Unearthly Creatures

Aida stared out the window of the train, her forehead pressed against the glass.  She protectively cradled her satchel in her lap. Inside the hard plastic shell of her bag, swathed in buttery cloth, lay the real object of her affection; a battered orb telescope. Her right hand was just inside the satchel, tensely stroking its cool, familiar surface.

Aida’s parents had given her the second-hand telescope for her ninth birthday. It was bulky and scuffed and opening its orb-like casing required a specific knack. It was the best present Aida ever received.

Years ago, the week before her sixteenth birthday, Aida had packed her telescope and sleeping bag, and as many scavenged protein packs and water purifying tablets as she could into her school backpack. She left the Home where she had lived since her parents died and caught the bullet train to Nakuru, followed by an overland bus to Kericho. She then hoisted her backpack and hiked into the Mau Forest using an outernet feed integrated into her haptic jacket to steer her towards a lonely clearing.

She spent the next 3 days rationing her food and walking the perimeter of her makeshift camp, carefully not thinking about her parents.

On the evening of her birthday she wrapped her sleeping bag around her shoulders, doused her fire and turned on her telescope. Her fingers did not tremble as she coaxed the sticky mechanism to life. The telescope unwhirled and spilled light and hundreds of tiny winged sensors into the night. They fluttered like so many moths until they were properly calibrated and then began to project a silvery correlated image of the sky.

She did not notice the stiffening of her muscles in the cold  as she sat hunched over the screen exploring the constellations. As she tracked their progress across the expanse Aida realised that the night sky was not a blanket pressing us to the earth, but an ocean connecting us to the stars. The last four years of loneliness eased and she decided  that a life without parents, without money, without friends, need not be a life without hope; in an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities. And one day she would travel to the stars.

The next day she began her return to Nairobi.

In the hard years that followed if Aida’s resolve had ever wavered, which it did not, the permanent sight of the Nairobi Skyhook on the city’s horizon, would have given her strength. It followed her around the city, its multicoloured lights familiar and comforting. It watched her graduate from High School. It lit her way on the electronic walkways between her apartment and night classes and intermittent casual jobs. It was the view she displayed on the ‘windows’ of her tiny apartment cube nestled deep inside Block 32. Aida had spent many nights studying under their virtual glow. An undergraduate qualification in Planetary Geology, a postgraduate specialisation in Exomineralogy. Additional diplomas in Emergency Medicine, Mission Operations & Geological Engineering. She’d logged thousands of hours in VR Space simulators, including sims for defunct models and those created for foreign space programs. It had taken her three years of skimping in order to save for the professional grade implants she’d needed to get her vision to the required  20/200. After that she spent all of her extra money on training in the Gravity room of a high-end gym.

Despite all of her preparations Aida struggled to find the job she was looking for. Competition was tough, and she was contending against people with old money or connections, or many hours of recreational RL space travel already under their belts.

She’d considered more prosaic off world jobs; part of the maintenance crew on one of the private Orbitals hovering above her city or support staff on one of the lunar stations. In more desperate moments she had even considered the life of a Reality TV Show contestant; part of a small group of hopelessly unprepared individuals sent off on one-way missions. These groups normally didn’t make it an entire year before someone in the crew lost it, often violently.

Part of the problem she had to admit was, well, her.

Perfect on paper, she had attended many a stilted, awkward interview that had resulted in her getting passed over for someone else. She found it difficult to engage with people, her nervousness misinterpreted as coldness, her enthusiasm confused with mania.

But as her breath erratically fogged up the window and her hand lovingly traced the telescope inside her bag, Aida told herself that today’s interview would be different. Firstly, this was the final stage in a long laborious application program, at which she’d already excelled; academic, practical and physical exams passed with flying colours. She’d even already fulfilled all of the sim time requirements for the mission’s mining exploration vessel, which must give her an advantage as it was a fairly obscure model that not many people would have bothered with without a specific objective in mind.

Secondly, she’d brought the telescope with her. Her prized possession was generally only taken out when she could escape the city to view the stars. She knew it would bring her luck.

The train was near her stop. She removed her hand from her bag to operate the exit panel indicating her desire to disembark and giving permission for the city to deduct transport credits off her account. Her personal teardrop pod lowered from the main rail and unfurled a wing-like door. Aida stepped onto the walkway, and a network of glowing lines appeared, connecting her to her previous virtually or physically visited locations. She tapped the blue line with her toe, focussing the city guide on her desired destination.

Aida had been in this part of the city often, New Riverside Drive was densely populated with the glinting edges of Nairobi’s most successful electronics, exploration and mining companies’ head offices. After a fifteen minute walk the guiding line encircled the building in front of her and pulsed red before disappearing completely. Aida looked up at the Mars One building, its measly 4 stories in a city of MegaBlocks an ostentatious display of wealth.

The building required both a palm and retinal scan to enter. It poured reams of EULA  copy onto her glasses display and insisted she blink twice to accept. She entered the first set of doors, waited for the full body scan to complete and the decontamination air jets to wash her of any nasty microbes she might be harbouring. When the second set of doors opened, the route to her interviewer’s office was again fed onto her glasses. Floor guides would no doubt ruin the old world charm of all the vat leather and chrome.

Aida took slow calming breaths and tried to school her face to ‘pleasant/enthusiastic’ as she made her way to the third floor. A second set of biometric scans and double access doors ensured that she knew the importance of all the staff on this level, including her interviewer. She made her way to the correct office and a sensor chimed as the door automatically opened for her.

Zaman Ming flashed a magnanimous smile as he keyed his holodisplays to ambient and stepped out from behind his desk. He was good looking, very well dressed and his handshake was the perfect blend of welcoming and firm. Aida disliked him immediately. You dislike everyone immediately, she admonished herself and dropped her hand to her satchel for comfort.

“Aida, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person,” Zaman said, gesturing towards a set of high back chairs.

“You too” returned Aida, with what she hoped was a warmly professional smile, and sat down.

‘I wanted to meet you today, Aida, obviously to get to know you a little better, but also because I wanted to make sure you understand how important this mission is to the Mars One Corporation. You know that this is a special year for us, of course?”

Aida nodded. Even if she hadn’t spent many hours researching the company during her application process she would have been exposed to the ‘100 Year Birthday’ holo messaging currently displayed throughout the city.

“So to celebrate we want to do something equally special, but to achieve that we need your help, don’t we?” Zaman said with another ingratiating flash of teeth. “The last time the Demikhov Comet was anywhere close to the earth, relatively speaking of course,” more teeth, “ was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And according to our scientists there’s a distinct possibility that its current eccentricity might mean a trajectory that will soon take it out of our solar system altogether. This may be our last chance to make history!” Zaman looked at Aida expectantly.

“I’m really excited to be involved in this project Mr Ming, its my dream job really, ” said Aida.

“I’m glad to hear it. Some of the readings we’ve gathered aren’t quite like anything we’ve seen before and this will be our first extraterrestrial silicate mining operation. We want everything to go perfectly and avoid any…  unpleasantness,” said Zaman.

Aida nodded again. The last Mars One mission had ended in a PR nightmare when

the sole crew member had broken after months of isolation and begged to be brought home over a video feed connection. The clip of the woman’s tearful entreaty, degenerating into violent self-harm as she was refused rescue had been leaked and released on multiple news feeds. Solo missions remained the norm though, every extra person on the vessel drove costs exponentially upward.

“Are you seeing anyone at the moment Ms Chausiku?” asked Zaman.

Aida was completely thrown, this was not one of the many questions she had carefully rehearsed answers to. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair “What? Umm, no, I’m not seeing anyone.”

“When did you last go out to dinner? Or what do you do for fun with friends?”

“Er… I work a lot. I’ve started another course in Advanced Navigation… I like to read…“ Aida mumbled.

“Nothing wrong with being self-sufficient is there, Aida? You know that we won’t be able to send another vessel to your location for a minimum of 3 years, probably closer to 5. You’re not going to be missing anyone’s company during that time?”

Aida thought about the nameless sea of faces she saw everyday, the almost unbearable sameness of her limited interactions with people in her Block, the meaningless social pleasantries at the gym. “I think I’ll be okay,” she said.

The rest of the interview was a blur, she couldn’t focus on Zaman’s voice over the strange roaring in her ears. She clutched her telescope as tightly as she could and concentrated on making monosyllabic responses when extended silences deemed them necessary.

When Zaman stood and shook her hand to release her, Aida walked out of  his office so quickly that she tripped over her own feet and stumbled into the door lintel. Her cheeks burned with shame for something she couldn’t quite articulate. I have the job. I have the job, have the job, havethejob, havethejob, havethejob. A mantra chanted with each step as she made her way back to the station. She couldn’t stop shaking until she entered the privacy of her pod and sat down. She wrapped her arms around herself and cried. She’d won. She was going to the stars! In the end it wasn’t her rigorous studying or relentless training. It wasn’t even the extra confidence brought about by her contact with the telescope. In the end she’d got the job because she was good at being alone.

Aida lay on her bed, not sleeping; her luggage, her entire life packed into the allotted 25 kilograms, silhouetted against the glowing panels of her room. She’d spent so many hours studying the Mission Plan that every time she closed her eyes it was all she could see; its coloured timelines hovering beneath her eyelids, preventing sleep. Shortly before dawn her apartment chimed her wake up call. She got up, set her luggage to follow and initiated the cube’s shutdown and exit protocol. Her hand trailed almost tenderly over the wall as she let the cube scan her palm for the last time. Her biometrics would no longer allow her access to her apartment. It had never really been home, but it had been hers.

She dismissed the eager city guide that swirled around her feet as she stepped out into the early morning air. The route to the Skyhook was one she knew by heart. The sun was just beginning to highlight the city when she arrived at Access Control. The laborious and bureaucratic security measures failed to dampen the almost painful excitement that had been building inside her. She synced her luggage with the loading dock drone and joined the queue to enter the elevator shaft, the Skyhook’s tether connecting her to everything she’d been working towards clearly visible above her head. She found her seat inside and the harness extended from the ceiling, locking her in place.

After the last 8 weeks of frantic preparations the slow, pendulous trip into orbit was almost anticlimactic. She only made it an hour into the journey before she became bored, called up her mission notes and began to idly flick through them. When they arrived at Space Orbital II, the wait as the tether gradually maneuvered them into position was excruciating.

Aida spent as little time as possible in the Space Orbital. She retrieved her luggage, and ran all the required external systems and safety checks before eagerly retiring to the quiet, comforting safety of her new ship. Hers. She moved around, trying to absorb it fully with deep breaths and the soft touches of fingertips. She did not find its starkly lit interior bare or confining. The acceleration couch, control hub, fabricator, laboratory, and tiny sleeping/living area seemed perfect. The carefully marked containers strapped against the walls a veritable treasure trove waiting to be lovingly explored.

Less than 18 hours after leaving earth, Aida was submerged in gravity gel as the ion engines of the Mars One Wonderer IV accelerated her into space.

Thirty four days later the ship woke her up. The lights seemed a lot harsher as she sat upright and vomited blue gel in an attempt to clear her lungs. She could barely keep herself upright by the time she’d managed to fully clean herself off and get dressed. She did the bare minimum in terms of system checks and made sure she was on the correct path towards the comet. She unstowed her telescope and placed it next to her tiny bed before she curled up and slept, and did not dream.

When she came to several hours later everything felt all right again. She made sure that the Mars One Wonderer IV was on track to match the Demikhov comet’s speed and begin to follow in its wake. She would be in a stable shadow course in a few of hours. She began to familiarise herself with the ship’s systems and inventory. Her first task was to map the entire comet using ground penetrating radar. She prepared 3 hexapod drones, syncing them to the control hub and arming them with radar modules. Each drone was assigned to a specially designed airlock. These airlocks would enable her to transfer samples and make changes to the sensory arrays and toolkits of the drones once they had been launched from the vessel. Next she customised the visual and haptic interfaces of the Control Hub; the glasses, jacket and gloves that would allow her to explore the comet together with the drones. One she had completed her set-up she prepared her first meal, scanning the barcode of the optimistically labelled ‘Sukuma Wiki with Ugali’ protein pack so that the ship could move it from food to waste inventory. All her supplies, from food and water to spare drone modules, were carefully monitored by the ship and an updated status feed sent to the Space Orbital II Control Room approximately every 12 days. Nominally this was so that Control could monitor her consumption and intervene if she got herself into trouble. In reality rescue would only be possible after Mars One had completed the development of the next gen Wanderer Vs designed for the excavation of the Demikhov Comet. Said trouble would also have to happen in such a way that she could survive for at least 34 days until help arrived. That was assuming that her investigation showed that mining the comet was commercially viable. She suspected that if it wasn’t she would be on her own no matter what happened.

