“Hey.” I nudge Rhea with my foot because my clumsy hands are busy trying to make sense of the disassembled blast-gun. “Are you still dead?”
I’d let her rest in peace, but it’s hard to stay awake and alert all by myself in this cramped supply room, harder still to not just lie down and die next to her.
“Of course I’m dead, you newt,” Rhea grumbles. She sounds as if we’re still in bed together. As if she’s not crumpled, broken and unseeing, on the floor beside me. As if her jaw and limbs aren’t stiffening with rigor mortis. “Now shut up, Gaby, and put that gun together.”
“Dammit, Rhea. I’m an exo-biologist, not a weapons’ expert.”
That makes her chuckle. Always does. “Cute. But time’s running out, you know.”
Time’s running out because it is still out there, on the other side of the supply room’s door. It killed Rhea and the others, and now it wants to kill me. I know it’s out there, even though it shouldn’t be. Even though this exo-planet is nothing but ice and rock and slimy undergrowth. I know it is prowling through every nook and cranny of our station. Its furtive movements are like a tickle underneath my skin, a shudder in my bones, a shiver in my skull. The door is enough to hold it at bay, for now, but that smell… It’s too familiar for outer space.
I know that smell.
It smells like a shallow hole dug in the ground, and something left to fester.
It smells like Grandpa’s basement when I went there that last time with Mom.
It smells like dead meat.
My Grandpa didn’t believe in space travel and scoffed at the exploration of exo-planets. He thought it was nothing but a reckless swindle by the global government and its lackey corporations.
“Why should we go off to other planets when we can’t even take care of our own?” he’d say. “Nothing good will ever come of it.”
He was 108 and senile then, but right now, right here, trapped in a supply room at the ass-end of the galaxy, slipping in and out of consciousness, I think he might have been right.
“Where’s Tommy?” I ask. “Do you think he made it? Do you think he might have sent out an emergency alert?”
Rhea laughs. “Tommy’s dead meat, Gaby. We all are.”
“What about Anneke? António?”
Rhea keeps laughing, even though she’s not breathing.
I wish Rhea wasn’t dead. I wish I could access the comm-module in the central hub and call in an extraction team. I wish I had something to defend myself with, instead of a gun in fifteen useless pieces. Scope. Grip-frame. Forearm. Charging handle. Power-cell. And ten parts that I can’t figure out what they’re for, ten chunks of black metal that slip and tumble from my shaking hands, resisting every attempt to click-clack them together.
“Quit stalling and assemble that weapon, Gaby. That’s an order. It’s all you’ve got, remember? Got to give it your best shot.”
“Shut up,” I gripe, “you’re dead, remember?”
She’s unfazed, as usual.
“I know. And you’re a klutz.”
“At least I’m doing better than you.”
“Sure about that?”
My hands tremble.
Above the door, the bright green light keeps flashing. It’s shining in my eyes, making it hard to see, but what’s there to see, anyway? I’m barefoot, dressed in my baggy, olive-green pyjamas, stuck on the floor of supply room 2B with a disassembled weapon and a dead body. The steel shelves above me are packed tight with crates of tech supplies and scientific equipment, spare parts and tools, but only one weapon case (count it: one) previously containing the fifteen pieces of this blast gun, neatly stored in shipping-foam.
It’s a real-life version of the recurring nightmares I had while I waited to hear what deep-space hellhole would need a newbie exo-biologist like me. All those nightmares ended the same way–with me, helpless, either unarmed or unable to fire my weapon, pinned down by some huge and hungry lifeform on a hostile world. That’s why I was so relieved when the Company sent me here, to a planet without sentient life–nothing but rocks, ice, and lichen. That’s what the recruiter told me. An easy ride.
“How’s that easy ride working out for you?” Rhea asks, as if she’s not only dead but able to read my mind, too.
My giggle turns into a sob. “Not so good. Not so good at all.”
