Odyssey I

“How many people dream of conquering Everest, so that they can look down from it, and yet for us from above it was difficult to even locate.”

– Cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev

Forward

EXCERPT
The Other Red Planet: A history of the Odyssey program 
Raya Andiyar

When Gregor van der Berg and his team tapped into a natural gas reserve on Mars in 2057, the world collectively scrambled to find the source of this unexpected find. Over the next two decades, the International Martian Research Station was established and manned in the Hypanis Vallis region. It wasn’t long before IMRS unearthed fossilized microbial life. The discovery of extinct extraterrestrials precipitated a renewed interest in the search for life outside the Solar System.

Six space agencies and two private companies cooperated to send out high-velocity interstellar probes to twelve nearby terrestrial planets, each one a promising candidate for life. Three of the Beagle probes, as they were called, went silent before reaching their destinations. Each of the remaining nine settled into orbit, one by one, around its planet of interest. As the 21st century came to a close, the first messages from the Barnard system reached Earth.

The discoveries were astounding! The first satellite images from Barnard’s fourth planet revealed oceans and continents, dusted red-violet with flourishing plant life. The atmosphere was toxic to humans but proved to be rich in gasses common to Earth. The planet’s natural features, along with its tidally locked state, engendered an array of familiar biomes: tundra, rainforest, desert, and prairie among them, along with a few that didn’t fit the profile of any know biomes.  Strong currents in the air and the seas moderated the climate and, most importantly, prevented the atmosphere from freezing on the dark side. Of the nine planets observed, only Ur, the Venus-like planet orbiting Lalande 21185, came closer to Earth’s size in mass and radius. The planet was given the proper name Ilion after the ancient city of Troy. In keeping with the ancient civilization theme, the other planets became Avaris, Tel Kabra, Ur, Vaishali, Atlantis, Yingchang, Pompeii, and Cahokia.

Odyssey I Mission Patch jpg

Left Behind

MICHAEL VANDER, COMMANDER

So…I’ve been asked to lead the first manned mission to an extrasolar planet. I have one year to assemble a crew. This isn’t a decision to take lightly, no way. Fourteen years my team and I will be away from Earth, but for us, it will only feel like five. I can handle the effects of time dilation. Both my daughters are grown-up, and they’re not going anywhere while I’m gone. They’ll just be a little bit older, not much younger than myself, in fact. I may even get to see my great grandchildren grow up, which is something not many people get to experience.

Not many people get to set foot on an alien planet either, which is why the recruiting process will be tricky. Bright-eyed astronauts might be dazzled by the prospect, but I need a crew who knows what they’re getting into, what they’re sacrificing by joining this expedition. I don’t want any regrets on my ship.

I might, however, have to make an exception for the position of pilot. While most of our engineer candidates could step up to the task with enough training, I need a pilot with proven experience, someone who could negotiate a cyclone handcuffed and blindfolded if need be. That may sound like a tall order but word has it there is such a fellow, a former employee of Schrodinger who is quietly making a name for himself as a life support repairman, a freelancer of sorts. He may be young and ambitious, but an expert like that is too valuable to pass up. Let’s see what I can do.

RASHID ANDIYAR, MECHANIC AND PILOT

It’s hard to take stock of the things I’ve left behind. I’ve entrusted the emergency repair partnership to Peter. That’s fine. My brother’s much more business savvy than I am anyway. But I’m also leaving Peter himself, Raya, and Dahlia, not to mention my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends, old co-workers, Justine from the farmers market, Peter’s roommate Abraham, the lady who waves at me at the laundromat, whose name I never asked, cardamom tea, heavy rain, respite from the rain. Cohen, the man who bought my house so I could pay for the shuttle. Everest, the craft that carries me to orbit to repair the life support systems, and back home again.

I can’t believe I agreed to this. Michael Vander is a very persuasive man.

ALEX O'HEARN, BIOLOGIST

We’ve met before, briefly, back when I worked at the Holt Astrobiology Lab. A burst steam pipe had damaged our microbiology department’s autoclave. Our contract with Ceres entitled us to prompt repairs on any machinery installed by the company, but their definition of “prompt” seemed to be “six weeks on the waiting list.” Now, I know it’s not a simple matter to send repairmen into orbit, and they are a large company with a host of obligations, but our researchers could not go that long without sterile equipment.

So we enlisted the help an independent company – Andes Emergency Repair. The entire business is run by two brothers, and nobody else does what they do. That is, no one else will personally fly into space within the week to fix critical machinery when the contractors are too slow to respond. Evidently, this problem is widespread enough to keep the Andiyars in business, but not so widely known as to spawn competition. Rashid and the autoclave specialist he recruited specifically for this job had us up and running within two days.

That’s not why I remember him, though. I remember him because he offered to carry back all of our DNA samples, seeds, and even some live transgenic mice and ship them to Harvard at no cost to us. It would have been months before the regular delivery shuttle came to pick those up.

ERIN CARELLOS, ENGINEER

When my coworker Amanda suggested we quit our jobs and train to be astronauts, I thought she was kidding. Not a week went by without some talk about giving the boss the finger and riding off into the sunset. Not that our office was such a terrible place to work, I mean at least they paid well. For me, a job is a job, but Amanda hated working at Ceres Engineering. Her modeling skills were passable but the workload was too much for her scattered brain. There was always something missing, like a graph without labels or a figure out of place. Her reports could be on time, or complete. Never both.

So you can see why the thought of Amanda as flight engineer for the century’s most important space mission would make me say “yeah, sure” and get back to my error analysis. But the computer hadn’t finished running the simulation yet, so I had some downtime. I looked more carefully at the requirements: advanced degree in computer science, technology, or engineering; at least three years of professional experience in the field, outdoor experience, physically fit, eyesight correctable to 20/20, etc., etc. Amanda probably wasn’t eligible, but I was.

I was surprised at how many candidates qualified for both “degree in engineering” and “outdoor experience.” I was also amazed at how far into the selection process a simple trait like high g tolerance would get me, something I didn’t even know I had. It helps to be short, but there’s more to it than that. Four candidates were disqualified after fainting in the centrifuge too many times and not all of them were tall. Two dropped out on their own accord when a casual fling turned serious. We lost three to suited wilderness training. Apparently they’d never hiked in heavy winter clothes before. Pretty soon it was just me and Korean woman from China who had a stiff upper lip and never even attempted to carry a conversation. She was reassigned to backup pilot when a vacancy opened up, and so…here I am.

