air.
Waxy mud sparkled with the colors of melted crayons as I crawled. It reminded me of kayaking through a bioluminescence bay when Aldiss and I had spent a week in a virtual-vaca called “Earth, Remembered”. He refused to leave the New Clevelander even though he had promised he would come with me whenever my travel bug bit. But that was before we were married. Afterward virtual-vacas were the only trips he’d take, and I went along with them. In the early days, our love was stronger than my unspoken resentment until it festered and forced me to find other escapes on the station.
Still, the memory made me smile, and I wondered what Aldiss was doing at that very moment to distract myself from the pain strangling its way up my leg. Thank the Makers for medipacks and stims.
A couple of hours later, my foot was healed enough to put solid weight on it. The pain was manageable, but my steady stream of tears swelled into a sob. It’s funny how a part of yourself that you always relied on can be mangled in just a few short moments, and you know you’ll never be the same.
The swamp gave way to a phosphorescent plain pockmarked with stone huts and elaborate lean-tos. Mutant Yeti-like creatures nearly twice my height dragged crude hoes through the moss-green loam and carved planting beds around huts shaped like teardrops.
I decided to go around the village, braving the swamp that encircled it, but a monstrous hunting party materialized out of the dense labyrinth of tree trunks. Without so much as an animalistic grunt or intelligent demand, the beings I called “Mu-Tis” lowered primitive spears at me and took two steps forward to close the circle. I froze, hands half raised to show that that I wasn’t a threat.
They were twelve-foot-tall mounds of throbbing muscle with root-like veins that sprouted leafy fuchsia foliage. The careful, patient movements of their hulking bodies betrayed their savagery. One Mu-Ti stepped toward me and stretched its long arms into the air as it began to gracefully undulate like strands of seaweed caught in a lazy current.
It was trying to communicate, but I was at a loss as to what it was trying to say or how I should respond. I decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. I raised my hands high and tried to match its motion.
A spearhead pressed into my back.
Maybe something was lost in translation or moving in my bulky spacesuit was akin to talking with my mouth full. So I unzipped it and let it fall to the ground.
If these creatures could have gasped, or made any sound at all, I imagine they would have. Instead, they hoisted their spears skyward and knelt, except for the one that had started the conversation. It pulled the stone spearhead from its wooden shaft and cut down the center of its body. It maintained its sloth-like grin as it peeled its flesh away like it was taking off a coat, and then it crumbled to the ground.
The repulsive display of entrails smelled fantastic, like lilac oil carried on a salty ocean breeze. The exposed muscles of the desecrated creature dug their way into the swampy soil and bloomed petals the purest shade of white I had ever seen.
The Mu-Tis stood and nodded in unison as if I had spoken rightly and ushered me into their village as some sort of interstellar diplomat. I was in awe of how the Mu-Tis lived in harmony with their swampy surroundings. Their huts looked organically grown, if you could grow rock, which it appears you could on XO 259-7.
The hunting party led me into the largest dwelling that was covered with the same white flowers that had bloomed from the Mu-Ti’s corpse. Within, an orangutan-like chieftain was surrounded by Mu-Tis garbed in flowering headdresses. They welcomed me with slow, deliberate motions. The pale chieftain was like a Japanese geisha performing a tea ceremony, but my response of appreciation was more like the performance of a circus clown.
I did my best to explain how I landed on the planet and my desire to fix my pod as soon as possible. The language barrier was frustrating for all of us; Mu-Tis stomped in frustration at my awkward movements.
It was like trying to talk with Aldiss. Comments misconstrued, discussions that always turned to fights, arguments that always devolved into attacks. I did my best to tell him how trapped I felt, how the walls of the orbital station were constantly closing in on me, but he always took it personally. It wasn’t long before I stopped explaining how I felt, we stopped talking altogether, and I started looking for someone I could talk with.
I had better luck with the Mu-Tis. A breakthrough came when a Mu-Ti entered the hut and dropped a ratty tangle of fabric at my feet. I sifted through it and realized that it was a spacesuit much like my own, but tattered and stained with mud, shit, and blood.
The Mu-Tis must have read the wonder in my dropped jaw and the worry that tugged at my brow.
I shook the spacesuit:
Where did they find this?
I walked two fingers across my palm:
Where did she go?
And trembled at the question I couldn’t think of how to ask:
Where was her pod?
They led me outside and pointed toward the glittering crystal mountains in the distance. In the pale light of those glowing peaks were the ghastly silhouettes of the flying beast men, who were no less hungry than they appeared to be hours ago.
