Oceans of Darkness
by Corinna Sara Bechko
Corinna Sara Bechko is a writer who can’t shake her zoology background. Her work has appeared in All Hallows, The Absent Willow Review, The Journal of Eschatology, and been short-listed for the Aeon Award. Her horror graphic novel, Heathentown, was published by Image/Shadowline in 2009. More of her comics work can be seen in anthologies from Marvel, Image, and Double Feature. She shares her home with a black cat and a brilliant illustrator. You can follow her adventures at http://thefrogbag.blogspot.com.
Luanne sat in the window seat, surrounded by seashells. That’s what she’d been calling them anyway, even though they hadn’t done any testing yet to determine if there had ever been a sea out there. But seashells were certainly what they looked like. Organic, convoluted spirals. The largest, broken along its center, was almost as wide as her hand. The smallest was the size of the diamond in her wedding ring, which was to say, very small indeed.
Spreading them out in her residence was not strictly protocol. In fact, it wasn’t protocol at all. But there were so many of them out there. Surely picking up a few for personal contemplation wasn’t a crime. The career she had chosen was difficult and had scant rewards, few of them monetary. Who would possibly begrudge her a few personal tokens?
Everyone would, and she knew it. Everyone who wasn’t willing to come this far out of their home system. Everyone who stayed behind and passed judgment on the things one does to stay sane in the dark, where the only light is manufactured, where the idea that it could go out and never come back on stays in the back of one’s mind all the time.
She carefully repacked the shell-things into their little rubbery cases, the material shifting and realigning to accommodate their contours. She snapped the lids closed, sealing them into their cocoons. She was being selfish, she decided. The faster they got on with mapping the geomorphology here the sooner they could leave. Within certain parameters. Which of course changed all the time, depending on the whims of the company. Fuck it, she thought. Selfish or not, I’m keeping these seashells.
She heard the outer airlock hiss open and shut. Then the low rumble as the fans clicked on to compensate for the pressure differential. The world outside had an atmosphere but it was both thin and poisonous. She never liked coming inside before Jim, taking off her suit and getting comfortable while he was still out there, but sometimes the work shifts demanded it. She was glad he was back a little early.
“Anything?” she called when she heard the inner door hiss open.
“Not really. You?”
She rose from her seat as he appeared around the corner, his hair mussed from the tight-fitting helmet and his clothing stuck to his skin. His suit had been running a little hot lately, a fact that she found horribly frightening. Death by overheating on a frozen world seemed just stupid and ironic enough to actually happen.
“No, nothing. Surely we’ve done all we can here?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed, kissing her on the forehead. “All I know is that I’m tired, I smell like plastic, and alien ruins have become prosaic to me. That’s got to be a certain kind of insanity, right?”
She tilted her head, a habit that reminded him of some sort of bird. A crow, maybe? A finch? He let his mind wander, imagined the place as it might have been when it was bathed in light. Were there ever things like birds here? Things with claws and beaks and feathers? That’s immaterial now, he reasoned. If anyone ever figures that out he would read about it on the newsfeeds.
“Well, go grab a shower. The spray should be warm again, it’s been long enough since I finished”. She turned and looked out the window to the circle of ground illuminated by the floodlights hanging from the side of their habitat ring. Nothing moved outside, of course, although it wasn’t as if nothing could. Shortly after their arrival she had been shocked to see some of the little shell-things rolling along the ground. Turned out that there were minor windstorms on this moon, a mystery they still hadn’t quite solved. The moon rotated, of course, and that probably did create some sort of Coriolis effect. And then there was the gravity of the big, dark gas giant they circled, which might tug on the atmosphere enough to stir up the air. The truth was, they didn’t know, and lacked the expertise to know. They were there for one thing only: mineral mapping. Ruins, fossils, windstorms, all these were beside the point as far as their employers were concerned.
Luanne opened her eyes to a primordial darkness. She felt she was suffocating, the weight of all that cold, all those eons of blackness, bearing down on her, pushing her further into her sleeping capsule. She took a deep, ragged breath. I control the dark, she said under her breath. I control it. If I want light, I make it. She reached up and clicked on a tiny reading bulb, fought to drag herself away from the dream she’d been having.
In the dream, she walked the ruins without a suit. The air was cold, but no more so than on a late fall day back home. The structures were black against the darkness of the rocks and the sand beneath her bare feet. When she looked up, she saw the rind of the Milky Way bisected by the disk of the huge nameless planet above them. She heard a faint mewling coming from behind one of the contoured walls and followed it. There, on the ground at the base of a tumble of oval stones, was a creature. It was organically spiraled, full of convoluted details. It had been broken in half. She reached down to touch it. It was as wide as her hand.