LUO PING, MEDIC

There wasn’t going to be a medic. They were going to train all crewmembers in first aid, and the two biologists would share the duty of regulating the crew’s health, nutrition, and exercise. All crewmembers would participate in research tasks, but the biologists would be in charge. Everything else medical-related would be relayed by the ground crew, including myself, a physical therapist who mainly treats astronauts.

The choices they made about crew selection and training never made sense to me. Of the three crewmembers trained in the shuttle, only two would use it. And why the emphasis on physical prowess? A lot of perfectly competent women (and men, too) were excluded on those grounds. And to have no on-board medic, but two biologists? Besides, we’re kind of biologists too. Humans, plants, bacteria – it’s all the same when you’re looking at aliens.

It was one of the engineer candidates (and of course it would be an engineer) who raised the question that would confirm my misgivings. She asked me, “Wouldn’t it be easier to train you to take samples and process them, than to put a biologist through med school?”

So I went to Vander about it, and that’s how I became the medic of Odyssey I.

sunrise

Resilience

RECORDING

MDV: The report says you have a history of panic disorder. Is that going to be a problem?
LP: That was a long time ago, and only once. I was going through a rough period and we were visiting family on their farm, and the weather was terrible. I thought I was lost, and panicked. When my mom found me she freaked out and took me to the ER. I was a kid, for god’s sake. Of course I was scared.
MDV: So you’re saying your mom overreacted.
LP: Yes. And the doctor, too. That’s not the diagnosis I would’ve made.
MDV: You’re going to be confined to a spaceship the size of two Tokyo apartments, you understand that? You’re going to be living there for five years.
LP: I’m from Zhengzhao.
MDV: Five years. That’s longer than you probably think.
LP: Have you been to Zhengzhao?

ALEX O'HEARN

It’s reassuring that many of the spaceflight-adapted plant strains I’ve helped develop are coming along for the ride. Besides giving me something meaningful to work on over the next five years, it’ll be a valuable chance to put their hardiness to the test.

MICHAEL VANDER

We have measures, tests if you will, of resilience in a man. It involves subjection to months of isolation, backbreaking work, and performance of tasks under pressure. All five of us passed, but that means little in the face of the trials ahead. A few months is peanuts compared to five years, and nothing is guaranteed out there in the black. That’s why most of the psychologists recommend that we all keep journals and write in them every day, no matter how uneventful the day was. It’ll keep us sane, they say. It’ll ease our nerves.

I’m bringing a little more than a tablet and stylus, or pen and paper as I imagine a traditionalist like Alex might prefer. One and a half kilos of my personal effects allowance will go toward some black and white paint, watercolors, brushes, and drawing paper. Writing doesn’t come naturally to me, though I’ll try my best. It’s just…there are some wonders in the world that can’t be put to words.

Crashing Dreams

Crash Course

ERIN CARELLOS

When Dr. Alster suggested dream diaries, I almost rolled my eyes. I didn’t, of course, because I’m not a complete ass, but all I could think of were those quacks who interpret your dreams like it’s your horoscope or something. I’m talking things like “the mountain road represents the winding path to your future, and the recurring accidents mean you’re not at peace with your destiny.” Vander’s really into that horse shit but I could never bring myself to take it seriously.

I get it now. It’s not about palm reading or fortune telling. It’s about doing whatever I can to make the nightmares stop.

There’s nothing voodoo about spending the entire night running spacecraft into the ground after a hard day of flight training. After all, about a third of our landing simulations end in disaster. Failure takes the form of four colored dots on a screen, each standing in for a seat on the shuttle. All red means all dead. There’s rarely any middle ground, but yesterday, we had the unusual case of two red, a green, and a yellow. In real world terms, that translates to one bleak scene. The doctor survives, as does the biologist, but he is bleeding inside. With both pilots dead and the ship crippled beyond repair, all they can do is wander the shuttle’s vicinity until their oxygen runs out.

Which brings me to the nightmares. They always end in a crash of the three-red, one-green variety. The back seats are thrown into a heap. Pipes bend and snap like ribs – like the ribs of the man in the pilot’s seat, in fact, as a great sheet of steel rams into his chest. And then, like a fool, I crawl through the rubble to investigate. I always find a different face behind that mask. Last night it was my brother’s. Tell me, doctor, what do you make of that?

Time Travel

MICHAEL VANDER
January 1, Year 1

If I were to walk down the street on this day and ask the first stranger I see for the date, he would tell me it’s the fifth of June. If I were to step into the nearest Coffee Table and log into one of their computers, the time would read 5:30 am. Not so for us. Time will pass differently for the crew of Odyssey I beginning today, so our calendar rolled back this morning to January 1, Year 1. The time is T minus one hour. The clock starts in sixty minutes.

planet gray banner

Hitchhikers

ALEX O'HEARN
January 3, Year 1

We’re about as clean as it gets. Before embarking, we all showered thoroughly and took heavy doses of antibiotics to reduce the microflora load in and on our bodies. It wasn’t easy on the stomach so we took pills to reseed our digestive tracts with beneficial bacteria and viruses. This procedure was nothing new to me. I had to undergo it every time I boarded the Holt Astrobiology Lab where I used to work. It’s not pleasant but it eliminates the need for elaborate biosecurity measures while working at the orbiting facility. Short term visitors (like Rashid) skipped this step but had to wear full body suits whenever they left the isolation module. It’s one of those things where it’s only worth it if you’re in it for the long haul.

My neighbors who worked with the animals had a term for this, for being germ free except for a few carefully selected microorganisms: gnotobiotic. All of the mice and rats on HAL were gnotobiotic. In theory, Odyssey houses gnotobiotic astronauts and plants. These procedures were put in place to protect both our health and the health of the planet we’ll be visiting.

In theory.

Sterilizing enough supplies to sustain five humans for five years was no simple task. If there’s anything left on us or our stuff it’s likely to be resistant. That’s a scary thought for Luo, who has only a limited arsenal to treat his crewmates for illness or injury. Scarier to me is what our plants carry. What could mycorrhizal fungi do to Ilion’s fertile soil? I don’t know – probably nothing, but that’s a big “probably” I don’t want to test. Well, okay. I do want to test it, but on Earth, underground and secure. Not here. Unfortunately we’re not bringing any live samples home, so that’ll have to wait until Odyssey II.

