by Mark Bonica
|Table of Contents|
Dr. James Driscoll, a specialist in extremophiles, departs on the spaceship Demeter for an interstellar terraforming mission. The ship crashes wide of its target on the barren planet RO-5, and Driscoll is the sole survivor.
In the months that follow, Driscoll learns that he is not alone, for the goddess Demeter has a daughter, Persephone. The two are marooned on the planet they now call “Rogue,” and their spiral through time, space and Persephone’s programming leads them to the discovery of their ultimate purpose.
5: FPP Year 820, 40 days post-crash
“The goddamn wind practically ripped me off of the rover when I went out to place the beacon. Goddamn planet!” Driscoll bellowed, throwing his gloves as hard as he could against the wall inside the cargo bay. “Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn!” He kicked a supply crate with each staccato beat of his voice.
“What the hell do you want now, computer?”
“Dr. Driscoll, I suggest that once you freshen up from your ride, please come to the secondary command compartment. We need to discuss a matter of some urgency.”
“Christ,” he responded, slamming his way back towards the deep-sleep chamber that he had made his living quarters for the last week. That is, after he had dragged Carl Fisher’s body outside and placed it alongside what was left of the bodies of Lieutenant Commander Francis D. Johnson and Lieutenant, junior grade, Rachel S. Geller.
* * *
The navigation compartment, along with the nose of the ship, had been torn apart by a jagged rock outcropping along an otherwise shallow valley. Pieces of metal and plastic were scattered about for hundreds of meters. Most of Johnson had still been strapped to his control chair. Geller had been torn from hers. He had found her head and much of her torso. The wind had taken the other pieces and arranged them across this hellish landscape, mixed with dust and rock. After the first two days, he had given up hope of gathering the rest of their remains.
Fisher, on the other hand, had been simple. He had died suddenly as a result of the stimulant the computer used to draw him to consciousness. Muscular atrophy was not restricted to the voluntary muscles. The heart, diaphragm, gut — they were all lazy after such a prolonged period of rest and intravenous feeding.
Fisher had been a medium-built man, but when Driscoll had gone to lift him from the sleep bed, he had found it an awkward task. While the bed was not much more than a waist-high cot with raised curved sides, strapping, and slews of monitoring equipment attached at various points, it was difficult to get a grip on the man, and his hardened body wafted the smell of rot.
First, while standing on Fisher’s right side, he reached across and tried to drag the left arm across the chest and up, thinking he might be able to haul the body out, eventually getting it up into a fireman’s carry across his shoulders.
He managed to get the arm and pulled, but the torso rolled and seemed to stick to the matting it was lying on, its weight far more massive than Driscoll had imagined. He simply did not have enough leverage to move it that way. When he let go of the arm, the body rolled back into its place, and Fisher’s mouth hung open, as if he were expressing shock that Driscoll had disturbed him.
Driscoll stared at the face for a moment. He hadn’t known Fisher that well; they had only been brought together for this mission. Fisher had worked on a team in Arizona prior to getting the assignment to the Demeter. For him, getting to go on the mission had been a chance at a job in Florida, at the Agency’s central labs.
When Driscoll had made casually disparaging remarks about the “Earth boys” and their clique and about being forced onto this mission, Fisher had just looked at him impassively, then turned back to checking off laboratory supplies. It had been a point that might not have meant anything to Fisher, but Driscoll took it as a warning sign and choked off any hopes of finding camaraderie in their oppression.
The shocked look on Fisher’s face bothered Driscoll enough that he eventually covered the dead man’s face with an undershirt, pulling it over the head and then tucking it beneath. He walked around Fisher’s bed, and decided to try lifting him from the other end. He pulled both legs at the ankles until the body hung stiffly, bent at the waist, with face torso and arms still in the crib-like bed, feet dragging on the floor.
From there it was relatively easy to lift him onto his shoulder, carry him down the hall to the cargo bay, and dump him onto a stack of instrument cases. To take him outside, Driscoll had to put on the hostile-environment suit.
The big helmet made it impossible for Driscoll to shoulder his load again. He was forced to drag Fisher by his ankles out through the airlock. He stood in the airlock looking down the three-meter-high ladder that led to the ground, trying to figure out how he was going to get the body down as well.
He stood for a while, watching the dust devils circle and chase each other across the rock-strewn valley. He looked down at Fisher’s body, the white undershirt wrapped around his head. He could make out under the lumpy twists of material a nose and a chin.
Looking up and away, he pushed the outer-door release. The portal slid outward, then to the right. The wind sought new space and whipped into the tiny compartment. Dust and debris rushed in and danced in the air. Everything bore yellowish-brown and red or black tinges.
Driscoll leaned over and pushed the body out the door. It tumbled, bounced off the ladder, and landed in a crumpled sprawl. When Driscoll got to the bottom of the ladder, he dragged the body across the rough ground and laid it across the back of the rover. When he had strapped it to the cargo rack, he drove it to the small draw where he had covered the remains of Johnson and Geller with black rocks streaked with yellow and red, the color of blood and feces.
It took him some time to cover Fisher’s body with the rocks that he had gathered for that purpose the day before. He was still recovering from the effects of deep sleep himself, as well as fighting the greater gravitational pull of R-O Five. His breath within the confined space of the helmet was moist and hot as he worked. It seemed he could never quite get enough oxygen; he carried the rocks slowly, laying them gently on top of the body of his peer.
It was difficult to think about the magnitude of what was happening as he struggled to breathe. He assured himself that it would become easier as he got used to the gravity and his body regained its strength. When he had stacked enough rocks on top of Fisher, he stumbled over to the rover and sat on one of its fenders, leaning over, head hanging low, gloved hands resting on his thighs.