Aida easily fell into a regular schedule. When she woke up she would do an hour’s calisthenics exercise, eat, put on the jacket, gloves and head display, and immerse herself in the explorations of her ‘spider’ drones, often switching from one unit to another. The 3D holomap of the comet that they were incrementally building, cast a permanent glow from one of the central displays. The next sleep cycle she would exercise, eat, and examine the mineral samples the drones had brought back in her lab. She prepared and sent progress reports to Control, and so far her results had all been promising. The comet showed high levels of silicates, plus platinum, cobalt and gold reserves. Each sample went through a series of scanners before being fed into the fabricator. Mars One was still conducting cost benefit analyses on manufacture in situ vs returning the raw materials to earth. Aida’s data would help them make that decision and finalise the Wanderer V design. Hours become days became weeks; time’s passing marked only by a counter in the corner of the screen under the growing red light of the holographic comet.

Aida had been on the Wanderer for just over 10 months when she discovered the anomaly. Below the ferrous crust in quadrant 7813 something was emitting a complex, low frequency radio signal. She excitedly called a second spider drone to the location to assist with the investigation. Their careful multi-jointed probings began to reveal a  highly regular shape twenty metres below the surface. Aida initiated a mining blasting sequence, the drones traversing geometric patterns across the comet’s surface as they mapped and laid the charges. She was creating an initial report for Control when the drones signalled that they were ready for detonation. She watched the explosions from the distance the drones had deemed safe and then eagerly maneuvered them through the dust without waiting for the solar winds to blow it off to join the comet’s tail. The exposed faceted surface gleamed. When her drones had established the perimeter of the geodesic crystalline object she keyed them to return to her ship. She would need to prepare a laser coring module for the next trip.

Aida slept restlessly that cycle. Part of it was excitement. But there was something else too, a tugging sensation just before she would lose or gain consciousness; like she was inexplicably moving towards the comet.

Her laser armed drone articulated itself into position, legs bracing and fusing for stability before it began to burn into the crystal. Aida unnecessarily monitored every moment of the automated process, her eyes never leaving the drone’s camera feed. The spider extracted a cylindrical core roughly half the length of its carapace, and moved across the crystalline surface to begin another burn. It repeated the process twice more before Aida began to steer the drone back to her ship.

She impatiently waited next to the airlock until the drone was through and locked into position. She pushed the key to release the core samples. Their surfaces were awash with hundreds of glinting grey green reflections under the LED lights. Inside the shielding of the ship the crystals were humming softly.

Laika  didn’t remember much about the before-time. Her mother and brothers and sisters had been there and there was warm and safe. Fur against fur. Belly content with milk. Then they were gone. And there was cold and there was hunger.  She had to walk far, always far. The snow hurt her paws.  She was tired, leaning against a wall when she was trapped. Tight choking around her neck. She tried to bite, to  stop tight choking. But she was cold and tired and her paws hurt.  There was rolling moving that made her sick. There was tiny cage. The SadSmokeMan had come to her in the cage. His voice was soft, not cold or choking and he gave her rich steak to eat. He said ‘хорошая собака’ always ‘хорошая собака.’ She licked  SadSmokeMan ’s hands.

Then there was  safe again. Peace. Much to eat. The cold inside her paws turned to warm.  SadSmokeMan sometime stroked her,  ‘хорошая собака.’.

SadSmokeMan took her to ColdNoseBurnMan.  ColdNoseBurnMan was ‘сидеть’, ‘пребывание’, ‘нет, нет, нет,’ always ‘нет, нет, нет.’ His hands were cold and she did not lick them.

There was food. There was warm.  But she must hold still while ColdNoseBurnMan  trapped her inside many layers of strangeness. There were sharp needles that made blood. The cage was very small. Sometimes they trapped her and spun her until she was sick.  When she tried to run it was ‘нет, плохая собака!’

Once lying, crying, her nose burning with vomit, SadSmokeMan had come to see her.  He had stroked her and whispered  ‘хорошая собака’ and very briefly pressed his face against hers.  Then he went away and did not come back.

ColdNoseBurnMan trapped her in layers with many straps and ties. Another rolling, moving took her away for a long time. The cage was small again, but so bright. There was a loudness louder than anything. And a squeezing that came from everywhere. She closed her eyes and cowered, she was ‘хорошая собака,’  she whimpered. She tried to remember her mother. The loudness faded. Dull roaring now inside her ears. The squeezing left, but it made her sick, again and again and again. It was hot. She was trapped many straps and ties, she tried to bite them. There was no water. The hot was burning.  She tried to cover her eyes with her paws, but she could not. She tried to breath but she could not. The hot was burning. She tried to breath.

Then there was white , only white and quiet. Laika was not trapped anymore. She could hear a hum from far away. Her paws did not hurt, so she walked towards it.

Aida woke gasping. She stumbled into the control centre. хорошая собака she mimicked as well as she could, the syllables strange in her mouth. ‘Good dog’ returned the hub, ‘Russian.’ Aida did not know any Russian. She had never seen a dog outside of a sim, they were owned only by the obscenely rich. Aida had to sit down until she stopped shaking.

Aida spent the rest of the cycle examining the cores. They were semi-conductive. They emitted repeating patterns of electromagnetic radiation. Their crystalline structure was more complex than anything she had ever seen before outside of man-made objects. The humming now felt like a living thing inside her head. But she did not eject the cores from her ship.

Élise’s paws and head were tied. She could not claw the burning thing on her head. It sat between her eyes and had icy claws underneath her skin. She foamed and gnashed but could not bite the pain off. A great force pressed her against the floor of the cage. A roaring filled her ears. She closed her eyes and purred , trying to block out the  sound and the pain and the fear.  

And then everything was gone. There was a great purring from amongst the stars. It sounded like home. She ran towards it.

Aida had stopped examining the cores. She had stopped preparing reports to send back to Control. She spent her time pouring over the history of early space travel, not its human heroes, whose names she could already recite like a mantra, but the first living creatures sent into orbit. She could hear their voices in the humming from the pieces of comet aboard her ship. They spoke of suffering and fear. They spoke of loneliness and an end to loneliness. She caught flashes of fur and flicks of tails in the dark corners of her ship. Aida began to sleep with her telescope clutched in her arms.

Gordo did not understand what the bigpinkmonkeys wanted from him. He knew that when he pulled the blue lever he got fruit and sugar cubes. He was pulling the blue lever now, even though he was strapped so tight he could barely moved. He pulled the blue lever and pulled the blue lever and pulled the blue lever and pulled the blue lever.  But there was no treat. And the noise and the fear and the burning did not stop.  

And then they did. And he realised how silly levers were.  He decided to go find out where the warm sound was coming from instead.

Aida did not know if she was travelling in the shadow of a comet of ghosts or if the comet’s complex crystal heart was simply storing and emitting experience like a giant supercomputer. In an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities.

It was also possible that she was still alone on the ship. It was possible that she had gone completely crazy. When she slept she could feel additional weight on the bed. Fur brushed against her skin. She sometimes thought she could hear purring. It all felt real and better than real.

The Demikhov Comet had travelled the solar system for tens of thousands of years. Something inside it both a beacon and an end to loneliness. It spoke to her, just like it spoke to earth’s first space explorers. It spoke of family, of pack, of a warmth that Aida could barely remember, but that could be found beneath the cold light of the stars in the icy heart of a comet.

Aida knew that it the comet was destroyed the animals would die. Or they would die again. Their ghosts or their data or something pushed again into loneliness. Once again sacrificed for humanity and progress. Aida did not know if she was crazy, but she knew that she didn’t want that to happen. That she wouldn’t let that happen.

Aida prepared a series of reports for Control. They spoke of finding increasingly low yields of key mineral and metals, and would be transmitted over many months. The ship would maintain its shadow course for a similar period and then begin a catastrophic trajectory towards the asteroid belt. She could not maintain the illusion of a boring, but essentially fruitless mission forever, but she knew she could do it until it was too late for another vessel to try complete her mission. She could do it until they would all be safe.

It took a while to override the airlock’s failsafes. She entered the lock with the crystal cores strapped to her back. She didn’t think that her new family was limited to the small samples she had with her, but it didn’t seem right to leave them on the ship all the same. Aida clutched her telescope against her chest, she did not falter or pause, she did not close her eyes. Aida stepped into the ocean.

Winner of the NOVA 2013 Short story competition, Published in Probe 159, March 2014

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