Road Trip

LUO PING
January 29, Year 1

Now that we’ve settled into our new life in space, I’m beginning to get a feel for the crew dynamics.  We’re not at each other’s throats all the time, but all semblance of professionalism breaks down as soon as we cease communications with the increasingly distant capcom. We’re just a family on a road trip. Everybody knows everyone’s limits but that doesn’t stop us from testing each other’s patience every now and then, like a kid brother kicking the back of your seat for hours on end. You learn to live with it, and he knows when he’s taking it too far.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been tasked with reviewing all recorded conversations and watching for signs of friction.  And to be honest, I haven’t really seen anything beyond the good-natured ribbing that’s become standard procedure on the ship. Again, limits. We know them. We don’t cross lines. We have a moral obligation to make this work out, to prove to the doubters that five people can cooperate for five years in complete isolation from the civilized world. So no drama allowed.

We all have our ways of making that happen. It’s no secret that Rashid doesn’t care for me at all, but he never lets that show when Erin’s around. She watches out for me, and for everyone else. Vander doesn’t mind the banter, but he won’t tolerate insults to family or culture. So no jokes about Alex’s mother’s cats, Erin’s deadbeat brother, or Vander’s ex-wife. On the other hand, affronts to crewmates are fair game, as exemplified by this exchange over flight practice:

RPA: You see, we’re a living example of the twin paradox. When I return, she’ll be nine years older than me.
ESC: You never told me you and Raya were twins.
RPA: You’ve known me for six years!
ESC: Exactly, and you never brought it up, ever. And you don’t look anything alike.
RPA: We’re the same age.
ESC: Really? She looks about thirty and you look like death’s door.
RPA: Oh, shut up. At least I have some hair on my head.
ESC: Hey, you leave Alex out of this.
RPA: I wasn’t talking about him.
ESC: Okay, you try keeping long hair under a helmet for six hours at a time and then we’ll talk.

moon

ERIN CARELLOS
January 30, Year 1

Five years? When I heard that, I braced myself for another car trip across the continent, but with each day stretched to 365. Like driving, most of my work is automated. But instead of installing a redundant master computer, they decided to stick a human engineer on board. And for what? Everything’s behaving just dandy.

But I’m not complaining. If the car breaks down, we call the highway service. If Odyssey breaks down, we call me. If I never have to work an extra day on this trip, I’ll call that a success.

pass

ALEX O'HEARN
February 2, Year 1

Everyone else talks about the trip like it’s the most drawn-out cross country drive imaginable. I’m not seeing it. To me, it feels less like a road trip and more like waking up, saying good morning (to the same four people), hanging up the laundry (by the air vents), commuting (by ladder) to work, gardening (with hydroponics), eating dinner (out of a can), and climbing in to bed (literally). It’s no different from my old life.

mars and anansi

Stories

ERIN CARELLOS
March 4, Year 1

Our PR guy wants us to write a little piece about ourselves. You know, for other people to read, I guess to remind them of what’s at stake if something goes wrong. It adds an element of suspense for those who don’t give a damn about exploration and discovery. Well, to hell with that, I’m keeping this mission as boring as possible. I don’t need thrills. I want to get there, do the work, and come home again.

I hate this part. I’m not a good writer at all, and besides, the interesting part of my life hasn’t happened yet. I went to school, got good grades, went to college, discovered alcohol, almost flunked out, pulled my shit together, and that was that. The guys have much better stories to tell in my opinion. Vander’s visited more celestial bodies than I can count on two hands. His paintings and drawings tell a better tale than any words I ever put to paper. Alex grew up on a large factory farm by an American interstate. The only other kid his age lived on the other side, so they had to crawl through a drainage pipe to visit each other. Luo lived his whole life in the densest city on Earth. With neon signs, acid rain, covered streets, and alleys too narrow for a stray dog, Zhengzhou looks like something from one of those old films that predicted the future. He should have no trouble adapting to our cramped quarters.

Icarus

RASHID ANDIYAR
July 23, Year 2

Isn’t it funny, how it works? A kid plans to climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood, until the day he gets word of a better one two towns to the east. Before long, he’s standing on Mount Everest, but he’s not looking down at the spectacular view below; he’s looking out, past the curvature of the Earth. Maybe it’s just the tunnel vision affecting his senses, but the trees appear as motes on the horizon, too small to distinguish one from the rest.

I’m seeing it now, though. Too bad I didn’t see it before, huh? It’s a closed circle in here, no pit stops, no windows to let in the breeze, no chance to turn around and drive home, at least not for a couple years. Just me and Alex and Luo and Erin and, oh yeah, Vander, who had once offered me the scariest job I’ve ever taken on. Icarus burned his wings flying too close to the sun, but no one ever bothered to ask what would happen if he’d flown too far from it. I guess it’s our turn to find out.

ERIN CARELLOS
June 5, Year 1

I read Into Thin Air on Rashid’s recommendation. I really wish I hadn’t. It’s a little too close to home, don’t you think?

Looking Back

ERIN CARELLOS 
October 20, Year 1

What did the folks planning our mission decide would be our single greatest source of danger while living on Odyssey? I’ll give you a minute to guess.

I bet you think it’s equipment failure. It would be if we didn’t have two redundant backups of every life support system including, yes, the toilets. Engine or computer breakdown? Nope, the systems are as reliable as they get, and also backed up, by the way. Only sabotage or meteoroid impact could fudge that. Oh, I know! Meteoroids. Yeah, that must be it.

Wrong. It’s the ladders.

All the top safety officers of NASA and CSA and ESA and JAXA and a few other agencies put their heads together in a Houston summit to work out their last unsolved safety problem: how to keep the crew of Odyssey I from slipping and falling off the ship’s ladders like idiots. I can see you rolling your eyes but it’s actually a legitimate concern. At 1 g, a fall of one story is survivable. At 3 g, a fall at any height is almost guaranteed to kill you. On most days we’re riding between 1 and 2 g.

The safety experts had some pretty ridiculous ideas that thankfully never left the room, like making us wear climbing gear and tether ourselves to the rungs like we’re scaling the freaking Khumbu Icefall. Then there were the good ideas. For instance, one-handed climbing is off limits. This means if we need to carry something up or down a level we’d better use a bag. Makes sense. We also have a bunch of provisions for treating minor fall injuries, like icepacks, a splint, and a sling. Our ladder training (yes, we had a dedicated ladder-ing session) showed that we were most likely to fall at the start of an upward climb, so they decided it would be wiser to prepare for minor falls than to take extreme measures to prevent big ones.

So yeah, that’s neat. But why (you might ask) are you writing about some obscure safety rules when there are more interesting things to talk about, like the emergency spacewalk Rashid and Vander are prepping for right now?

Because the ladders don’t disappear when you step outside the airlock. For reasons that are too long and boring to explain, I can’t fully shut off the engines to make for a weightless EVA. All I can do is turn the thrust down to about 0.4 g. It makes their job easier but the danger is still there. It’s a different sort of danger than in the ship. In here, it’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end. Outside, it’s the fall that kills you. Or rather, it’s the crushing despair of drifting alone through interstellar space that compels you to kill yourself. Needless to say, Rashid and Vander are donning equipment that would make the Khumbu Icefall piss itself.

RASHID ANDIYAR
October 20, Year 1

Try not to look down, Vander said. Of course I won’t, I told him. I’m not stupid.

I’m no stranger to spacewalks. My old job required me to take the exposed path every now and then to access malfunctioning systems, but today’s work was a whole different beast. Patching up the meteoroid-damaged exterior of an accelerating spacecraft was more like rappling down a sheer rock face over a bottomless abyss. In addition to the standard EVA equipment, it was cables, carabiners, figure eight descenders, and Jumars that kept us from drifting – no – plummeting into the void.

I should not have looked down. But I couldn’t help myself.

MICHAEL VANDER
October 20, Year 1

Ever looked up at the sky on a clear night, like in the Alps? Well, deep space is the clearest night there is. I’ve seen a lot in all my years, but I’ll never tire of seeing that sky in all its glory. Not a lot of people can say they’ve looked down at the stars.

Secret Garden

MESSAGE TO ILION INTERNATIONAL
March 30, Year 2

You’ll find my latest research paper – Effect of exogenous gamma-auxin on the growth patterns of hydroponically cultivated SFA-kudzu (Pueraria lobata) – attached to this message. Please submit this to Applied Astrobiology for review. You may notice that I have also listed two of my fellow crew members as co-authors, as they were inexhaustibly helpful assisting in the lab as well as running analyses. If this passes review, please have someone notify their families that they were published. If not, I will try to get back to you with revisions within a few years. I hope that isn’t too troublesome; I know long-distance communication can be sluggish.

Much appreciated,
Alex

RASHID ANDIYAR
April 1, Year 2

I’ve been wondering for months why Alex never asked for my help in the garden when he had no problem enlisting Erin and Luo into his research projects. I thought that maybe I didn’t have the qualifications, being the only crewmember besides Vander without a doctoral degree, and he didn’t want a layman’s name on the publication. I thought that maybe he didn’t trust me with his precious kudzu strains. I thought that maybe he was getting tired of me, and wanted some time away.

Today was my birthday. Rarely does Alex wake up as early as I do, but this morning, his bed was empty when I came to. A familiar floral scent led me to the common room four levels up. Vander, Luo, and Erin were waiting at the table, their meals untouched. Alex came down from the kitchen with a mug in his hand and laid it next to my plate. I couldn’t quite place it at first, but something in the tea’s fragrance stirred memories that had lain dormant for so long: the whistle of the kettle, the screech of pestle on mortar, the crackle of a pod, split open to liberate the seeds inside.

Alex had been growing cardamom all this time!

“It wasn’t hard to justify with the research committee,” Alex said. “I gave them a bullshit story about the family Zingiberaceae being a good candidate for food production on space colonies. Honestly, they didn’t even bother to ask what kind of food that would be. Ginger and spices aren’t very filling.”

I had to disagree with that sentiment. Spices won’t fill my belly, but they’ll fulfill a need I didn’t know existed until now.

I feel like I can finally call this place home.

enceladus

Red-Letter Day

RASHID ANDIYAR
April 23, Year 3

Today was a special day. Why? Because in addition to our usual task update, Mission Ops sent us a care package. In it were dozens of letters from friends and family. There were also some letters from political leaders and other bigwigs but nobody paid attention to those. We wanted to hear from mom and pop. And hear, we did.

Rashid, come back!

Our business has been doing terribly since you left. I mean, sure, there’s no end to demand and money, but without you to fly our repairmen up and down, we have no service to offer. Preet quit last June because I guess she values her life more than you do. And now I’m trying to hire a new pilot and they’re telling me I can’t do that. It’s against the law. I can’t pay someone to throw caution to the wind of a typhoon as it hurls Everest into the north face of her namesake. Sorry, I’m being dramatic. I know you loved that hunk of rust but I think it’s time we retired her and moved on to other ventures. And maybe when you get back we can take her out of the boneyard and hire a few mechanics with all that money you’re earning and give her a new life, what say you?

Peter

ERIN CARELLOS
April 23, Year 3

Dear Erin,

You’ll be happy to hear that I got a full time job – as a full time dad! Erin, meet Zachary Mitchell Carsons. We haven’t even taken him home yet and I can already tell I’ve got my work cut out for me. He’s so full of energy. He’s like Dad concentrate. Speaking of Dad, he sends you his best wishes and wants to tell you he and Mom got a dog, a black lab mix named Rush. One of his students’ dogs had a litter and he took a puppy home. Mom was mad that he didn’t ask her first but she warmed up pretty quickly when he reminded her that if it weren’t for her, his daughter would be an hour’s flight away and not “in some galaxy far, far away.”

Best travels,
Brian

Well, this is news twice over. He never even told me he got married. To Heather, I’m assuming? But her name is Pearson, not Carsons – oh, I get it.

ALEX O'HEARN
April 23, Year 3

Alex, it’s Andy Calvin. I know we ended on a sour note but hear me out. Please. You’re all I’ve got. Nobody else will even remember me and those who do will be after my blood.

It’s a long story but I’m in prison again, this time for manslaughter. I did something stupid involving fire and spray paint and got an old couple killed. They gave me 13 years including the trial which was four months. I think you’ll be coming home around then, right?

Remember when we were kids and you crawled through the toad tunnel and found my house on the other side of the highway? You thought it was abandoned but that’s just how it looked. If it weren’t for you I would’ve never made it out of that house and I’d be an even worse person than I am now.

Well, it’s like that again but there’s no drainage pipe that’ll get me out of jail. You’re out there doing great things and I’m sitting in here waiting for the day they’ll let me out so I can do more damage. And that’s why I need your help. I’m terrified of myself and you’re the only person who’s ever been able to keep me from losing control.

LUO PING
April 23, Year 3

Once we downloaded our letters, we all moved to the observatory so we could read under the stars. It should have been a happy occasion. Erin passed around a picture of her baby nephew and Vander told us stories about his trip to Enceladus. I got a package consisting entirely of photos of my friends holding signs in front of all my favorite haunts. The signs had messages like “Wei Wei Café is looking mighty empty without you in it” and “The Path of Lights pines for your footsteps.” It was very sweet.

I was too absorbed to notice Alex and Rashid steal away through the floor hatch. Alex was the only one not to share any of his mail with the rest of us. It made sense, actually. Being a private man, he probably felt more comfortable talking to a close friend than to (what was to him) a crowd.

I heard only snatches from the room below.

“There’s a reason I severed ties with him. He was poisonous.”

“I don’t think you really mean…else you wouldn’t be worrying so…”

“…Isn’t the first time he came…tried to drag me into a robbery last time…”

I tried to picture Alex waving a gun at the cashier of a battery rental minimart. Even with a live firearm in his grip, his lanky figure and soft voice would fail to garner more than raised eyebrows from the customers. Yet if anyone could get away with robbery, it would be Alex because nobody would suspect him.

I scooted closer to the ladder. Erin gave me a look of slight disapproval, then shrugged and did the same.

“He reminds me a lot of you, actually, if you had been raised by meth addicts,” said Alex.

“I don’t know what to make of that.”

“You’re adventurous. He is reckless. You’re not afraid to take necessary risks. He takes unnecessary risks. You fly in any condition because you’re confident you can always keep control of the plane. He plays with fire because it’s the only thing he feels like he can control.”

“I still don’t see the connection.”

“No? All of his bad qualities, the stuff that gets him in trouble, comes from his upbringing. But underneath all of that, he’s just like you.”

There was a pause, and then…

“So you’re going to help him, right?”

“No. I’m a botanist, for chrissake. He needs to see a professional, and no way is he waiting thirteen years to get help.”

“But you’ll write him back?”

“Of course.”

I looked at Erin, who was sitting next to me now. “Did you know about this?”

“I thought I did,” she said. “I guess not.”

Wake-Up Call

RASHID ANDIYAR
May 2, Year 3

No force known to physics can wake Alex from a deep sleep. He slept right through an impact on the debris shield that shook the rest of us from our slumber. Our survival hangs on a delicate concert of interlocking parts, any of which can fail without warning. So, you can imagine why even the tiniest noise might send Vander and me to Coms to scan the exterior for signs of damage, and why Erin would reach the engine room before the alarms could pull Alex out of bed.

The shield’s surface bore no trace of a large meteoroid strike. We’re still trying to figure it out. Our sensors have registered hits in the past, but was is the first time we could feel it through the walls. Well, four of us felt it, anyway.

MICHAEL VANDER
May 2, Year 3

I think I found our problem. Ion stabilizer Beta is missing one of its panels. The best we can do is pray it didn’t damage anything important on the way down before lodging itself in the shield’s underside, among the water tanks, no less. We’re not getting anywhere without that water.

Painting by M. D. Vander, 8-17-03

Fleas

RASHID ANDIYAR
August 9, Year 3

Take a look at this shot from last week’s EVA. See the frozen oceans near the terminator, where a wealth of climate data could be read in the ice layers? We won’t be landing there tomorrow.

Halfway around the world is a caldera that is way bigger than it has any right to be. It would be a great place to study the stratigraphy and uncover a piece of the world’s geological history. And that’s too bad, because we’re not going there, either.

The Greater Ajax Ocean faces the noonday sun at all hours of the day. Tropical storms rise out of these waters and circulate warm air around the globe, preventing the atmosphere from freezing on the dark hemisphere. These systems do not reach the desert that covers a large part of the continent to the north. A mountain range on the southern border of Deiphobus creates a rain shadow, and the plants there must weigh the benefits of near-direct sunlight against the scarcity of water. Their unique adaptations to the arid climate may never be known, because that’s not where we’re headed.

See that hair-thin valley, right at the rainforest’s edge, at the marked latitude and longitude? No? That’s because the area we’ll be exploring is too small to see with the naked eye from up here. It took almost three years and half a trillion US dollars to bring us here, and we’ll be fleas on the elephant’s back. I hope humankind’s search for neighbors in the cosmos doesn’t end with our tiny sample of Ilion’s diverse landscape. Sixty square kilometers does not do it justice.

ERIN CARELLOS
August 10, Year 3

Ilion is tidally locked to its star. To an astrophysicist, that means that one side always faces the sun due to the action of tidal forces. Like the Moon to Earth. To a mission planner, it means that living accommodations must account for the fact that it’s always daytime where we’ll land. To Alex, it means that native animals will have some very interesting sleep cycles, if any. To me, it means I might not get any sleep at all.

MICHAEL VANDER 
August 12, Year 3

Does it look like Earth, but redder? Well, it has oceans, continents, rivers, mountains, deserts, islands, and a substellar tropical storm massive enough to swallow Kansas in one gulp, and the rest of the States along with it. That last one was the first indication that we were not in Kansas anymore. Swinging around the dark side brought the second shock. The familiar symphony of lights that spread across Earth like a bioluminescent slime mold was nowhere in sight. Try as I might, I couldn’t make out the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, the brilliant Nile, or the stark contrast between Europe and its seas. Ilion’s night was as dark as Mars’s, if not more so. This, of course, made the thunderstorms all the more spectacular.

mentes

Cutthroat

RECORDING
11:00 August 12, Year 3

ESC: What’s the contingency for lateral vibration?
RPA: Lateral what-now?
ESC: I don’t know, that’s what’s flashing on the screen right now. “Warning: lateral vibration.”
RPA: Do we have time to look it up?
ESC: Probably not, but who cares? It’s practice. We can fail as many times as we want.

RPA: Okay, here we go. “Cut engines and pitch down 25 degrees.”
ESC: That’s it?
RPA: That’s it.
ESC: That sounds like crashing to me.
RPA: No, it’s a real maneuver. It redistributes forces across the lifting body so the automated systems can regain control of the craft. It’s used as a last resort for things like spinning and excessive loading. In the industry we used to call it “the cutthroat pitch” because if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need it, you may as well slit your throat.
ESC: Have you ever used it?
RPA: Me? A few times. Maybe about five or six?

RPA: Why are you looking at me like that?
ESC: Rashid, sometimes I wonder how your mother must feel.

Ghosts

RASHID ANDIYAR
August 18, Year 3 

Before Peter and I launched our business, I worked as a pilot and mechanic for Schrodinger Enterprises. I spent seven years ferrying supplies, replacement parts, and satellites to and from space. In that time, I logged fifty-six round trip flights on four different models of spacecraft. Never once did I fail to bring them safely to the ground.

So why are my hands shaking?

The company would sometimes take weeks to respond to emergency breakdowns. They didn’t make any extra money from it, as it was all part of the contract, so why should they invest in a large fleet and adequate staffing? I’ve seen entire stations abandoned after system failures rendered them uninhabitable. It’s an eerie sight. This was industry standard, and it was unacceptable. I thought, I can do better than this. Two years later and I’m flying in less than ideal conditions to make good on my promise to respond with haste. Rain, sleet, thunder, typhoon, you name it, I’ve pushed through it and come out the other side.

So why, then, am I feeling sick to my stomach?

Is there something different about today’s descent? In less than an hour, Alex and Luo will suit up and strap themselves into the back seat. As science/support crew, their job is to sit tight and hope that their pilot and co-pilot haven’t been slacking off.  They shouldn’t worry about that. Erin and I haven’t missed a day of simulation training since the day we launched, but that hasn’t stopped me from worrying.

Is it the fact that, if we fail, then Vander will be left to undertake a two and a half year homeward journey with nothing but ghosts to keep him company?

Is that it?

1

Four Small Steps

ALEX O'HEARN
August 18, Year 3 
Day 1 Planetside

They say the journey matters more than the destination. I disagree. The destination is everything.

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 1

We managed to put all six wheels and eight feet on the ground without a hitch. It was flawless, actually. After all the bizarre contingencies we trained for, all the obscure error messages we familiarized ourselves with, and all the improbable weather conditions we learned to grapple with, the real flight was refreshingly vanilla. 26°C, 88% humidity, strong but steady northeasterlies near our landing site, consistent with Vander’s predictions…couldn’t have asked for better.

The atmosphere outside Little Iliad was thick with oxygen, water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and various poisonous gases. The atmosphere inside the shuttle was thick with excitement. The whole crew was in high spirits. Vander reestablished contact to congratulate us and wish us a safe and productive expedition. Luo was too airsick to dare open his mouth and speak, but he flashed me a shaky grin before disappearing into his spew-bag. Rashid, who was brooding over his breakfast just a few hours ago, was back to his usual splendid humor. Alex peeled his face from the side window for a moment to give him a thump on the back. “Good landing, Andy,” he said. I still don’t know why he calls him that.

Baby Steps

No one remembers who set foot on Ilian soil first. No one cares. We all did it together. We’d credit Vander if we could get away with it, but he surrendered that chance so he could conduct some of the most important planetary research from his unique vantage point.

It’s become sort of an astronaut tradition to riff on Neil Armstrong’s famous words, with Bruce McCandless II on his untethered spacewalk, Anzhelika Zarubina on Mars, Gregor van der Berg at the discovery of ancient Martian life that catalyzed the search for life beyond, and finally, the lucky technician who downloaded the first images from the Beagle orbiter that started it all.

Rashid had the honor this time, and his delivery was nothing short of inspiring. “And that’s four small steps for mankind, and the last step for the poor creature you’ve got under your foot, Alex.” Words can’t describe the look on Alex’s face when he peeled the remains of our first alien contact off his boot. In short, our landing was graceful…what followed, not so much.

lily departs

Toast

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 1

No time for poetry here. I’m sweaty, sore, and exhausted from today’s work, so tonight’s entry is going to be a pretty straightforward rundown of what we accomplished on landing day. Think my job is done when I’ve successfully dropped four astronauts on the planet without killing any of them? Think again. After we stepped out and took in the beauty of it all, pining for a breath of fresh air we weren’t allowed to breathe, it was time to begin construction of a well, water boiler, air handler, solar farm, and the igloo-shaped tent we’ll be living in from now on.

First was the search for the five delivery capsules that contained most of our equipment. They had accompanied our ship on their own power for the duration of the journey, with occasional guidance from myself and Vander out of the communications module. Most of them landed on the other side of the dry riverbed. This was where we set up camp. A few things happened as we assembled the machinery:

Alex nearly passed out from heat exhaustion while wrapping insulation around the hot water pipes. Luo took care of him in the shuttle while I found the bent tube that had caused his suit’s cooling system to malfunction. It was an easy fix and he was up again within the hour.

Luo was acting strange for a while, stranger than usual, I mean. Sometimes he’d forget what he was doing and we’d find him sitting fetal under the solar panels, or pacing back and forth, or staring at his gloves with a horrified look in his eyes. Erin pulled him aside and asked if he was still feeling airsick. He just said he was disoriented from all the open space and she let the matter go.

Alex and I got chastised for goofing off during a lull in the activity. In case you were wondering, we were swordfighting with PVC pipes and delivery capsule heat shields. Our mistake. Erin can be bossy sometimes, especially when she thinks safety is at stake. Even more infuriating, though, is the unavoidable fact that she is almost always right. I dropped my shield on my foot and it’s still throbbing.

And now for a toast:

Here’s to a well-deserved rest in our newly constructed igloo. It smells like socks in here, and it’s still cluttered with unpacked boxes, but I’m just grateful for a place to crash. We’re all slumped in the washroom having a drink of freshly distilled Ilion spring water. It has the same stale plastic flavor as the recycled stuff on the ship, a taste that’s beginning to grow on me.

Here’s to 1.2 g of gravity. It’s more than Earth, but a lot less than the 2 g’s of ship acceleration we’ve adjusted to over the past two and a half years. I much prefer walking like a normal human to climbing up and down ladders, which is the only way to get from place to place aboard Odyssey.

Here’s to singing out of tune at the tops of our lungs, and not having to give one beaver’s damn about sleeping neighbors. Alex hummed out the melody for a space chantey to go with our travels, and we each got to write a verse.  We’re still working on a chorus, but after catching a glimpse of that incredible band of golden sky at the terminator, I think I know what’s going in there now.

Here’s to the adventurer’s spirit – ceaseless, enduring, and stubborn. We’ll need it in these coming weeks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a tree to climb.

Base Camp Diagram labelled

Home Base

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 2

The igloo, that’s what we call our new home. It’s a big inflatable dome with two dark recesses that act as bedroom and bathroom, and a smaller room connected by a short tunnel that we use as a wash-down room. This is where we disinfect our suits and ourselves before and after each trip outside, including minor trips like oxygen runs and life support maintenance. It’s a royal pain but so is extended quarantine. From the outside the igloo gleams golden in the most beautiful way. The real reason for the feature is flare protection, power generation, and shade from Barnard’s heat, but I like to think it’s just there to look pretty.

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 2

We set up camp around the area where most of the delivery capsules landed. It was much easier to transport supplies from the shuttle to this site than it would have been to cart the machinery across the riverbed to where we landed. The water and air filtration systems, solar panels, and inflatable igloo make up our living space. As you can imagine, it is not very spacious. We can’t stand up in the anteroom or the tunnel connecting it to the main bubble. The airlock, too, is too short to stand in. To enter and leave our abode, we have to crouch, one person at a time, and allow the plastic walls of the airlock to converge on us like shrink wrap. It’s primitive, yes, but effective just the same.

Star Walrus

Star Witness

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 2

It’s amazing, because at home I would hear movement in the grass and I would look for the source even though it was the same every time – a day gecko leaping off a rock, a monkey foraging for scraps, or a peahen rolling in the dust. But here, a snapping twig demands my attention more than ever because I know it’ll be something I’ve never seen before, something no one’s ever witnessed, photographed, or described in the history of mankind.

RECORDING
17:00 Day 2

RPA: Take a gander at this picture, Commander Vander. We’ve been here only two days and we’ve already struck biological gold.
MDV: Still loading. When you’re done with this, can you check if there’s enough…whoa. What is that?
AWO: I don’t know yet. It looks like a star-nosed mole got busy with a walrus. It’s about as heavy as the latter, too. No other animals we’ve found have been bigger than my head. This one could swallow mine whole if it felt like it.
ESC: Don’t give it any ideas.
MDV: What are you calling it, Alex?
AWO: I don’t know. Ask Rashid; he’s better at clever names.
RPA: Ask me later. I’m too tired to think of anything right now.
MDV: I’ll just call it a star walrus for now. Why the tusks? There’s no ice to break here.
AWO: Digging, um…fighting, hunting…there’s a lot of things you can do with tusks. It’s the fluke that gets me. We’re not anywhere near the ocean, or a lake. There’s a stream just half a mile south, but…
ESC: It’s like two feet deep.
AWO: I want to get a close-up look at the animal if we run into it again, if that’s okay with you. I’ll be careful.
RPA: Mmm, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I can think of seven ways that animal could gore, maul, crush, stampede, charge, mangle, batter, or smash you.
ESC: That’s eight.

Survey

RPA: Nothing here but these…thrax-a-stomes.
AWO: Thoracostomes.
RPA: Sure. Whatever. I’m sticking to “thrax.” Your name’s a mouthful.

LUO PING
Day 3

It was hard enough to get from A to B with the wind resisting our every movement. Never mind the sudden shift from orbital weightlessness to 1.2g, the gear we had to wear just to stay alive, or our lack of real outdoor exercise. It was my job to design a regimen that would keep the party in shape without putting too much stress on our joints at high acceleration, but our ship’s gym was no match for the rough terrain we negotiated today.

The hike was, in my opinion, a little ambitious for our third day out. Alex led us to a hilly area northwest of camp where we could survey our neighborhood from above. And yes, it was a great vantage point for mapping the area around base camp. We called the place Base Cliff for that reason. Alex and Rashid took turns with the camera while Erin drafted a map on her tablet, but the cliff was too open for my liking. I have no problem with heights, darkness, or the number four, but the open space made my stomach turn. I thought it would be wiser to sit in the crook of a blackbush and wait for it to pass than risk throwing up in my helmet trying to help out.

Base Cliff wasn’t the highest point on the ridge. Had we turned around and taken the steeper route up the south face, we would have reached Treble Cliff (Erin had to explain that one to me when we got back). Not surprisingly, nobody except Alex was interested in scrambling up an incline of loose, shifting dirt with few plants to hold onto, so we headed back down. Besides, it was already 18:00 on our clocks. It’s too easy to lose track of time when the sun never moves.

The View from Base Cliff

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 3

While nobody here is conceited enough to name anything after themselves, there is no rule against using family names. The nearby stream is named after Raya Andiyar. Raya’s Ravine originates from the forested hills west of Achilles Wood, passes through the Dale of Dahlia (another sister of Rashid’s), edges by our camp, and diffuses into Marcario Marsh (after Marcario Castellanos, Erin’s dad). Actually, we’re not sure what happens to the water after that. It just…disappears.

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 3

We have a camera on Raya’s Ravine. It’s as much for public engagement as it is for science. On Earth, interested folk can tune in to a site called Riverwatch, though I prefer to call it Stream Stream.

Specimen 3.24

Taxa Notes – Blue Footed Thrax

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1
Alex O'Hearn

We found this pudgy thing in the leaf litter at Base Cliff. It made only a token effort to get away, suggesting that it might rely on other means to defend itself – namely poison. Its color would camouflage it well on some parts of Earth but here, there’s nothing subtle about it. Its feet are bright blue. Its clumsy gait betrays its presence when it walks over dry leaves. The gills on its back undulate in an eye-catching way while in motion, possibly helping to oxygenate the capillaries when the animal needs it the most. Little else is known, as we did not collect this specimen for study. Priority goes to dead or sick animals, and plants. Only in special cases will we need to kill. More on that later.

Specimen 3.24 (2)

Sweat Suit

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 4

Our first line of defense against environmental hazards is a full body suit, complete with heavy gloves, boots, and helmet. To be exact, it is a Kohler-Schnauss Barrier Suit Model 2-d, an industrial garment retrofitted for our purposes. The shielding has been removed to allow us to move more easily in higher gravity. The barrier works in both directions now, protecting us from the outside world and the outside world from us. If we’re not careful, our own bodies could bring about the worst environmental disaster to ever strike the planet, gnotobiotic or not.