When breath finally seemed to be returning to his lungs in normal quantities, his eyes settled on the three cairns. There were people under those rocks. Their flesh would gradually dry and settle around their bones, becoming as fragile as paper. Dust would drift in between the rocks, clotting around their wounds, then settling upon their eye sockets, filling their mouths, covering them with a blanket of sooty death.
Someday the rocks would suddenly settle as the rib bones became too brittle to withstand their pressure. There was no organic life in the atmosphere — yet. The atmosphere had no protective layer that would shield microbes from the deadly range of radiation bathing the planet’s surface. The bodies would rot only until their internal microbes died. Then they would dry to husks.
Who will bury me? he wondered to a vast and empty planet. “Computer?” he said softly, activating the local relay.
“Yes, Dr. Driscoll?” The placid voice filled his helmet.
“What am I supposed to say after burying...” he stopped. He was startled to notice that his voice was cramped, that his hands were shaking. He hadn’t felt anything until just now about them. About the senseless means by which they had died.
“It depends on their faith, Dr. Driscoll. Geller was Jewish; Fisher, Christian; Lieutenant Commander Johnson had most recently claimed Buddhism as his religious preference, though I should inform you that he had previously registered it as Pagan, Atheist, Zoroastrian, Wiccan, Muslim, and Roman Catholic. My observation is that he did this as a matter of humor, not of religious questing. My guess is that a statement from the Torah would be appropriate.”
Driscoll watched a dust devil skitter across the open plane of the valley below him. “I don’t know anything by heart from those books. I’ve always heard something like ‘dust to dust — ashes to ashes’ at funerals. Where does that come from?”
“Genesis, chapter three, verse nineteen: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’”
“That sucks,” Driscoll replied, looking up into the darkening sky. Stars were appearing on the eastern horizon.
“Perhaps something a bit more supportive would be appropriate. This is from Psalms: ‘He maketh me lay down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me... and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”
The wind calmed in that moment. It was strangely silent, not whistling or berating him.
* * *
He returned to Demeter quietly, driving around sand-eroded rock formations made mostly of oxidized iron and other ferric minerals. He climbed the ladder somberly, and once inside and undressed, ate recycled food cakes quickly, then fell into a deep sleep.
Today was different, though. Unlike three days before, the wind had not been merciful. Setting up the beacon had been a unique challenge. He had had to haul it to the top of a nearby rock formation strapped to his back.
The equipment weighed almost thirty kilos and was awkwardly packed. Everything about it was reinforced and environment-proofed, which accounted for the weight, yet Driscoll cursed it with every scrambling step and handhold he had to take up along the boulders. He used explosive-headed pinions to anchor it to the face, then activated the beacon. It would be useful, he knew, as a relay station at least, if he ever did any exploring.
No one would ever hear it. His signal would become fainter and fainter and would mix with the remnants of stars, cosmic trash, and old television programs until it was nothing but part of the whirling energy of the galaxy.
As he sat down in the secondary command module, a fresh undershirt on, he activated the holographic display, with its default view of Earth’s sky. “So what is urgent to discuss now? Are we going to be rescued sometime soon? Has the probe picked up any incoming messages?” he asked wryly.
“I’m afraid that the most urgent news is not of a positive nature,” replied the computer.
“Great. What else is new?” he sighed, slumping back.
“When I was doing a diagnostic of the food-recycler systems, I did not detect any damage.”
“That’s the urgent issue?”
“No, Dr. Driscoll, that is not the urgent issue. The urgent issue is that secondary observations of the raw material supplies indicate that there has been a decrement in the recycler’s recapture of waste. I estimate it has decreased from 99 percent efficient to 92.1 percent efficient.”
“What? What the hell does that mean? Are you saying you’re going to quit putting out these rotten cardboard protein pellets that I’m supposed to pretend are food?”
“The matter is urgent but not yet grave. Assuming that I maintain you on an 1800-calorie daily diet, we have enough raw organic materials on board to keep you fed for approximately five years.”
“Five years? Why only five years? I thought the system was supposed to be able to feed the four of us for 18 years in situations just like this?”
“As I just explained, Dr. Driscoll, the recapture efficiency has somehow deteriorated. Even with a perfectly operating recycler, there is some loss of material. While diagnostics show that the system is operating at full efficiency, secondary checks indicate that raw materials are being depleted at a rate faster than would be expected. My calculations indicate that the actual efficiency is almost ten percent less than it should be.”
“Damn,” murmured Driscoll. “I’m going to starve to death if rescue doesn’t arrive in five years? They don’t even expect us back for another three and a half. They’ll wait at least a year past our expected arrival to send out a recovery vehicle, and that could take another year and a half real time to get to us. By then I’ll be a bag of bones rotting in the hull.”
“We have two options for extending the food supply. The first and simplest is for you to eat less. I recommend against this since I regard 1800 calories as a minimum healthy intake for you. The second option is to find an additional source of raw material for the recycler.”
“Great. On a planet with no known organic substances I am going to find additional raw material for the recycler. Or are you suggesting that I might be able to dump a barrel full of rocks in your maw and keep you feeding me on crushed pebbles?”
“There are approximately 218 kilograms of recyclable material currently on the planet’s surface now, 171 of which I believe you could possibly recover. The difference has been too broadly scattered for you to collect.”
Jim jumped up from where he had been sitting. Jabbing his finger at the rising Earth and its shining chorus of stars, he shouted wildly, “You son of a bitch! You goddamn son of a bitch!” then stormed out of the room.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica