By Claire Fitzpatrick
A flash of yellow, and Cora stepped off the Disc, slinging her heavy pack over her shoulders as she made her way down the rocky hill. Stephen trudged behind her, followed by Judy, the latter grumbling about the way her ears popped every time her feet touched the ground. Cora lifted her arm and scrolled through the rectangular screen strapped firmly to her wrist, informing Commander Davey of their safe arrival. She pinpointed their location and pressed ‘start’ so he could follow their navigation route.
Cicerone was a barren wasteland, littered with colourless coral, dead or dying; tuffs of burnt grass stuck between rocks; deep ochre soil fading as the air lost moisture over time; the only sustenance left the speckles of stubborn plants refusing to wilt. Above, long stretches of blossoming pink cirrus clouds streaked across the neon green sky, slapped so heavily they looked as though they stemmed from an artist’s brush.
Cora inhaled the dry air and gently allowed it to settle within her lungs, digging her boot into the deep lineae crisscrossing the rocky ground. It wasn’t often they would step off- Disc without a suit. Even if they knew the planet had high enough levels of oxygen, Davey still wouldn’t allow the risk. But this was Cicerone, and after reviewing the planet statistics and medical records of those who’d returned, they’d had determined their radiation levels were low enough there wouldn’t be a problem. Cora had leapt at the chance. Visit Cicerone without a suit? As if anyone would say no. She’d almost had an aneurysm mid-sentence when telling her dad.
Dr. Stephen Hilliard turned on the Geiger counter and communicator. “You there, Davey?”
“Checkpoint one is still low. We’ve been walking for around ten minutes now and we can’t see any significant changes to the flora. No fauna, however. I’m assuming they’ve settled away from the Disc. We’ve probably frightened them away.”
Cora dropped to her haunches and slung off her pack, retrieving a container of vials. She’d been collecting samples for three years now, and had only just started seeing changes to the radiation levels of the soil and coral. Initially, she’d attributed the ochre to the radiation, but now she suspected it was something else altogether.
“And the wildfires?”
“Wildfires have been extinguished, as far as I can see,” Stephen replied. He paused to inhale the hair, nodding to confirm his assumption. “Can’t smell any remnants, in any case. But I’ll bring back bark samples to see if we can get anything off it.”
Dr. Judy Garamond swore. Cora stood up and looked over her shoulder. The older woman had taken off her communicator and was fiddling with the buttons. She pinched her nose and let out an exasperated sigh.
“My stupid communicator isn’t working again. I swear if Davey doesn’t get me a new one I’m not coming back. How many times have I told him, huh?” She looked up at Cora, brows furrowed as she stuffed the device in her bag. “Can you tell him? He listens to you.” Cora nodded and lifted her arm. “Judy is offline again. She’ll need to get a replacement before the next expedition. It’s too dangerous.”
“Noted. Chat soon.”
“Chat soon.” Judy rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath. Cora smirked and stood up, slinging on her bag once more. Judy and Davey didn’t always get along; she knew Judy likely assumed Davey purposely gave her a faulty communicator. Just like he purposely gave her a torn suit last time, and shoes a size too small. She watched the woman note the levels of her thermograph, cheeks red as she typed swifter than she needed to.
They walked on. Cora’s navigation system pinged and they switched directions, making their way slowly towards the settlement. Cora didn’t like the term ‘settlement’, for nobody had lived there for hundreds of years. A settlement of what? Ghosts? Memories of those who’d not got out in time? Despite the years of research, nobody truly knew with one hundred percent conviction what happened on Cicerone. All they had were scraps and echoes, which sent researchers like themselves nuts. From the collected organic samples, they’d assumed it was nuclear, but could find no remnants of a power station, and the settlement gave no further clues. It was the only planet they’d visited without a history. Even Stephen admitted scepticism, despite being the lead researcher.
Cora slowly took samples of plants, steady hands on the vials, thoughts drifting to their last visit. There had been a huge dust storm that day, and she’d almost lost the others. One moment she was scooping soil and the next she was screaming Stephen and Judy’s names. It reminded her of the time when she was young and playing hide and seek with her sister and her dad. She’d found Emmanuelle easily, yet her dad had been harder to find. They’d teamed up, searching room by room, until finally Emmanuelle had begun to cry and she’d also felt the sharp pangs of abandonment in her chest. Then their dad had stepped out from behind the long drapes in the lounge room and put his arms around her and Cora had felt like an idiot for almost shedding a tear. She’d thought of the memory during the dust storm. Stephen and Judy are just over that ridge, she’d told herself, just like dad was behind that curtain. And when she saw them, just where she’d assumed they were, she felt that same sense of idiocy she’d felt as a child. Except her dad wasn’t there to tell her everything was going to be OK. He’d been in a hospital, on Earth, dreaming, as the nurse increased his pain medication and her mum held his hand. It’s OK to go, love. It’s OK to let go.
Before the diagnosis, her dad had worked at the same research facility as Cora for almost two decades, his discipline in botany with a focus on evolutionary ontogeny. For a few years, he researched agricultural biology, which had led to his interest in Cicerone and the botanical aftermath of its unknown suspected nuclear disaster. He’d been part of the first team to study the site after the mass evacuation and had allowed Cora to read through all his research notes, fuelling her interest in the impact of flora and fauna. The entire disaster had been preventable, yet human error had led to the largest nuclear accident off Earth. Who knew how many generations it would take for Cicerone to be habitable once more?
“Hey guys, take a look at this.”
Cora stored the samples in her pack and turned to Stephen, who had paused up ahead at the second checkpoint. He’d dropped to his haunches, inspecting what remained of the river. Earlier testing had found groundwater relatively unaffected, as radiocaesium and radiostrontium had been adsorbed to surface soils before they could transfer to it, yet the river had been completely contaminated, and they’d found high levels of radioactivity in the drinking water. Cora and Judy walked over the Stephen and dropped to his level.
“Look – the water is red. And see up ahead,” he pointed over the hill, “the colour stretches right into the settlement. I’m guessing if the plumbing still worked the tap-water would be red, too. I told Davey we shouldn’t have removed the faucets. Made no bloody sense to me at the time. Still doesn’t. But he always has to have the last word.”
Cora rolled her eyes and nodded. Davey was just like her mother. Always needing to debate. Always needing to argue. Ever since her dad died she’d gone heavier with the drinking; Cora still remembered growing up with her lamenting over the son she gave up for adoption, the son who could be anywhere. It’d been a closed adoption, and she hadn’t known where the parents were from. Maybe they’d taken him off Earth altogether? Her dad had never been a heavy drinker, instead smoked a little green now and again. She’d marvelled at his strength of being able to handle such a melancholy, volatile wife. People assumed her dad’s death had been why she’d been keen to get back to Cicerone so soon after the funeral, but the real reason was that she couldn’t face her mother. She couldn’t face the awful thought that gnawed within her, the awful thought that the wrong parent died.
“Let’s get there quickly before it gets dark,” Judy said, digging the toe of her shoe into the soil. “It gets too bloomin’ cold for my bones.”
Cora nodded. For once she agreed with the cantankerous woman. It was getting further into winter, and the temperature had been dropping fast. Even in her thermals, she guessed it couldn’t be more than 15° C. They walked on, the only sounds their boots crunching on rocks and the crackle of Stephen’s Geiger counter. Radiation levels were higher at this point, but still low enough to be safe. The trail turned steep and they made their way slowly down the rocky decline, Cora, for once, glad her shoes were too small. As uncomfortable as they were, she felt more secure when going downhill.
The settlement was a haunted place, not by any real paranormal phenomena, but by the remnants of what had been left behind during the swift evacuation. Though Cora was used to the site, the eeriness of the absolute abandonment and living memorial was still slightly discomforting. After splitting up, Stephen heading to a nearby derelict cafe, walls twisted inwards like broken limbs, and Judy towards the old council offices, where most of the windows had been smashed out by hurricane-like winds. Cora made her way to the memorial garden.
She’d been documenting the growth of new plants growing from the cracks around the decapitated statue of a former political leader. Last time, peculiar bright red and orange flowers had sprung forth, their reproductive organs unlike anything she, or any of her contemporaries, had come across in their studies. When flowering, their pollen became sterile and so radioactive anything organic that grew around it was subjected to radioactive decay. This was an entirely new phenomenon, since radiation was usually stochastic. Cora had made the discovery a month before her dad had died, yet he’d become confused as to what she was talking about. She’d tried to remind him in layman’s terms, “stochastic means random, dad, which is why it’s so weird,” and “it should be impossible to predict when an atom will decay, but I think I’m onto something. You were the one who hypothesised this would happen, remember?” Yet he hadn’t remembered, and further explaining had made him confused and upset, so Cora had changed the subject. “The sky is green there now, neon green, almost like a glow-stick. I’ll get a picture for you next time I’m there.”