“At least we still have each other,” she chuckles, and by then I’m crying.
“You’re such a sap,” I snivel, and reach for her hand. It’s cold, but I squeeze it anyway, holding on as my mind flickers and sputters, like a flame about to go out.
First time I met Rhea was in the airlock, putting on my thermo-suit, the day I arrived. I was still nauseous from cryo and the trip through the Veil; still amazed and giddy to plant my feet on exo-planet soil. She was hefting that blaster of hers, looking like a kid’s action figure, all biceps and buzz cut and tattoos.
“Don’t go outside unaccompanied or unarmed, it’s company policy on any exo-surface,” she admonished me, sizing up my shiny new gear with a jaundiced squint.
“What for? There’s nothing out there but us and that damn lichen I’m supposed to study.”
That made her crack a smile. I smiled back. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
We stood together outside for a bit, looking at the rime-shimmering expanse of rocks and ridges. Dark green, slick swaths of growth peeked through the frost on the ground, trailing up the walls and vents and heat-exchangers of the station. On the horizon, the golden band of planetary rings bisected an amethyst sky lit by four distant moons.
I thought of Earth. Thought of the life that teemed there, even now, though we’d done our best to snuff it out. This world seemed so bleak and fragile compared to where we’d come from. But here we were, out in space, finding new worlds to study, to trample, to mine, to process, to break.
Maybe I thought of Grandpa even then. Of how he’d said nothing good would ever come of it. But Rhea’s gloved hand closed around mine–firm and real–like a promise that didn’t need to be spoken, and that was enough for me.
The fifteen pieces are scattered all over the floor. Nothing fits. Nothing clicks into place with that sexy, satisfying metal sound.
“Line ‘em up, Gaby. Like I showed you when we practiced.”
“Dammit, Rhea. I’m a brainiac, not a space marine.”
My hands look green in the light, veins a darker shade than the skin. The pattern of veins makes me think of roots. Makes me think of moss. Makes me think of mould and slick algae in an unkempt aquarium. Makes me think of Grandpa, and Mom, and the basement, and the writing on the wall, and…
No. No. Not that. That was a lifetime and a universe away.
I grab hold of my unravelling thoughts, forcing them together.
That light above the door, it used to flash red. I’m almost sure of it. A siren sounded, some sort of alarm, so loud it was deafening. That’s what woke us. There’s still a faint ringing in my ears, but no sirens, not anymore. No screams either. There’s no one left to scream–no one but me.
I need this gun. I need to make it work. It’s the one thing I was never able to learn in training, no matter how I practiced. But I’ve got to remember how it’s done. I’ve got to remember Rhea’s calloused, no-nonsense hands, guiding mine, showing me the steps. I can’t let the memories melt and drip like green wax, twisting, turning, changing into something else…
…into Grandpa’s basement. The mould trailing across the windows, creeping up and down the walls–growing into patterns and symbols, spelling out hidden words and indecipherable messages. As if it had a mind of its own, as if it were a creature spread out in spores and slimy tendrils, whispering to me of other deaths and horrors yet to come.
Mom shouldn’t have brought me there. I was only eight.
I snivel, tasting the snot and salt in the back of my throat.
No. Don’t lose it. Don’t pass out. No more of that.
“Scope clicks into that round part. The power-cell. Don’t think, Gaby. Just do it.”
I choke back the tears.
“We can’t all be slackers like you, Gaby-baby.”
“Drop dead, Rhea.”
That makes us both giggle–a ragged, mad-house cackle, the kind that turns into sobs and shivers in the end.
“How’s your memory?” Rhea asks when we’ve settled down. “Do I take cream or sugar in my coffee?”
“You don’t drink coffee.”
“Just checking. It’s not normal, you know. Talking to dead people.”
“I know. So why are you talking to me? Why are we stuck in here? ”
“You’re the brainiac, you figure it out.”
I try to remember, but all my memories are slippery and green.
We woke up in bed. That alarm blaring in the darkness. A light flashing. Red or green? I can’t remember. I told Rhea we had to run, and we ran. Ran from something that tried to kill us. Something vast and hungry. I remember crashing and sliding through the never-ending corridors, every door locked and every inch of the floor slick with blood and gore. It was just like in a bad horror-vid, or the worst kind of cryo-nightmare.
What I remember most of all is Rhea saying my name before she died, her voice tight and low as if she could barely speak, as if something was stuck in her throat, choking her. I remember holding her. I remember dragging her in here with me. I remember pulling the door shut. But my memories shift and bend every time I touch them, as if they are alive, as if the act of remembering is altering them, tainting them.
What could kill us, on this miserable hunk of rock and ice, anyway? There’s nothing here but us and that damn lichen.
“This is not lichen,” I told the company as soon as I’d scanned the stuff, didn’t even need to run a DNA-analysis to know for sure. I wrote it all down in my report, tried to make them understand: “Lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi, including yeast, in a symbiotic relationship. This exo-planetary species bears only a cursory resemblance to Terran lichen. The only thing I can say with any certainty, is that just like Terran lichen, this species, while plant-like, is not a plant. I am hopeful that my chemical analysis of its secretions might provide further insight into its physiology…”
Like they cared. Like the presence of an exo-biologist wasn’t a formality. Like they worried about anything except the minerals hidden in the crust beneath that growth. Like anything mattered except what might be strip-mined and processed and sold.
Another sob tears through my throat.
What the hell am I doing here? What are we doing here?
Don’t think about it. None of it matters. Nothing matters, except the gun.
I wipe my hands, close my eyes, deep breath, try again, lining up the pieces on the floor.
“Clip to the left.”
“Thank you, Rhea. I’d kiss you if you weren’t dead.”
I close my eyes. Let the hands remember because the brain won’t. Every thought is melting and distorting, folding in upon itself. The smell of Grandpa’s basement. Green windows. Green light shining through. Shadows on the wall, patterns shifting and coalescing, like one of those images that slips into focus if you stare at it long enough, revealing itself only when you shift your gaze slightly off center.
It’s a dream. Nothing makes sense. Everything is green.
I’m in my green bed, wearing my green pyjamas. Tommy and the others are in the green kitchen. Rhea is reading as usual, waving her green coffee cup at me.
I look down at the weight in my hands. I’m hefting a green, half-assembled blast-gun. Why?
“I don’t drink coffee,” Rhea says and scowls at me.
“I know that.”
“Says here,” she continues, waving her green book, “that lichens are among the oldest living organisms, and among the first living things to grow on fresh rock exposed after an event such as a landslide.”
“I know that, too,” I say, annoyed. “But I already told you, this is not lichen.”
“Anyone want waffles?” António asks, his green face askew, slipping off the skull beneath.
I look at Rhea but my vision is blurry-green as if the lichen is growing on my corneas. I’m not sure what I see anymore. “Rhea, if this is a dream…if I’m just imagining this, if this is only… Will you be alive if I wake up? If I get out of here?”
She snorts. “I’m pretty sure I’m dead meat, no matter what.” A pause, her voice more serious now. “Don’t mess this up, Gaby.”
“What if I already messed up? What if…”
…what if there’s nothing in here but us and that damn lichen? What if this planet decided to get rid of us, before we did what we always do: destroy, devastate?
Rhea’s voice is steady. “Then it doesn’t matter anyway. So why not give it your best shot?”
…are we still in bed? Did we never even leave our bunk when the alarm sounded? Did we never run through the corridors, never slam the door shut, never grab the weapon off the shelf, never get trapped in here at all?
