“Call me Robert. For what little time we have left to spend together, it will suffice.”
The astronaut crawled toward the edge of the makeshift shelter in the cave. His broken leg prevented him from properly setting up the rescue tent. The thermal insulation was defective and couldn’t resist a potential aggression. Luckily, the place didn’t seem haunted by hostile creatures. The only presence were the diaphanous draperies that billowed two feet from the ground like some miniature aurora borealis.
The man reached the mattress. He lay there, heaving. Then he injected himself with a new dose of sedatives. A minute later, he let out a sigh of relief and the grimace vanished from his face.
“It hurts like hell,” he let out. “Maybe the infection is spreading through the body right now, as we speak. Of course, I could stand a chance if I cut my leg and cauterized the wound. But I don’t have the power to do it.” He shook his head, then he watched the draperies with hope: “You wouldn’t know how to do it, would you?”
The yellow-greenish transparent folds billowed in the draft that got through from the cave entrance to some faraway tunnel.
“I thought so,” Robert answered for him. “Well…anyway, I think the bacteria will got to me. You know…I did a scan of the atmosphere before the crash and I found it 99,99% compatible with the normal one. Yes, I see, you think this is good news. But it’s not, not at all.”
He paused. He adjusted his crushed leg on the mattress, then took a bite from a synthetic bar.
“You see, if the atmosphere hadn’t been good for me, I’d’ve died when the ship porthole broke. I would’ve suffocated myself. On the other hand, those 0.01% left is enough to ensure the existence of some pathogens my body can’t fight against.”
The ethereal presence fluttered under the momentum of a breeze.
“What? Do you think it could help me heal? Hmmm…it could be a chance, it could, but way too small. I wouldn’t count on it. I tell you, this time tomorrow I will start hallucinating, then enter a coma and in a day or two I’ll be dead.”
The words came out with detachment as an effect of the sedatives.
“I sent a signal through the beacon ejected on the orbit, but I’m not putting too much hope on it. It takes time for someone to receive the signal through the relays, until the triangulation is made…o-ho! I could be my clothes and a bag of bones til then.”
He stared at the draperies that rippled over the ground, floating adrift.
“Don’t you have any idea how could we spend our time until then? Just as I thought. Eh, if the onboard computer hadn’t malfunctioned, I could’ve entered some virtual game to anesthetize my senses.” He chuckled: “Well, if it hadn’t malfunctioned, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. I had to destroy it, otherwise it would’ve finished me off.”
He became aware of the paradox that, anyway, the crash meant something final. He shrugged:
“Do you have the time to listen how it all started? Do you? Ok.
It all started when I was a lab technician on the Chica station. Somewhere in the Swan Constelation – though, in space, the star clusters doesn’t follow the rules from Earth. What appears on the plante sky as some drawing, here it is stars set apart by huge distances.
But that’s beside the point.
One day, after my shift was over, I went over to the lab where my girlfriend Anna worked. She and her team were trying to synthesize a new substance. The funds for the station labs are hard to get and they are contingent on the results. The project she was working on could provide some relief for a while. In just a few months she passed from the stage of first theoretical concepts, then putting them into practice, to finally reach the last phase. As such, the team was working around the clock – they even ate and slept in the lab.
In my case, things were simpler: I had two projects going that still brought money in. At work things were normal, unlike at home. I missed Anna. We spoke through the holovision system, but it’s one thing to talk to someone in person and another to see only his projection, no matter how realistic that would be.
As such, I decided to go over and visit her. She was glad, but you could tell she was under stress and extremely tired. We hold each other for a while, we kissed, then she took me to show the place where they strove to synthesize that wonder substance. They were hoping it would have some beneficial effects on people prone to mental illnesses. A mixture aimed at preserving conscience indefinitely to an optimum level, evading depression, panick attacks, dementia and all other lunacies.
From the outside, behind the polycarbonate window, it all looked as common as any chemical process. Different compounds were subjected to some procedures to help them react as intended by the lab technicians. I couldn’t make much of it, as my specialty was astrophysics, not chemistry. I watched the mixture a little and I wanted to ask a few question to feign interest, then to hold Anna some more and return to our cabin…
Well, the moment I was looking around, the substance synthesized. I considered it mere coincidence, but the team rejoiced and said I brought them good luck.
The substance proved to have the characteristics construed in theory, the lab contrived to receive a new grant and myself and Anna could go back to our usual lives. It could’ve all stopped there if my girlfriend – with the support of all her peers – hadn’t considered I was worth some of that mixture whose synthetization coincided with my arrival.
In brief, as of then, our cabin kept a little container with a pinkish slurry of that substance.”
The astronaut blinked a few times, then looked around in a daze. Judging by the reactions that alternated on his face it was clear he was dreaming, and the wakening brought him back in a place he didn’t want to be. It took a few seconds for him to take it all round, then he tried to recline on his side. The pain in his leg made him scream. He collapsed back on the mattress, his forehead full of sweat and his saliva gathered in the corner of his mouth. He was heaving, searching to gain control of himself.
A silky caressing had the effect of a sedative on his tense muscles. Robert slowly relaxed, his heart steadied its beats and his breathing got easier.
“It’s better now…”
He opened his eyes and looked up. An aurora borealis floated above him, running its airy draperies over his body – still pleasant and soothing.
“Thank you,” the man said.
He tried to scrutinize the darkness of the cave to see whether it was night or day beyond the entrance hidden by a big rock. The iridescence of the ethereal being and its younger siblings, along with the light spread by the camp lantern were of no use to him. He could’ve have put out the latter, it was near his elbow, but he didn’t want to remain in darkness, not even for a few moments. He search, instead, for a synthetic bar. The vials with sedatives fell out too from his emergency bag. He realized he didn’t need them. Touching that native shape soothed his pains.
He looked at it more carefully. It was noticeably bigger than the others and seemed more consistent.
“Do you have a name?” He stopped, then rephrased it: “Are you a being? I mean…a living one, do you have a conscience…something?”
Stolidly, the aerial drapery was billowing back and forth, caressing him. The contact was perceived, surprisingly, even through the thermo-insulating suit. It gave a sensation of coolness and calm.
“I’m already starting to rave,” the man smiled wryly. “I think I can feel you through the material…”
He pressed his fingers down on his groin area. He grimaced when he felt twinges stabbing his body.
“It goes up,” he muttered. “The infection is finishing me off…” He looked again at the invisibile entrance of the cave: “No one came looking for me while I was unconscious, right? Course not,” he answered himself. Even assuming the orbital beacon guided correctly the beam throughout the whole relays path until the nearest station or planet, it still could take forever. Flight approvals, destination computing, the route…
He put his head back and admired in silence the fractal patterns that shaped the partially closed roof of the shelter. It was terrible to know that he was cast away in that savage corner of the universe, but even more so to know that he didn’t even stood a chance trying to save himself. If he’d been in one piece, he could’ve done a thing or two. The breathable atmosphere could’ve allowed him to save on resources, to support himself while waiting for the rescuers.
He could’ve had a chance to live.
Or if the computer hadn’t broke. A normal one, not the infected one he used on his flight here.
“Do you wanna listen some more? Good.”
Ana was the one who noticed the difference. When I was passing by the container, the suspension aerated and took a bright color, a light pink. As though it was illuminating. We amused ourselves about it for a while. But once, when we made love, Anna saw that the suspension thickened and was muddy, its color a dirty pink.
“Do you think it is jealous?” she asked me after the sixth instance of this.
“It’s just a chemical mixture” I replied. “How can it have feelings?
Anna argued with me, saying that our emotions was triggered by certain amount of chemical concentrations in our bodies and the substance was created to help as such.
“We’re talking about conscience here,” I pointed out. “It’s a more complex issue.”
We bickered a while on this subject, but I didn’t gave it any importance. It had an effect on Anna, instead. At some time, she refused to make love in our cabin and took me to a public toilet. I thought she was exaggerating. But, when we returned to the room, the lid of the container popped off and a few drops splashed her, making some nasty burns on her face. She screamed and I froze. By the time I could react, my girlfriend had taken the container and smashed it on the wall. She screamed and swore, saying that the substance had attacked her. I had to call the station security forces…
Oh, it’s hard talking about it. They sedated her and after she got to her senses, they tried counseling her. Of no avail, unfortunately. Anna was holding forth that the substance wanted me and she needed to eliminate it, to keep me just for herself. I didn’t have a choice but to let them lock her up and treat her, hoping it was only a form of temporary insanity.
What irony of fate! The very substance that could’ve helped Anna get rid of her mental problems was the one she refused taking it with all her might! You couldn’t disregard her own will, it wouldn’t have been deontological, so they tried the classic methods on her. No success.
I returned alone in my cabin. The wall intelligent fibers absorbed the stain made by the impact with the container and decomposed the substance, transforming it into…In fact, that’s what I thought then, it was just like any other normal situation.
Sadly, Anna’s violent deed was the one that complicated things. I didn’t notice it until a few days later and even then I didn’t figure the things out from the beginning. Anyway…I couldn’t have changed anything. It was already too late.
In about a week, a shortcircuit occurred at the station medical wing. The access was blocked and, no matter what they tried, the programmers could only rewrite the software code – with the help of the mother-computer – to switch to manual operation only after a few hours.
When the emergency team finally got in, all personnel and patients were found unconscious. The oxygen supply of the medical wing was almost depleted. Nevertheless, they were all recovered. All…except Anna.
The cabin where they treated her looked terrible. My girlfriend’s body was spread on the floor. The fixed appliances on the walls that no human strength could’ve tore off were removed from their supports and hurled crashing upon her. Her skin was nipped all over, her eyes dislodged from the sockets, the brain turned into a gel in her skull, the walls splattered with blood and the organs in her eviscerated body…
Robert sat up, ravaged. Large beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and his eyes were blurry. He was panting, his lips dry. He watched the illuminating creature that watched over him.
The translucent fingers caressed the back of his hand, then squeezed his wrist protectively. The astronaut shook his head.
“Anna is no more. It killed her. The moment it was absorbed by the intelligent fibers of the station wall, the substance had the chance to transcribe the fractal code and invade the mother-computer. From there, it gained access to everything…”
He paused and tried to see beyond the illuminating creature. His tired gaze couldn’t cross beyond the miniature aurorae borealis that hovered a few feet from the ground.
“Did you hear something? I must see whether some emergency crew came, to signal them…”
He tried to get up, but he slumped back, exhausted. His large eyes swirled, searching to rest upon some pattern on the insulating wall of the shelter. A stream of saliva trickled from his open mouth.
The man choked, coughed and spitted, then reclined on his side. He seemed aware again of his bearings. He felt the soft palms that caressed him, trying to soothe his pain.
“You want to know how it ended? How I actually got here?”
The being nodded.
When I realized what happened, I decided to leave. I was a hazard for anyone on that station as long as I was there. Anna was right. That maddening substance was tied to me. It synthesized in my presence and, as she told me later, it was born out of love for me. When it felt my presence, the mixture reacted.
At first, it attacked the person I most loved. But who was to tell where its jealousy was taken it? What if it was to attack any person I happened to talk to or exchange looks with? All just to have me just for itself?
“Let’s destroy the universe and recreate a new one just for the two of us!” it told me.
Not at the time, after I left. I quitted my job and rented a small starship with the savings I had left and decided to run as far as I could, on another colony. At that moment, it haven’t crossed my mind that my gesture could sentence to death all the people left behind. In its anger, the now all-potent substance was capable to destroy the station.
Luckily for those who stayed – and unfortunately for me – it didn’t remained. It transfered to the on-board computer of my starship. There, in the loneliness of the space, it spoke to me for the first time. I had nowhere to hide. I listened to its any dim-witted ideas, its love statements…
“We are now finally together!” it told me, it wrote to me. “I am the substance that You created, that you made it to be alive…I was just a mixture until You showed up. Out of my love for you was the synthetization made. I loved You, but You were a man, and I something completely different; You loved someone else. All Your feelings were with another being, and I couldn’t show you what I felt. I tried every which way to make You understand my feelings, but You didn’t figure them out. Even more, that someone wanted to destroy me so as to keep You. But I exist only for You and, behold, the love made it possible – finally! – to bring You with me. Just You and me…”
It repeated obsessively that if I relinquished my body and transfered my conscience to the onboard computer, we could be together. It brought me on the verge of insanity. What terrified me the most was not the idea to spend the eternity with it. It was its desire to destroy the entire universe just for the two of us to recreate one anew.
Could it have done this? Who knows? I’ve seen too many to allow myself to ignore it. I chose to destroy the onboard computer where it was kept a prisoner as we were nearing this planet. With no autopilot, the starship started to drift. I couldn’t switch to manual control, so I crashed. I only got to send the beacon onto the orbit, hoping its signal would bring someone here, someday…
“It’s too late, isn’t it?”
He felt no pain, that was good. At least in his last moments, he found relief. He unburdened his soul, and someone was there to receive. He flinched.
“Do you hear something?”
“What is it?” he asked just before his mind became hazy again.
When he came to for the last time, he just blabbered, his shrunk pupils looking somewhere blank. When the boots stomped on the wet floor, coming around the rock behind the entrance, he was floating somewhere between life and death.
When the fully suited astronaut stopped behind the sea of draperies hovering above the ground, his soul had already left his shrunk body, devoured on the inside by the infection. For the one that came searching for him, he was now only a dead body covered in a space suit in a completely installed shelter, lying on a mattress above which leaned a humanoid-shaped being. No matter what he’d had tried, he couldn’t answer any questions now.
The ethereal creature did that instead:
“Call me Robert,” it smiled serenely.
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA