Lo to Earth
-->inspired by a some images from tumblr and the prompt "Deus ex Machina", though I know this is very far from the trope. Written in one day for #7Days7Stories as my Sunday entry, and I like it enough that I plan to submit all over the place soon.
It is a strange quirk of Okan that renders the scene of the crime so aggressively… savage, Lo thinks. The blood spreads across the clearing in broad slashes, vibrant and shining like rubies. The low gravitational pull of the planet combined with the heavy atmosphere holds the blood suspended in viscous gobbets in the air around Alex’s body. It forms a screen between them and it, so that Alex is rendered in pieces: a bent right arm flung to the side, legs twisted and one clearly broken, his face buried into the dark vegetation as if he’d fallen forward while running. The slashes across his back are deep, parting fabric and muscles and bone. His g-harness lays around him like a pair of broken wings. His body is limp and still against the planet’s surface. Only the dead can touch the ground in Okan.
Hovering a few inches from the ground, Lo’s gravitational-harness tugs at her muscles with unpleasant friction, despite the padding. She is sure that the pressure of it will slow the pounding of her heart, but it doesn’t. She looks over to Garen and June, standing on either side of her. Neither looks as uncomfortable as Lo feels, but both are pale beneath their screens of their facemask.
“How long has he been here?” June asks in a trembling voice.
“Not long,” Garen says. “I saw him last night. We locked down together.”
“So how did he get out?” Lo’s voice is met with silence. It is the first thing she’s said since they came. The lockdown procedures are tight, and they all take turns with them, rotating through the crew so that no one takes them more than two nights in a row. Once the ship is locked down, it is impossible to leave until the next day’s sunrise. Not without the exit registering in the ship’s logs. “Did you hear him leave?"
June and Garen shake their heads in unison.
“We locked down and signed the logs, then went to bed. I saw you both in chambers before I locked myself in.” Lo saw Garen’s throat work. “I went to sleep and slept well.”
“Me, too,” June says. “I dreamt of home.”
Lo shakes herself free of her thoughts. The pressure on her chest is strangling her and she forces herself to take a deep breath. “We have to bring him back,” she says.
“Back where? We have nowhere to store his body and no way to keep it safe. He will rot and bring the animals down on us.” Garen’s voice was grim, and Lo could not disagree with him. The creatures that passed for animals on Okan were like nothing they had ever seen. The ‘animals’ of Okan were small, and they had dark feathers and fur and scales that let them blend into the thick jungle that covered the planet. Their eyes shone brightly, piercing the gloom of the undergrowth. They were elusive and beautiful, and only rarely seen. They were just a small part of the reason that the team had been sent to Okan.
Visible only from space, two things about the planet were instantly clear: first, that the jungles of the planet had been cultivated into seven distinct biomes of varying species and produce; and secondly, that Okan had no higher form of life than the animals. Lo, Garen, June, and Alex had been sent to discover whether the cultivation of the planet had been done by the animals themselves, or whether Okan had had visitors in the distant past that the Earth Federation needed to be concerned about. They have been here for two months, and Alex is dead.
“We don’t know that. We don’t even know what the animals eat.” Lo looks between Garen and June. “We can’t just leave him here.” It is a struggle to keep her voice down to a hiss. She doesn’t know what might be out there watching them.
“We’ll have to burn him.” June’s voice echoes, though it is only a whisper. “Collect the ashes and send them back home.”
Lo nods. “That’s a five-year trip. We’d have to use one of the escape pods.”
“We have enough.” Garen’s hands work in and out of fists at his sides. “If it was one of us, he would do the same.”
Alex’s body has not moved, but the blood suspended in the air has shifted with the eddies of the air. Okan’s atmosphere is about seventy percent sulfur hexafluoride and twenty percent nitrogen, with smaller amounts of methane and oxygen and other trace gasses mixed in. It is slow moving and deadly, though not always lethal. It smothers rather than poisons. It was not the atmosphere that killed Alex.
“What did this?” It is the question that none of them has dared ask so far.
“It looks like claws,” June says, moving close enough that she is just inches from the spread of the blood. Even she is unwilling to go closer, knowing that she will not be able to approach without smearing her suit with Alex’s blood. She has only one spare suit left.
Still, one of them will have to go to the body to retrieve us. At least one of them will come out of this bloody.
“An animal attacked him?” Lo asks.
“Looks likely.” Garen shifts and his balance sways, the g-harness not suited to subtle movements. He stills and narrows his eyes. “Whatever it is, it could still be here.”
They all look around at that, scanning the silent trees surrounding them. The Okan trees are quiet and still, the heavy leaves are dark enough that it feels like they are surrounded by the night despite the bright light of the twin suns burning high in the sky overhead.