She shook her head and reached for the screen set into the wall, clicked on the novel she had started before bed, gradually relaxed. And then sat up, almost calling for Jim. She knew what the dream reminded her of.
It had become difficult to keep track of the days. Up until a couple of weeks before, the Corporation had updated them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Now they were being more sporadic. Jim had gone into the communication hutch to see if there was a new message after their last outing, and had come out swearing.
“What now?” she asked.
“What do you think? They want more tests run on the North Side. So that pushes back our departure window. Again”.
“How long?” she didn’t want to hear how long, not really. She had been having the dreams every night for at least a week now. She wanted to believe they were really leaving within the month.
“Brace yourself,” he said, not joking. “A full year”.
“What?” Luanne’s tongue felt thick behind her teeth. Her ears were full of buzzing. An Earth year? That couldn’t be right.
“That’s what they said. We’ll be fine as far as provisions go, especially since we started the garden. Even if they said two years we wouldn’t starve. And there’s plenty of water as long as the pumps work. But they’ve pushed the date back so many times that we’re about to pass behind the planet. And then there’s everything else to coordinate… Fuck”.
Luanne could feel the panic rising behind her breastbone. She fought against it. It was no use. I control the panic, she thought. I control it. It was no use.
That night, after their shifts were done, Luanne leaned towards Jim over their shared workstation. She didn’t want to say it.
“Jim,” she stopped, frowned. “Jim,”
“We have to go back home. We can’t stay here,”
He glanced at her, annoyed.
“No, really. I’m going to tell them that we can’t stay here,”
“It’s too late, I already told you. They miscalculated last time. Lord knows it’s hard to tell where these orphan planets might be heading, but I still think they screwed us deliberately. Anyway, either they’re lying or they really miscalculated. Doesn’t matter which, we’re stuck”.
He turned back to the work he was collating. She tried again.
“No, it’s an emergency. We really can’t be here”.
This time he stopped, stared at her.
“What do you mean, emergency? We signed off on all contingencies. No exceptions. What’s wrong?”
“I told you about the dreams? What does that remind you of?”
He shook his head, and she tried hard to remember that he hadn’t experienced the dreams last time, only heard her tell about them. She cocked her head. “They remind me of the fact that we’re living in a very unnatural state. It’s gotta take a toll on you, knowing there’s no host star out there. It certainly takes a toll on me. Sometimes I forget we’re so far from a system, start thinking that we’re really far under water instead. The mind’s a funny thing”.
“It is, at that,” she said, resigned. “I think I’m pregnant”.
Teams like theirs were expensive to outfit and launch, but nothing compared to how much it cost to have a whole mining operation sent out of system. That’s why they sent just two people at a time to scout a location. Robots were good for picking out likely targets, but only people on the ground could give a full overview of what conditions would be like for other people, who were still needed for this sort of operation.
Jim and Luanne had done quite a few turns in the past, most of them in system, on asteroids. This was their first turn on one of the so-called orphan bodies, usually big moons orbiting gas giants not attached to any system. It was incredibly odd to find ruins here, but not unheard of. At some point the planet above them had circled a star, and the moon they were living on had been full of life, or at least had been an outpost for life.
The company they worked for liked to know that the people it sent out were compatible, that they worked well together. Often this meant married couples, but not always. Married or not, a track record of not going crazy and killing each other during the long months of seclusion was helpful in their line of work. A record of not springing any surprises on the company was helpful too. The company wasn’t allowed to force it’s employees to prove sterility, but suggesting it often meant getting the job.
Luanne had good reason to think they wouldn’t surprise the company. It was part of why they did this kind of work. Early on in their relationship, long before they had started shipping out, she had been pregnant. It hadn’t lasted though, despite their plans and hopes. They had thought that it would happen again, but the doctor, when they finally went to one, had told them something entirely different. There would be no more pregnancies for them.
So they went back to school, taking courses in chemistry and physics, geology and mineralogy. They became a team. And whenever they applied for jobs Luanne was careful to put on the application, under known health issues, “unable to have children”. She felt hollow inside for a while, knowing that their family began and ended with the two of them. Gradually they began to get more and more interesting assignments, and the feeling became easier to put aside. But she never forgot the dreams she had while she was pregnant: rich, textured, alive and strange. It was the work of hormones, she knew. But it felt as if the alien being growing inside her, the her/not her/Jim/not Jim, was feeding her dreams in exchange for the oxygen and nutrients she was feeding to it.
“Are you sure?” asked Jim. “How can you be sure?”
“Of course I’m not sure. But I told you: the dreams”.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. So there’s no way to be sure right now. And, it might not… Last anyway. Right?”
She hated him, then. She was sorry she had told him. Told him what, anyway? About a vague feeling, about some dreams? It was enough for her. She was sure.
It was a strange thing, knowing that the moon was circling, that time was passing, without any external signposts. God, I miss seasons, she thought. She wished that the people who had designed the habitat ring had thought to put a window in the roof, to show the stars. At least those should change. It was hard to tell, outside. The ruins were so disorientating. She wanted to start making sky charts but didn’t know how.
She counted backwards, over and over, trying to remember when her personal season had last shifted. It was impossible. Without the regular updates from the corporation she had no markers at all. She stayed mad a Jim for a long time too, how long she wasn’t sure. They still worked together, and spoke about work, but she ignored him otherwise. He tried to apologize, became frustrated, yelled at her, tried again to apologize. She let it all slide past her. All she wanted was to sleep, to figure out how to walk through the ruins without a suit, to pick up more of the shells and have them whisper to her.
At last, after a few days or perhaps a week, Jim tried again to talk to her. Her rage had subsided, but she still felt untethered. He approached her cautiously, as if she were a wild thing that might flit off at any sudden movement.
“Alright,” he said. His voice was calm but his fingers were jumpy. They toyed with the frayed edge of his shirt, tried to scratch holes in the metal tabletop. “Alright. Here’s what we know: we can’t leave here for almost 12 standard months. There’s not another team of any sort scheduled for at least 24 months after that. The ship for our return trip will only hold the two of us, and only if we weigh about the same as we did when it brought us. Interstellar travel is not safe for children or, especially, embryos. Hell, it’s not good for us either…”
She looked strait at him, unsmiling. Tilted her head, tilted it back. She knew all these things, had considered them. But her mind slipped off of them. The puzzle was inside a black box, the answer hidden from view.
“So… Options?” He looked at her, hoping for an answer, a flat statement. She didn’t speak.
“You still do think… ?” He looked at his hands, at the tiny ball of string that he had pulled off the bottom of his shirt. Jesus Christ, he thought. What were they supposed to wear for another whole year? Living involved more than just eating and breathing. For the thousandth time he cursed the corporation.
Luanne watched him roll and unroll the little bit of fabric between his fingertips. She did know the options, if not the answer: leave now, despite what the corporation wanted. Hope that it wasn’t too late to formulate a strait shot. Hope that they could figure out a way to keep the tiny mass of cells inside her from growing on the way home, from trying to be born. Take the dead baby out of her on Earth.
Or: figure out a way to take it out here, now.
Or: stay here, have the baby, hope to live through it, and send only one of them home next year. Not “one of them”, Luanne knew. Send Jim home. It was obvious which one of them was equipped to produce food for a baby. She would stay, with an infant, in the dark. For at least two years. The thought made her dizzy.
She remained silent. She knew what would probably happen. The baby would stop being. Soon, it would feel very silly to have worried about these things at all.
“Luanne,” said Jim, “ are you sure that you don’t know when this happened? It would help, if you could remember”.
She shook her head. Of course she couldn’t remember. She’d stopped paying attention to such things a long time ago. “You could try to remember too, you know”. She didn’t mean to be harsh. But honestly, how could you count weeks in a place like this? Five weeks, six, ten? She hadn’t felt nauseous, hadn’t really felt anything. Except for the dreams.
Luanne sat at the workbench, collating data that didn’t really need to be collated. It was getting harder for her to work outside. The suit didn’t fit very well anymore, and that could be dangerous. So Jim did most of the work in the ruins, and on the North Side. They had even determined the parameters of where a shore had been. Luanne now thought they were camped next to an ancient lakebed instead of a sea. They had found hematite, which suggested that the lake had held plain water instead of something more exotic. Jim thought that the ruins had been a harbor once, and that there was a good chance that the company would want to drill in the lakebed. Maybe they would push up the relay team’s window, send another team within a year. It was possible.
They had talked, and talked, and talked, about trying to go home despite what the company wanted. In the end they hadn’t done it, not so much because they felt they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, but simply because they had talked for too long. The window of opportunity had passed, and with it their line of communication to the corporation. They were cut off now, for at least six months, until the moon reemerged from behind the planet.
Luanne heard the airlock hiss, and presently Jim came into the room. His suit was still running hot, so now he often used hers. It was good that they were so closely matched in size, another benefit to hiring them as a team.
“Guess what?” said Luanne, looking up at him. “It moved,”
Jim exhaled. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! It’s alive!”
“Let me feel”. He knelt next to her. Nothing for a moment. For a full minute. But finally, he felt it too.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay”.
“What do we do now?” she asked. “What the fuck do we do? How do we get home?”
“Home,” he said. “I guess the answer is: we are home”.