I flapped my arms, cawed until my throat was raw and then pecked at my soft, fleshy arm with a beak-like hand to express my fears. The Mu-Ti hunters raised their spears and stomped the ground in a war-like cadence.
The peace was over.
I couldn’t tell if the Mu-Tis were escorting me through the Mansquitos’ nesting grounds or using me as bait. They surrounded me as we walked through the swamp that gave way to a plateau upon which stood a sacrificial dais of mud. They urged me onto the center of the dais.
Bait it was then.
There was no sign of the flying Mansquitos, but you could smell them. The unearthly musk of guano-constructed nests hung from the surrounding cliffs like stalactites. Then dark, winged shapes screamed out of the silver clouds that floated like pools of mercury in the pastel sky. I swallowed hard realizing there was no avoiding this fight. From the moment I landed on this planet, I somehow knew I would come to blows with the Mansquitos. They instilled in me the same stomach-churning inevitability as my infidelity had–and there was no putting off that fight with Aldiss.
As the dark harbingers descended from the sky, I closed my eyes and saw the Aldiss I had fallen in love with standing on the observation deck of the New Clevelander. His ocean-colored eyes, scruffy beard, and strong chin illuminated by all the stars in the galaxy. It was the Aldiss I knew before the fights and frustrations. I never thought that I’d be unfaithful one in a relationship, but the craving for an escape to discover something new was strong. Stronger than I was.
I tried to trace our failed relationship back to a single moment, but couldn’t find one. It was as if there was a river of resentment running between the time when we were happy and the moment when I cheated. I had already crossed the river; now it was flooded, and there was no turning back. The only thing I could remember about the man I cheated with was that he wasn’t Aldiss, for better and worse. What hurt the most was that, after Aldiss found the text messages, there wasn’t even a fight. No outpouring of emotions. No finger pointing. He simply packed his things and said goodbye.
The childlike cries of the Mansquitos were closer now. The familiar feeling of fight or flight rushed through my blood. I wasn’t ready to go so quietly. It was time to fight. But this time I wasn’t alone.
I was surrounded by armed Mu-Tis, hulking hunters that surely the Mansquitos would have to best before taking me as their human offering. But then the Mu-Tis discorporated simultaneously in a sickening ritualistic seppuku.
“Do you only carry those spears to use them on yourselves?” I cursed in vain.
Flayed meat dripped from their bones, their rooted veins sunk into the ground and once again the white flowers bloomed. I grabbed the stunner clipped to my spacesuit, took cover at the base of the dais, and aimed at the oncoming swarm of Mansquitos.
I was a little rusty, but I caught one as it dove toward me, paralyzing it. It splattered onto the rocky ground in an eruption of sickly green goo. I pulled the trigger again and another followed, but there were too many of them for me to fight alone. I gritted my teeth as I closed my eyes, ready for the sharp stabbing of beaks.
It didn’t come.
The white flowers that had bloomed from the rotting flesh of the Mu-Tis had quadrupled in size. Their petals had grown row after row of stake-like teeth that chomped away at the Mansquitos, which must have wanted my flesh something horrible because they kept coming. Wave after wave crashed upon the doomed shores of the whitest flowers with the hungriest teeth.
In the confusion and chaos, I made my escape down the sheer cliff face ahead of me. Gripping the crumbling outcroppings would have been hard enough but being covered in the thick, sickly green Mansquito blood made it next to impossible.
Several of the smaller Mansquitos broke off from the fight with the Mu-Tis and came after me. I tried to shoot them but they were fast and their talons were faster as they cut triangle patches of flesh from my arms. I screamed, dropped the stunner and then fell the final dozen feet to the ground.
I landed hard on my mutilated foot and somersaulted several times before standing upright in the middle of an uneven run, feeling like a badass as I pushed through the pain. The crystal mountains where I hoped I’d find a working pod were a handful of miles beyond a large field of elephant trunk-like growths that spewed tie-dyed dust into the air.
The Mansquitos gave chase, but stopped just short of the dust cloud that I had plunged into without hesitation. When I was sure that they were gone, I laid down among the trunks to catch my breath. The pain that had faded to the back of my mind as I fought for survival came roaring back. My leg throbbed and my flayed arms leaked life.
Dust coated my skin as I rested. Its cantaloupe-sweet taste seeped into my mouth. It smelled of tequila–aged añejo, rich and smoky. The pairing was delicious, and it dulled the pain. What I didn’t know until later was that it was actually hallucinogenic ragweed-like pollen.