With a noisy sigh, June turns toward her companions. “What do you want to do? If we bring his body back to the ship like this, there will be blood all over everything. We’ll leave a wide trail for the animals to follow If we split up to get the igniter, whatever got to Alex could come for us. And if we burn him here, there’s a good chance that the trees will catch and this entire section of the forest will burn.”
“It doesn’t matter where we do it,” Garen sighs irritably. “The entire fucking planet is a jungle. We’ll probably start the worst forest fire ever recorded wherever we burn the body.”
“So we take him back to the ship,” Lo says. “Bring him back and burn him in the clearing. We’ll just have to be careful.” She pauses. “There aren’t any good choices.”
Garen opens his mouth and then shuts it, hard enough that his teeth clack. “Fine,” he snaps. “But you’re helping me clean my harness. It’s going to be hell to get the blood out.” He eyes the crimson fluid moving toward them through the thick air.
Lo’s lips curl. “This is already hell,” she sighs.
By the time Alex’s body has turned mostly to ash, Lo’s suit has turned grey and red, bloody from the clearing and ashen from the burning. She strips it off with shaking hands and considers running outside to throw it on the impromptu fire they’ve built, but does not relish the experience of suffocating in the Okan atmosphere. She shoves it into the chute for cleaning later and throws herself down on her bed.
She rubs her hands across her face and wishes briefly for the heavy weight of hair she’d had when she was young, if only so that she can push her fingers into it and pull, using the pain to bring her back to clarity. It has been nearly ten years since she let her hair grow so long; through the rigors of space travel and exploration, it has always been easier to keep her hair cropped short and close to her head, the tight curls easy to wash in dry showers and rub clean. She curls her fingers over her face and smells the acrid smoke clinging to her hands.
Her stomach turns over and she sits, dodging the bulkhead and rolling to her feet. Garen is sprawled across his own bed, staring blankly up at the white composite ceiling. Outside the ship’s windows, the smoke eddies through the air, a slow unfolding of darkness swirling in the thick atmosphere. The last dregs of the fire are embers. They had agreed silently to leave his body for now and come inside to clean themselves and rest. The first of Okan’s suns has set and the second is not far behind. His ashes will keep until the morning.
Do you think it was murder? Lo wants to ask, but doesn’t.
She sits on the edge of Garen’s bed and curls her hand next to his, the veins at the backs of their hands nearly touching. Lo looks at them, so close together, light and dark against the standard-issue sheets.
The shout pulls them apart and up. June shoves her dirtied suit into the chute and whirls, scrubbing at the streak of blood that has fixed itself to her palm. There is no fresh water here – they used that up six months from Earth – so she’ll have to use the synthetic stuff to clean it off. It smells like ozone and clings like oil. It’s the reason that they all take dry showers now, never mind the way those irritate the skin. The TruWater™ is much worse.
“Come on,” Lo says, and moves to take June’s hand. “We’ll get it off.”
June flinches away and Lo lets her go. She pushes past and heads for the cleaning station, springing across the room with the aid of low gravity.
“Has anyone sent in a report yet?” Garen asks dully.
They have no direct contact with Earth anymore, the distance between them too great for instantaneous communication, but they do send in weekly reports via coded transmission. So far they’ve been highly regular and extremely boring. Today’s will be different.
It takes three months for a message from Okan to reach Earth, and three more months for a return message to reach them. The trip to Okan from Earth takes five years, perhaps less if they have newer technology than the mission. If they ask for help, it will arrive far too late to save them.
“No,” Lo says. “I’ll do it now. Best get that sent.” She pushes off and to the computers, strapping herself into the seat before them. If takes her fingers a long time to begin typing.
The dark of the night on Okan is far darker than the night on Earth.
But perhaps she is misremembering, for as soon as Lo wakes that night she knows that the day has not come, and yet the ceiling of her bed it illuminated by a soft, white glow. She shifts, frowning, and turns of her side. She is not yet awake enough for panic to set in. She doesn’t yet remember the events of the day, how she’d come across Alex’s body while searching for samples and dropped her kit. How her screams had brought Garen and June bounding through the air from the ship. How they’d found her crouched by the side of the clearing, lips pressed tightly together to hold back the urge to vomit and the tears clouding her eyes.
She presses up onto her elbows and moves to the edge of the bed. It is Garen’s bunk that is lit, but the angle is tight enough that Lo cannot see him on it. There is a whisper, as of sheets sliding against each other, and a low laugh that rolls across Lo’s skin and somewhere deep inside her. She jolts and her nails dig into her palms, ragged from biting.