It didn’t take long for her to collect more than enough samples outside, and she moved on to the old hospital. Last time, Cora had found foul-smelling red lichen growing from the walls, and though she’d scraped off most of it, she wanted to see if there was any left. After the accident, the hospital had been filled with panicked people. They’d found documents with thousands of names and dozens of cases of extreme radiation poising and strange red lesions covering people’s bodies. Most of the lesions had been found on children. Cora bit down on her bottom lip. Despite not having kids of her own, she couldn’t fathom the pain of losing them in such an awful manner.
Cora rubbed her arms. The hospital felt like a tomb, echoed with panicked activity. On their first visit, they’d found radioactive bandages, but they’d taken care to remove them from the site. Yet old medical equipment, charts, rusted beds, and chairs in the children’s ward remained, riddled with chaos and confusion. Cora raised her hand and let it hover over the items; she could almost feel the memories they held within.
She slung off her pack as she took cuttings of the vines that had grown in through the walls of the ward and wrapped themselves around the legs of the rusted examination tables. The leaves were a deep burgundy, rather the ochre of the soil outside, and felt like velvet. She pulled out the sample bags from her pack and plucked a few leaves, storing them securely before returning them to her pack. She moved on to the next room, then the next, and soon she had almost a dozen samples of various shades of burgundy leaves, some of them with a rich sweetness more pungent than the others.
Cora made her way down the halls to the pharmacy, where last time she’d gathered most of her samples. Here, the room had almost become a forest; the canopy of tangled vines grew wildly across the ceiling, stems almost as thick as tree branches. The room reminded her of the film ‘Jumunji’, which she’d adored as a child, and still did. She’d been fascinated by the inside of the Parish mansion after the monsoon when the house had been overrun with trees and vines that had grown through the power-points, and the swirling mists and torrential rain had flooded the house. Here, the vines snaked their way around the rubble of overturned medicine cabinets and gas masks, wrapping themselves around the debris of stethoscopes and reflex hammers. Cora carved out small pieces of the vine – the stem was too thick to remove altogether – and stored them with the other samples from the ward.
After collecting what she could, Cora left the hospital to find Stephen and Judy. They stood talking around the statue in the memorial garden. Judy had her arms crossed. Stephen’s hands were planted firmly on his hips.
“We should probably head to the lake soon. I got a lot of activity, particularly higher near the police station. I know we’re cleared but it’s probably best not to spend too much time here. Weird, since the levels weren’t so high last time.” He looked at Cora. “How’d you go with samples?”
“Pretty good. But the pharmacy is almost overridden, so I doubt it’ll be accessible the next time we come back.”
Stephen nodded. “That’s a shame. Judy?”
The woman huffed and bit down on her bottom lip. “Nothing much has changed.
Except radiation levels seem to be higher over near the library, which is strange, since last time they were almost nonexistent. There’s water in the well, and I’m guessing it’s rained sometime last week or the week before. Yet it’s a metallic lavender, and viscous, like someone’s mixed in paint. It wasn’t like that before. And…I know it seems weird, but I get the feeling someone else has been here. Or is here.”
Cora and Stephen exchanged a dubious glance. While they were staunch atheists, Judy was a practising Catholic. Cora’s dad had been raised Catholic, too, and she’d received her first holy communion, but as she got older, more interested in science, and started questioning the existence of a higher power, her dad hadn’t minded. His favourite show had been Star Trek, after all. There were always new things to learn about the world, even religion. Cora didn’t understand why Judy considered it an inconvenience every time they stepped off-Disc. . Why had she become a scientist in the first place? For as long as Cora had known her she had always been a walking contradiction.
She bit down on her top lip. “What do you mean? It’s always been creepy. Always felt a bit haunted.”
Judy rolled her eyes. “Not like that. Like someone real besides us has been here, or still is. But we’re the only research facility with clearance, right?”
Cora nodded. “Right.”
Stephen ran his hand through his hair. “Even if we weren’t, other researchers would have to log their activity. Just like we do. And nobody has.”
“So why do I get the feeling we’re not alone.” Judy sighed. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not like when you’re walking down the stairs in the middle of the night and think there’s one more step than there is and fall over. It’s like…someone else is in my personal space.” Her eyes flickered from Cora to Stephen. “Don’t you two feel it?”