Swarms of melancholy jellyfish placidly waved their tentacles at me as they floated by in the eternal dusk. I nodded and touched my forehead in an otherworldly greeting. The clouds of swirling mercury twisted into faces of friends, living and long since passed.
I heard an echo call a name that sounded like mine, but wasn’t. The echo grew closer until it became a voice. Aldiss’s voice. He was here, calling to someone else.
He sat in front of me at a featureless desk that populated so many station office cubicles. A woman in a white blouse and black skirt that hugged her perfect curves walked past me. Aldiss stood as she approached and greeted her so awkwardly that it was endearing. She spread papers from a manila folder out on the table, and they pretended to analyze them when they were really checking out each other. One thing led to another. Aldiss laid her out on top of the table and started to undress.
I tried to look away but every time I turned my head the vision came with me. I closed my eyes, but saw the scene as if my eyes were open. Aldiss and the perfect woman groped and groaned, and I felt Aldiss’s emotions–uncontrollable desire, exhilarating forbiddenness, the need to be inside someone who simply wasn’t me. He climaxed in a release of pure freedom and then collapsed on top of her.
I expected to feel his regret–that throat-choking suddenness of realizing the mistake he had made. The same feeling that I had felt as soon as what’s-his-name crumpled on top of me, but that’s not what Aldiss felt. He was happy. I watched them cuddle and listened to their post-coital coos. He buried his face in her thick, dark hair and breathed deeply as she ran her fingers up and down his back. He never let me do that. He had always said it tickled.
Bubbling anger buried deep within my stomach was plugged by a lump of guilt in my throat. Aldiss had all the right in the world to sleep with whomever he wanted. I was the one that had cheated on him. The one who couldn’t control the urges that drummed within me like a bestial, sex-crazed tribal chant; a fleshy sack of hormones pre-determined to carry out their careless acts. I hated my body for the shame it made me feel and was suddenly jealous of the Mu-Tis’ ability to shed their skin and transform into something new.
The happy couple dissolved into a dust cloud cleared by a gale that brought the glowing crystal mountains back into focus. They were within reach.
I marveled at the crystal mountains as I hobbled up to them. Their curved ridges smoothed by eons of erosion. Glowing strands of what looked to be fiber-optic cables pulsed within. I stared at my reflection in the translucent wall. I was stout and soft in all the wrong places, blood ran from the wounds in my arms and I leaned on a crooked leg.
Was this me? This reflection? This ghost?
I hated the woman I saw. I didn’t want to be her. I wanted to destroy her. I pulled my fist back and with all my remaining strength swung at the mirror-like mountain to break that sad sack of a woman into pieces.
Instead, my arm went right through the crystal wall. The mountain was more like silicone than crystal. I could still see into it, but my arm wasn’t visible. My shoulder moved as I waved my arm, but there was no sensation of motion within the mountain. It was simply as if it didn’t exist. And neither did the pain.
Curious, I slid my throbbing foot into the mountain. The wall flexed for a moment, like a dull fork piercing Jell-O, and then it slid in. The pain was gone.
I pushed my other arm in and then took a deep breath before sliding my face into the mountain to test the waters. It stretched my mind like taffy, expanding it. There was no pain, only pure intellectual openness and a sense of communal understanding as if a thousand voices beckoned me to join their world.
Overwhelmed, I pulled myself out of the mountain and fell onto my ass. All of the pain came rushing back. I could have endured it. I could have searched the mountain for the other crashed pod. Pushed through the pain to cobble together a space-worthy craft. Charted a course back to the empty apartment on the New Clevelander.
But I had another choice now.
I pulled myself up and then stepped into the mountain.
I can’t explain how it felt having my physical body ripped from my consciousness as I stepped into the mountain. Trying to remember feelings is like looking at a star in the night sky that’s four light years away–it twinkles, but you’re not sure which star it is or which constellation it’s a part of.
I don’t miss feelings.
With only my consciousness remaining, I am free from guilt and fear, regret and anger that haunted me as a physical being. I can explore the outer reaches of experience through the integrated consciousnesses that also inhabit the mountain, swirling in and out of my intellectual being. Some of them are consciousnesses of pure intellect that have never known the pains and limitations of physical life. Others have felt the excitement and terror of landing on this planet. It doesn’t matter where they come from. Now, we share every thought, every experience. We are connected. We don’t judge right or wrong. We only know what is and what is not. And it’s all okay. I’m okay.
I have survived.
About the author: J. Marshall Morgan writes genre fiction and business-to-business content. Both require imagination, creativity and suspension of disbelief. You can follow him on Twitter @jmarshallmorgan.
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