There is silence again, and then more movement. Lo slides back in her bunk until she hits the far wall. She gathers her sheets around her and presses her pillow to her face, blotting out the light from the next bed over. She breathes in the recycled scent of the padding and fabric case and forces herself to count down from one hundred in her mother’s tongue, the language of her childhood. The syllables are only half-remembered, and she has to work to say them properly. Mother would scold me for forgetting, she thinks.
It is only then that she cries, and her sobs burst from her with startling ferocity. She smothers them in the pillow and dreams of walking out into the darkness of Okan’s night, the sounds of the jungle all around her as she suffocates into the clean, crisp air.
When Lo wakes, she puts on her spare suit and harness and checks the logs.
Garen and June have been up already. They left the ship about forty-seven minutes ago. Lo leans over to look at the clearing outside and sees that the ashes of the pyre still lie on the ground, undisturbed.
She goes to the lab and gets a large specimen container, then fastens her facemask securely and goes out.
It is one of the only times that Lo has been glad for Okan’s thick atmosphere, for as she scoops up the ashes of Alex’s body – mixed with pieces of bone and fabric that crumble at her touch – the fine particulates stay together and fall into the container without staining her suit. It is the only one she has left, and she is glad that it will not require the same cleaning as the first.
It is only as Lo fastens the container’s lid and hears the soft swish of the vaccuum mechanism pulling out the air, stands and stretches the kinks out of her back with soft pops, that she realizes that she does not know where Garen and June have gone.
They are not in the ship, and they are not outside of it. Routine procedure when collecting specimens is to go out two at a time. The logs show that they left some time ago, but with the events of the day prior, it sits badly in her that they are not here. Lo turns round slowly, scanning the jungle visually, but it is as impenetrable as usual. She turns on her implants with a touch and her vision lights up, infrared and x-ray warring for dominance. She dials down the settings and searches for her colleagues.
There is a part of Lo that wants to dwell on last night - imagining the actions that would have filled in the sounds she heard. Movement across the bedsheets and low laughter, soft kisses and harder touches, smiles dark as sin - but she forces her mind to focus on the task at hand. There are three humans on this planet right now, and two of them have vanished.
Lo swallows hard and calls through the communicator, “Lo to Garen, please identify your location.” She receives nothing but silence in return.
“Lo to June,” she calls again. “Where are you?”
Nothing but static.
“Lo to Garen.”
“Lo to June.”
“Where are you?”
She puts Alex’s remains in the ship and packs one of the small bags they use for overnight trips to retrieve samples. She brings just a few nourishment packs, a pick usually used for prying samples free from Okan’s tough earth, and tears her pillowcase into long strips. They do not have a full medical kit here, but the fabric will suffice as bandages if necessary.
She initiates daily lockdown procedures and leaves the ship behind. The jungle swallows her easily as she follows the distant beacons blinking on her display.
As Lo walks through the trees, g-harness adjusting to the force of her stride and sending her hurtling over the ground, she activates an open line on her communicator, broadcasting her calls across every available channel.
“Lo to Garen.”
She passes a patch of trees that have obviously been cultivated for the heavy fruit that hangs from the branches, each pod taller than she and covered with a glistening red ichor. They remind her strongly of blood and she shudders before looking away.
“Lo to June.”
The jungle is growing thicker as she moves, slowing her. The trees have grown too close to allow for easy passage, but Lo knows that she cannot stop now. The signals from Garen and June’s g-harnesses are ahead, though still distant. She forces herself to move more carefully. Above, she hears movement through the branches and pauses to pull out the small pick from her bag.
It gleams in the dim, half-green light, and though it is small, Lo feels much better. She keeps it held low before her as she walks.
Her calls have turned to half-heard murmurs by the time she reaches open air. The jungle parts before her unexpectedly and as Lo steps into the blazing light her voice falters and stops. She stands on the edge of a high cliff, and though her g-harness would certainly slow her fall, she knows she must step carefully.
Far below, the jungle continues, spreading into the distance. All she can see is the endless green, for the jungles of Okan cover the entirely of the planet. She pulls up her display and looks at the little dots that show the location of Garen and June’s g-harnesses. They are still so distant – impossibly so.
There is no way that they travelled so far in the forty-seven minutes between leaving the ship and Lo waking. They could not have travelled so far if they had been walking for three days.
Lo’s heart twists in her chest and she turns back, dimming her display with a flick of her hand. Something is very wrong. Her display has lied to her, and her companions are gone.
She heads back to the ship now, and this time she is silent as she runs.
Lo nearly screams again, for the sight of the ship feels like murder.