Is my body (yours, Anneke’s, Tommy’s, António’s) overgrown with this choking presence – a holobiont, a complex composite organism, sprouted from microscopic spores lodged in our hair and skin and flesh? Is the green, slick mat of this ancient, planet-encompassing, exo-planetary life-form enveloping our limbs and eyes and organs right now? Are its filaments and root-like rhizines grabbing onto marrow, sipping on our fluids, while infusing our brains with its psychoactive, hallucinogenic secretions? Is it hooked into my cortex to keep me under, threading together slivers of my life–dreams and nightmares, memories and terror–into a story I choose to believe is true: that the monster is outside, not inside, not already devouring and digesting me? A story in which I can still be rescued, can still get away, can still save myself with one almighty blast from this ridiculously large and unnecessarily disassembled gun.
“Quit stalling, Gaby. Either lay down and die quietly with the rest of us or get on with it.”
I nod. I know the truth. The truth Grandpa told me: that we shouldn’t be here. That nothing good will ever come of it.
Deep breath. Inhale that smell. Like Grandpa’s basement.
We’d been away for a few months. It was one of Mom’s jobs that took us out of town. Someone was supposed to check on Grandpa, but they never did. They just took Mom’s money and left him to fend for himself.
Mom never forgave herself.
I remember standing at the top of the stairs, looking down into the basement.
Inhaling that smell.
It was a humid, summer’s day outside, the air wet and slick on my skin. Grandpa always hated drafts, complained about them even in summer. In that basement, every window, every door was sealed tight, weather-stripping and duct-tape covering every crack and space and crevice, shutting out the world.
I remember the slick, black-green mould trailing its grasping, greedy life over the windows and the walls, slippery rot in the cup and bowl he’d left on the table. Grandpa in that downstairs bathroom, his skin like a map of decay and rebirth, another life-form covering his bloated, abandoned husk, feeding off what used to be him.
At least we found him, even if it was too late. At least we got him out of there.
Who will find us, Rhea? Who will ever get us out of here?
There’s the click: the gun, put together; the pleasing hum of the power-cell charging up. Ready to go out with a bang. I kiss Rhea one last time, tasting death in my mouth and hers.
Rhea? Is this a dream or a nightmare? Is this reality or a reckless swindle?
Is this place trying to kill us? Or are we already dead?
Did this life-form, this planet, already exact its revenge for our intrusion?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I don’t give a shit anymore.
“I love you, Rhea.”
“Don’t go mushy on me, Gaby. Just get on with it. Give it your best shot.”
“Damn it, Rhea, I’m an exo-biologist, not a deep-space gunslinger!”
One last chuckle. One last, deep breath.
Then, I kick the door open, squeeze the trigger, and fire.
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden. Currently, she lives in Canada, just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter as @mariahaskins, or visit her website mariahaskins.com.
Photo by Ellie Storms on Unsplash
Author of “Dead Meat”
What inspired you to write this story?
I initially wanted to write a simple, sci-fi, flash fiction story about someone trapped in a small space and trying to fight their way out. When I sat down to write it, the idea of two women, one of them dead, having a conversation popped into my head and from there, the story grew in unexpected ways. One idea that fueled the story for me, was “what would happen if we came to a new world and completely misunderstood everything about it?” Even on our own planet, we often misunderstand the way ecosystems work, and what kind of damage we can do to them (and them to us). Also, there’s an old Star Trek TNG episode where the surface of a planet, the sand, is sentient, and that episode was also on my mind while writing.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
That the universe, and even our own world and our own minds, are stranger than we can probably imagine.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story has been through endless edits and revisions as it grew from a small, tight flash fiction piece about a woman with a disassembled weapon, trapped in a storage locker. The actual action – what happens to her and what she does – has stayed pretty much the same, but what changed was the emotional context with her grandfather, and the backstory from Earth. I kept coming back to this story, to add those layers, partly because I loved the two characters in the story, Gaby and Rhea.
Recommend us something! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just finished reading Cadwell Turnbull’s debut novel The Lesson, and it is such an awesome science fiction book with a very unique take on an alien invasion. Highly recommended reading for summer or any other time.