Stephen bit his lip. “Last time, I hadn’t felt anything but the usual melancholic abandonment, but today it’s different.”
Cora felt a sharp pang of jealousy in her chest. After her dad died she wished she believed in spirits. She had actually prayed. But nothing changed. She hadn’t experienced a spiritual epiphany, or the sudden desire to go to church. She hadn’t felt any kind of divine intervention or a sign that her dad was OK. Yet she wished she had. Hatred stirred within her stomach, hatred for whatever sacred presence Judy had experienced. Judy, the woman who seemed perpetually annoyed at everything for its audacity to exist.
“I should tell Davey,” Judy said. “He’d want to know.”
“Why would he care?” Cora snapped. “He doesn’t believe in that crap.”
Judy narrowed her eyes. “It’s not my fault you don’t believe your dad’s in heaven.” Cora’s heart dropped to her stomach, her jaw falling slack. The cancer had disfigured him so greatly that before he died her dad looked like an echo of his former lively self. Once muscular and strong, he’d grown so thin and emaciated his bones were visible through his yellowed skin. His kind blue eyes were bloodshot and weary, and his hair, once dark and full, was thin and patchy. The sickness went on and on and on, sucking out every last drop of his life until finally, he stopped chemotherapy, and with the warm hand of his nurse in palliative care, succumbed.
Cora wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel – his loss left such an alien emptiness within her…she felt as though she stood at one side of a bridge and he stood on the other, but she could not reach him, for the bridge was filled with holes, and if she took a step forward she would fall into the great chasm below. Yet she did not know how to explain that to her sister or their mother. She did not know how to explain it to anyone.
She took a step towards Judy and balled her fists. “You’re a bitch, you know that?
Nobody likes you. It’s a fucking honour to go to Cicerone and you don’t give a rat’s arse. Why are you even here? Why are you part of this team? You don’t care about what happened here.” Judy dropped her arms to her sides. Her usually stern face slackened. “For your information, my mother died here,” she said softly, “Radiation exposure. She had 7,000 times the dose of an X-ray in her chest. I hate it here. I hate every second of it. But I haul my ass to this godforsaken place every damn time because it’s the only place that keeps her alive. You’re not the only one carrying the weight of a dead parent, Cora.”
Cora swallowed a lump in her throat. It slid down her chest and settled in her stomach. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Judy shrugged. “It’s fine. Let sleeping dogs lie, right? I just want to get on with it.” “Sounds good.”
Stephen looked from one woman to the other and raised his brows. “We don’t have time for this. We’ve got work to do. Now I don’t know what’s going on – the creepy feeling or whatever – but as far as I know, nobody has been here. Maybe the logbooks were wrong, but I doubt it. As I said, it probably is the sense of abandonment. I mean, people didn’t have time to pack anything. They just left and didn’t come back. Everything is frozen in time.” He placed his hands on his hips. “We’ve all got some pretty decent samples, so that’s good.” He nodded at Cora. “Joy seemed pretty excited before we left to get a sample of the vine you retrieved from the pharmacy.”
Cora smiled. “Are we going to check out the lake? You said radiation levels were higher last time, but I want to check out the filamentous algae. Also, there seemed to be bulrush and cattail growing and I want to see if they’ve managed to stay alive.”
Stephen nodded. “Yep, we’re going to head there now. I want to see if the radiation levels have stabilised or decreased. Judy, maybe the water is red like it is here?”
“Maybe. While I’m certain the settlement used bore water for their everyday consumption, I’m not sure if they used the lake water for anything similar.” Cora shrugged. “People were on Cicerone so long ago now that it’s too hard to tell. We just don’t know enough about their history as we do about Earth. Sure, they were similar, but we still don’t know if they evolved as we did.”
“Let’s just check it out.”
Cora knew plants on Earth took advantage of bushfires to germinate, especially orchids, whose seeds were dispersed by great distances by wind that enabled them to recolonise habitats. So why hadn’t that happened here with the people? Surely some people could withstand radiation to a certain degree? And she knew not everyone had evacuated. So where had they gone? Of course, they’d likely need to boil well water before using it, but it was possible to survive in certain areas. Forest mushrooms and wild berries would be too contaminated to consume, but researchers could bring animals, such as cows for milk and cheese. The idea seemed ludicrous, but Cora knew re-settlement was possible. She’d seen it before on Earth. Why was it different here on Cicerone?