It sits still in the same clearing she had left just hours before (three hours, fifteen minutes, and six seconds to be exact), but nothing else is the same. The gleaming white hull has been swallowed by vines that creep like veins across the surface, curling around the soft curves of the craft and tethering it to the ground. It looks like it has been years since Lo left, not hours.
She swallows her terror, though it leaves a sour taste in the back of her throat, and goes to the ship.
Up close, the damage is even worse than she’d though. The biggest vines are thicker around that Lo’s waist and heavy with rough bark. They have cinched themselves tight enough that they have brought up thin cracks in the outer shell. There is a feeling in Lo that she has never felt before as she approaches the ship’s door and raises her pick.
As she brings it down, tearing at the flesh of the vine that has made its way across the door, she realizes it is hate.
Lo cuts at the vine, which is thankfully one of the slimmer lengths, tearing at it until it parts with a strange gasping sound and she can key the door open. She tumbles into the vacuum chamber and the door seals itself behind her. She waits the precious seconds required for the mechanisms to release and allow her into the rest of the ship.
Lo springs across the room and pulls up the control panel, the shine of the digital interface comforting enough that her breath slows and evens out. She keys in the command to search for signs of life in the jungle and finds nothing. The jungle appears completely abandoned, no sign of the animals that Lo has seen moving through the trees for the past two months. The signals from Garen and June are still distant, and it is with a shock that Lo sees that Alex’s g-harness is still broadcasting his location.
Lo swallows hard and moves to switch off the interface when a stray thought makes her pause. She examines it, then alters the search parameters with a few quick strokes. As the results come up, filling the screen with light, her eyes slide closed and she considers never opening them again.
There is life on Okan, of course. It covers the surface of the planet, dense and consuming. The life that inhabits Okan is highly intelligent and organized, and it has taken control of the planet with a single-minded purpose that Lo finds awe-inspiring, now that she sees it clearly.
She forces her eyes open and stands, going to the ship’s window.
It is half covered with vines now. They blot out the light of the planet’s suns and draw a pattern across the glass that is strangely reminiscent of something Lo only half remembers from her days on Earth: a fabric from centuries ago that she’d seen in a museum, called lace.
She moves close to the window and lifts a hand, pressing it to the surface. The vines on the outside shift slightly, moving to cover her hand with their flesh. Lo can’t stop the sob that rises to her lips. She fumbles with her facemask and pulls it off, sucking in the sweet taste of recycled oxygen.
At the rate that the vines are moving, they will crack the ship’s hull soon. When that happens, the systems will shift into emergency mode, locking the rooms down completely. She will be stuck in here with only the ship’s interface for company, until she runs out of air or food, trapped with the small of ash and blood.
Lo seats herself in front of it again and opens the communication channel. She does not bother calling for Garen and June again. They are gone, and likely dead. She licks her lips and pauses.
“Lo to Earth,” she says at last. “This will be the last report from the crew of the Minerva. We have found life on Okan, and it has found us. It is much different than we expected, and much more beautiful.” She does not know what use this message is. It will take so long to reach them, and by the time anyone arrives, the ship will have been swallowed completely by the jungle. “You will not receive our samples or our data. I will send what I can, but it is safe to say that our time here was…wasted. Okan itself is alive and does not want visitors. Please do not come for us. We are not here anymore.”
Her last words are punctuated by a rough sob. She ends the message and sends it off with a grimace, attaching as much data as she can upload. For a long time after, she stares at the screen of the interface, weighing the possibilities.
There is a key sequence that, when pressed, will cause the ship to self-destruct. It will be a quiet death, for the ship’s hull will contain the fire that will rage through it, destroying all their samples and mechanisms, leaving nothing behind to be salvaged but ash.
Lo rehearses the keystrokes in her mind, the distant blinking dots that mark Garen and June’s locations floating before her, the splash of Alex’s blood staining the space behind her eyelids. She should end all this, destroy it so that the jungle reaps only a bitter prize.
She licks her lips and keys in the code.
The ships’ lights flash as the sequence activates and Lo stands from the panel. She leaves it and moves to the vacuum chamber. It hisses as it opens to her and she steps inside.
The seconds inside are interminable. Lo waits until the last second before fastening her facemask, until breathing becomes hard. She gasps as oxygen floods her brain and misses the sigh of the locks opening, the door sliding away.
She goes to the exit and pauses, looking out at the brilliant sky as the ship ignites behind her. It is a slow burn, smooth and warm, and it gives Lo time to look past Okan’s suns, to the white of the sky beyond, where she imagines Earth to be. She fixes her eyes on it and counts backwards, in her mother’s tongue.
The syllables come easier to her this time, as the vines creep in and reach for her.
read/share on tumblr