They headed out of the settlement, making their way up the rocky hill as slowly as they could. Last time Cora had almost twisted her ankle, so liked to be extra careful on the unstable stones. They followed a trail that headed west, Stephen’s Geiger counter beeping intermittently, though the levels were so low they wouldn’t have any lasting adverse effect.
Above, the sky had darkened, no longer neon green but a metallic teal; the long stretches of cirrus clouds had almost entirely disappeared, leaving nothing but thin wisps of white. Cora thought of the drawings she had made when she was eleven. Her dad had always encouraged scientific exploration. He’d loved her drawings, her observations, her little discoveries. She’d learned about the various types of clouds in a book from the library, and he’d smiled from ear to ear, beaming as she sat him down in his favourite armchair and informed him of her findings through a presentation after dinner. She’d spent the whole weekend designing the poster will all the information, and had worked hard at making sure the clouds were just right, despite the fact her sister said they looked like marshmallows. Afterwards, her dad applauded, giving her a big, warm hug, and her mum made brownies after they’d gone to bed. Most of them were gone by the end of the weekend.
The walk took longer than anticipated; their packs were heavy with samples, their backs straining under the extra weight. Cora’s shoulders fell forwards over time and she walked up the hill with a slight hunch, shoulders burning as she struggled to straighten her spine. Little red pebbles dislodged beneath her shoes, occasionally disrupting her balance. Now and then Cora placed her hand on Stephen’s shoulder for stability, and he did the same to Judy, who’d taken the lead. Tufts of grass grew sparsely between rocks, some a vivid orange, some the colour of the flesh of a blood orange. Judy fiddled with the communicator once again, though all that came out was static. Sighing, she tucked it away in her pack, giving up with the thing altogether. Walking down the hill was worse. Cora’s knees ached as she struggled to keep them bent, her calves burning with the effort. Judy grumbled about her knees being “too old for this shit”, yet Stephen didn’t seem to mind. He was muscular and strong and looked after his body. Cora had always been envious of his dedication to the gym. Usually, after a long day, she was too tired to even consider it.
After a while, they finally reached the bottom, and Cora planted her feet firmly on the stable ground, relinquishing the fear of falling down the steep slope. She leaned down and pressed her burning thighs. Judy pulled a bottle of water from her pack, and Stephen did the same, both drinking deeply.
Stephen pressed his communicator. “Davey?”
“Yep. Where are you guys at?”
“Checkpoint three. We’ve left the settlement and we’re now heading towards the lake. It’s just up ahead.”
“Good good. Don’t spend too long there, as we still don’t have conclusive data on the levels of radiation. Obviously, check your Geiger counter to be sure. And tell Cora to get more algae samples than last time.”
Stephen nodded. “Will do.”
“Let me know when you’re heading back to the Disc. From what I’ve read, Cicerone has been getting darker earlier and earlier, and there have been reports of high velocity dust storms. I want you all back around dusk.”
“Got it. See ya.”
Stephen put the communicator away and turned to Cora. “Davey says get more algae samples.”
Cora rolled her eyes. “Idiot.”
The lake was enormous, stretching as far as the eye could see, a colossal shimmer of sanguine red, with speckles of deep purple and violet. Her dad had seen it when he’d been here, describing it to her with unparalleled awe and wonderment. His eyes had brightened as his voice quickened, arms gesticulating wildly as he described its beauty. To Cora, its beauty lay in its viscosity – describing it to people who weren’t scientists grossed them out. “It feels like blood? That’s disgusting!” But there was something so comforting in its viscosity; Cora wanted to take off her boots and step into it, feel it between her toes as it enveloped her. She imagined it’d feel like a warm blanket or a comforting hug.
Stephen slung off his pack off to retrieve test tubes and crouched by the edge of the water as he collected samples to test radiation levels. Last time he’d said the radium levels were so high that anyone directly exposed had an increased chance of developing bone cancer and kidney failure. He didn’t use his Geiger counter for testing, since the analysis was far too inaccurate to draw any valid conclusions. Instead, he used Solid State Nuclear Track Detectors to measure the radon back in the lab. Judy began collecting samples of the saline, groaning as she crouched on her hands and knees to retrieve it with the vial. Cora walked a little further away to inspect the bulrush and cattail. She crouched beside them and smiled, surprised to see the plants thriving. She’d determined they’d managed to adapt to the radiation and replace dead cells, as well as using extra mechanisms to protect their DNA. She knew from her research that levels of radiation were much higher in the past when plants were evolving, so the bulrush and cattail, as well as the algae, had managed to adapt similarly to survive after the suspected nuclear disaster. She plucked a few samples and stored them in her pack.
Cora had always been interested in how plants and organisms adapted, just as humans did. Adaption was necessary for continued existence. But she wished humans could adapt to changes so easily. While she had accepted her dad’s death, her mother couldn’t adapt to solitude, and Cora didn’t blame her. She’d spent thirty years with him – they’d married a year after Cora was born – and they’d raised a family; after Cora arrived before her sister, and a miscarriage of twin boys three years later. After the funeral, her mother had described her dad’s loss as though her soul was broken; how was she to continue when it could never be repaired? How could she exist in a world in which he didn’t?
Her mother didn’t trust scientists and was sceptical about Cora’s career. How was it possible she could leave Earth and yet they still couldn’t find a cure for cancer? How was it possible to obtain so much data and information about people who’d died after the disaster, yet despite billions of dollars being raised and invested in cancer research they still couldn’t understand the genetic mutations that led to the disease? Cora had told her mother that cancer was not just one disease, but an umbrella term for more than two hundred types, and she’d explained that every cancer was caused by different mutations, and over time more mutations accumulate, so drugs that worked for some people didn’t work for all of them, yet the knowledge didn’t make her mother feel any better. The horrible disease had taken her husband and there was nothing anyone could do, or say, that would alleviate her pain.
Cora walked on ahead, circling the waters’ edge, looking for any new variation of plants she hadn’t seen during their last visit. Her communicator beeped.
“You guys at checkpoint four?”
“Yep. Just collecting the samples now.”
“Good, good. What colour is the water?” Davey asked.
“Still red, but now it’s quite viscous, at least more so than last time.”
“Interesting. Plants still alive?”
“OK great. Just checking you’re heading back to the Disc soon.”
Cora grinned. “Stop worrying. Besides, it’s not that dark. We’ll just collect a few moresamples and we’ll be back.”
“Just checking. I don’t want you guys there at night. We don’t know enough about how the radiation has affected nocturnal animals. You guys seen any other animals?”
Davey inhaled a deep breath. “That’s unfortunate. Linda’s going to be disappointed.”
Cora shrugged. “Well, we can’t always get what we want. But we might see something on our way back.”
“Hopefully. Anyway, Let me know when you’re back at checkpoint one, and then once you’ve returned to the Disc.”
“Will do. Chat soon.”
Cora yawned. She hadn’t realised how tired she’d become. It was no surprise – they’d been at Cicerone for hours. Her stomach rumbled, and she thought of the pork roast Rosa was preparing for their return. They never packed food when they travelled to Cicerone; despite the fact radiation levels were low enough for them to not wear suits, nobody was sure how safe it was to consume food that had been exposed to the air.
Stephen shifted his pack, shoulders contorting as he rolled his shoulders. Judy did the same, complaining about the cold and her rattly bones. Cora suspected the woman had arthritis in her hands, though Judy would never admit it. Just like she’d never admit she wasn’t as passionate about travelling to Cicerone as she had been in the past. Although she’d told Cora about losing her mother to radiation poisoning, and why she continued to come, Cora wondered when she’d finally acknowledge there were other ways to honour her mother’s memory. She sighed, her stomach knotting uncomfortably as she realised she had more in common with the woman than she’d like to admit.
They headed back, trudging slowly in silence as they left the lake and made their way back over to the other side of the hill. Though Cora was tired, her brain whirred with memories of her dad, and all the things she wished she could tell him about today’s expedition. One of the reasons she liked being a scientist was because she was able to exercise her mind, to burn the depression and anxiety out of her, if only for a while. She frowned, realising she’d likely gone back to work so soon after her dad’s death because her exhaustion made it easier
to fall asleep. She suspected it was why her mother used to drink so heavily. But how did she fall asleep now? What had replaced her old vice, had provided respite by her internal storms? Her dad had been fifty-three when he died. Certainly not old by any means. Cora had imagined one day she’d meet someone and they’d have kids and he’d become a doting granddad, just as her mum might become a grandmother. But just like the lack of animals they’d seen today, some things were not meant to be.
Cora pushed the thought away as she walked on, taking care to walk around unstable rocks, placing her hand on Stephen’s shoulder now and then for balance. Judy had taken the lead; despite her grumbles, she walked surprisingly fast, obviously eager to reach the Disc and leave Cicerone behind. They’d taken the same route back, and passed through the settlement in silence, eyes darting from building to building. Judy rubbed her arms, lips pursed as she stared suspiciously at the abandoned buildings.
“There’s that feeling again,” she said. Stephen nodded. “It’s like someone’s watching you, right?” He shuddered. “Seems stupid, but it makes me think of when I was younger and I used to cut across the cemetery to get to work on time. I knew they were dead, obviously, but it still felt like someone was watching.”
Cora rolled her eyes. “Probably graveside mourners and other people who take shortcuts like you.”
“Nope.” Stephen looked over his shoulder, eyes serious. “No one there but me.”
“Jesus didn’t deny the existence of ghosts – he simply said he wasn’t one,” Judy piped. “However, there are a few references in the New Testament to His disciples thinking he was. Matthew 14:26 says: ‘When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.’ And Luke 24:39 says: ‘”Look at my hands and my
feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”‘ She looked over her shoulder, glancing at Cora. “You know, you don’t have to believe your dad’s in heaven, or if heaven even exists at all. But he believed, didn’t he?”
“Then God exists. Just because he doesn’t exist in your mind doesn’t mean he didn’t exist in your dad’s. That’s how faith works. It only takes one person to believe.”
Cora bit down on her bottom lip and looked down at her shoes. She knew Judy was right, and as much as she hated to admit it, that was another thing both women had in common – they were both stubborn and set in their ways.
Stephen paused and passed around the water bottles. All three took deep gulps; Cora finished hers within seconds, refreshed from its coldness as it settled within her stomach. She hadn’t realised how thirsty she’d become during their trek back to the Disc. They all slung off their packs and sat down. She looked across to Judy, back rested against her pack.
“How can you be a scientist and believe in God? He created Earth in seven days, right? How did he create Cicerone, and Persephone, and even Galileo? There’s nothing in the bible about space. It said He created the heavens and the Earth, but nothing else.”
Judy smiled, eyes crinkling. “Sure there is. Isaiah 40:26: ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.’ And Psalm 147:4: ‘He determines the number of stars; he gives to them all their names.’ There are too many verses to tell you now, but my favourite is Matthew 24:13: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ So even though the Earth will one day be absorbed by the Sun, your dad’s words, his impact on the world, will never go away. He will live on forever.”
Cora swallowed a lump in her throat. She hadn’t realised how much she needed Judy’s faith. Even though she believed it was illogical to believe in a higher power, she acknowledged to cling to the hope of something out there was better than believing in nothing. Maybe she wasn’t as aesthetic as she’d first thought? Maybe she was agnostic? Even though scientists like herself understood biology, they also understood there was no conclusive truth as to whether some higher power existed, and if they had been responsible for the Big Bang. She liked to look for natural explanations for things, logical explanations; for Cora, miracles violated what scientists knew about how the world worked. The bible often made God seem too capricious; praying hard enough wouldn’t mean God would intercede, and wouldn’t mean He’d heal loved ones. Praying hadn’t saved her dad. Though despite her anger at God, if he did exist, there was nothing anyone could do. Her dad had succumbed, and she, her Mum, and Emmanuelle would never hear him say “I love you” again.
Stephen stood up and wiped the dirt from his pants. “Come on. Let’s get back to the Disc. I need a shower. I mean, we all smell pretty gross, but I smell like I live in the drain.”
Cora grinned. “Glad you’re the one to admit it.” She looked back towards the direction of the settlement. “Do you think they prayed after the disaster? And the people who couldn’t get out?”
“I think so,” Judy answered.
Cora nodded, eyes drifting up towards the neon green sky. “What do you think we’re feeling? The echoes of prayers?”
Stephen crossed his arms. “You both know I’m a staunch atheist, but if you want to believe that, then sure. Maybe it is God? Or maybe we were wrong to take off our suits? Maybe we’re inhaling something that’s scrambling our minds?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. But as I said, even I can’t deny the feeling that someone is watching us.”
Cora took a deep breath, eyes still fixed upon the sky. She could never forget how sick her dad had looked, how jumbled his words had been when he’d started to lose his memory. She could never forget how he’d wobbled when using a walking frame, how small he’d looked when he’d finally accepted the need to use a wheelchair. And she’d never forget how small he’d become as he laid in his bed in palliative care, chest straining as he struggled to take his last breath. She’d never forget when the nurse called to say he’d passed away. She’d never forget the searing pain she’d felt in her chest as she held her mother’s hand at his funeral and said goodbye. But she would remember him watching Star Trek, telling her and Emmanuelle about space when they’d have barbeques as kids, his face brightening as he stared up at the night sky in wonder, so full of hope. Maybe what she felt was a part of him that’d stuck around, his spirit entwining with hers, eager to continue his research.
She followed Stephen and Judy as they made their way back to the Disc. The trek was quiet, each of them focused on their respective discoveries. Cora was happy with their mission. Sure, the settlement was as eerie as ever, but she’d expected it to be. Everything had gone according to plan. Cora trudged silently, eyes on Judy’s heels as she stumbled now and again over rocks, still harping on about her communicator. Cora grinned. They wouldn’t be back for another few months – she’d miss the woman’s idiosyncrasies, though she dared not tell anyone, especially Davey. He’d laugh and make it his mission to pair them up again.
“What the hell, Judy?”
Cora ran into the woman, who’d fallen backwards, unprepared for Stephen’s sudden halt. She hastily sprouted apologies and furrowed her brows at Stephen.
“Why did you stop like that?” she snapped. “You knew I was right behind you!”
Stephen pointed ahead, eyes stern. Cora gasped. Ahead, a slow wind steadily grew, whipping up the dust until it was so dense they couldn’t see a thing. They had to go through the storm to reach the Disc, but neither of them seemed willing to move. Before long, the dust circled upwards, turning cyclonic. Judy swore, dropped her pack, and ran back towards the settlement. Heart racing, Cora and Stephen followed suit, legs aching as they ran with all the strength they had.
Cora pulled out her communicator and hastily attempted to contact Davey, yet the strength of the wind tore it right out of her hands, sending it like a projectile through the air. The wild howled as the dust whipped so violently against Cora’s face she could barely see. Cora had watched cyclones on the satellite feed in the past, the beautiful, perfect swirls looking no more threatening than milk poured into coffee. Yet now as it loomed upon them, she pressed her hands against her ears, wishing they’d worn their damn suits. At least then they’d have some kind of protection. In the midst of chaos, she lost sight of Stephen and Judy, the wind as sympathetic as a tsunami, lashing everything it could get its hands on. Cora ran on, desperate to reach the Disc. There had been no peripheral winds, no indication a dust storm of such gravity would occur. They’d been caught completely off-guard. Swearing, she ran as fast as could, shoes slapping the ground so erratically it seemed her ankles were made of tightly wound coils instead of sinew and bone. Her throat wheezed as her burning lungs gasped for air, her brain shouting at her to slow down and rest. But she couldn’t stop. She had to reach the Disc. She had to get home.
Cora collapsed, ankle twisted on a loose rock, sending her crashing to the ground. She looked ahead, but could see no signs of Stephen and Judy, and despite her desperate cries for help, neither of them appeared. Her ears popped painfully as a barrage of dust hit her face, stinging her eyes and filling her mouth. Spluttering, she looked for her pack for some water, then remembered she’d dropped it in her haste to run away. Cora struggled to her feet, yet the storm whipped her so forcefully it blew her backwards, and she landed hard on her back, wheezing as the force knocked the air from her lungs and sent her rolling back towards the hill. The howls of the winds drowned out her screams. She wondered if Judy and Stephen had reached the Disc, if Judy had prayed for her. She wondered if what they’d felt really were the echoes of prayers, or ghosts of those who hadn’t survived. She wondered if someone people had survived without their knowledge, adapting to the radiation as the plants had done, living in a yet-unknown settlement, or underground. Would they come to her aid?
She closed her eyes and thought of her dad. She could make it.
All she needed was a little faith.
About the Author: Claire Fitzpatrick is an author of non-fiction and speculative fiction. ‘The Body Horror Book’ won the 2017 Rocky Wood Award for Non-Fiction and Criticism. Her collection ‘Metamorphosis’ was released in 2019 to positive acclaim. Claire is the 2021 recipient of the Horror Writer’s Association’s Rocky Wood Memorial scholarship fund for her upcoming collaborative non-fiction book ‘A Vindication Of Monsters– essays on Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft’. In her ‘real life’ she’s a horticulturist. She lives somewhere in Queensland, Australia, with her Lovecraft obsessed husband and their demon spawn. Visit her at www.clairefitzpatrick.com.
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