The suit’s fabric doesn’t breathe. If it did, we wouldn’t. Therefore, our only hope of keeping cool is a system of tubes that wraps around our torsos. It’s a simple design. Chilled coolant flows through six tubes via a pump mounted to the suit’s belly. It’s enough to keep us from overheating but not enough to curb the sweat, so we always come back completely and thoroughly moist. The shower is such prime real estate at the end of an excursion that we’ve grown comfortable washing up together – anything to get the stickiness out of our pores.

elephant

Taxa Notes – Giant Earworm

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1
Alex O'Hearn

It may be too early to call this a giant. There might be bigger earworms out there. For now, a fourteen legged worm the length of five men is sufficiently giant for our purposes. This herbivore has been sighted grazing on the banks of a nearby river, using its flattened mandibles to cut vegetation from the stems. Two humanlike ears lie flat against the side of the head. Behind them, a pair of short eyestalks peeks out.

Flightless

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 4

I sensed that something was off even on our first day on solid ground. That hectic morning was a race against the air-supply clock to get the life support systems up, not to mention hunger, thirst, and other basic needs, so I didn’t have the time nor energy to probe any further.  It took me two more days to pin it down, to figure out what element was missing from the surrounding habitat.

There was not a single flying critter in sight.  The air was completely free of buzzing, flapping, or soaring life. Flight evolved four times on Earth. Why not here? Surely the constant winds couldn’t lock out an entire ecological niche.

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 5

Well, we found the place where the flying organisms are hiding. They made themselves known on our fifth day in these lands, and our first day of relief from the relentless winds that plague this region. The conditions were ideal for traveling east. The hike to Marcario Marsh would have been upwind on any other day, but today, there would be no problem. Our route for the day mapped out, we suited up and stepped outside, and stopped. We weren’t the only creatures looking to take advantage of the quiet weather. Tens of thousands of balloons the size of beach balls drifted through the skies like biological blimps, headed roughly the same direction we were, toward the southeastern wetlands.

No one objected to my suggestion that we postpone the wetlands trip to tomorrow, and instead follow the exodus to its source. The trail led due north. The area was new to us, but not all that different from the shrubland habitat around Base Cliff – lightly wooded, craggy, and dotted with caves and rock outcroppings. It was from these potholes that the great migration emanated, so into the caves we went.Calavera Seedpod

Taxa Notes – Caver Calavera

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

Normally wind facilitates seed dispersal, but here, where a stiff breeze almost always blows from the south, the plants have to get creative if they want to cast their spawn in any other direction. One such strategy is to encase the seed in a floating pod capable of steering itself against the current. The mobile fruiting bodies of the caver calavera are not strong enough to resist the high winds on most days, so they must take refuge in caves while the gusty conditions persist, and only leave their shelter when the winds calm down. Their animal-like characteristics allow them to migrate upwind, away from the sun, where they will settle, germinate, and thrive.

Chamber of Lost Balloons

The Fallen

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 5

Most spectacular of the caves was the one we called the Chamber of Lost Balloons. It was about the size of a small hangar and compared to the other caves, was well lit. Through a single opening a shaft of light flooded the cavern. It was not solid beam but a flickering, swimming kind of light. A hundred translucent calaveras rose to the surface like a stream of bubbles from a diver’s mouthpiece. Only the leaden weight of 1.2g betrayed the illusion that I was underwater.

This was a rest stop for windborne calaveras, a shelter from the merciless winds above. It was a place for the weak to sink and succumb to the myriad decomposers that made the stalagmites appear to writhe. There was not enough floor space for the millions of creatures that fed on the fallen. Within minutes of crawling into the cavern we found ourselves covered head to toe in bugs of all sorts. There were times when I thought my torch battery had run out only to find that my faceplate had become solid mask of suction feet and radulae.

That Sinking Feeling

Hidden Depths

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 6

Today I stumbled into a wild discovery. I mean that in the literal sense of the word – we were headed for the swamps to the southeast when the ground gave way beneath my feet. And no, my feet didn’t just sink into the mud. I fell through several meters of water that had somehow been hiding under our boots all this time. Alex has some fancy theory about a mat of floating vegetation sustained by ammonia-rich upwellings at the bottom of the lake. Oh, did I mention? The “swamp” was really a lake, and the mat could only hold for so long. I gained the privilege of being the world’s first scuba diver on an extrasolar planet.

And it was pitch black down there! All I could see was some faint light swimming around the hole I fell through, and a smattering of beams peeking through the rest of the mat. With no signal from the guys above, and something large and terrifyingly shark-like swimming too close for comfort, I needed badly to swim back to sanity. But nope! It wouldn’t be that easy. You see, those air canisters we’ve been lugging around are heavy, and mine was weighing me down.

Riddle me this: what’s the first thing you would do if you were stuck underwater, with a good three hours of oxygen left in your tank? If you said, “unhook yourself from your air supply immediately,” then congratulations, you are as insane as I am.

But hey, can’t argue with results, right?

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 6

Ah, the swamps. So innocent from afar, the shifting puddles and crisscrossed waterways looked like an ideal place to collect the sort of life that can be stored in mason jars. What we found there has added a new dimension to our studies and encouraged us to examine our surroundings in greater depth, because you never know what’s hiding beneath the surface of what you think you know.

What I’m trying to get at is, Erin took a tumble into the abyss and nobody saw it coming.

Thinking back on it, we really have no excuse for that. Puddles don’t shift. It’s not normal to feel seasick while trudging through a marsh. And we weren’t exactly trudging now that I think about it, as the terrain was more springy than muddy. The material held its ground for a quite a long time before giving way to a sixty kilogram space invader in a hazmat suit.

Alex nearly fell in after, expensive camera and all. There’s nothing worth seeing in the video, but the audio caught some of the chatter from one of our headsets.

ESC: You have no idea how far this goes.
RPA: I need your position. How far is far?
ESC: I’m still falling. No, sinking. Too heavy to swim. I can’t see my feet!
AWO: Is your suit filling with water? That shouldn’t happen, but we still need to hear it from you.
ESC: Are you hearing me at all? Because I’m not getting any signal from you.
AWO: We can hear you perfectly clear.
RPA: Just keep talking and don’t worry about us.
ESC: Damn it, why didn’t we think to bring our rope?

I’m not sure when the exchange went one-way. Perhaps it was like that from the start.

ESC: What’s that! ….What was that?

Then, silence. A quick glance to my right told me Alex wasn’t hearing anything either.  I cleared away some of the mat, stuck my head in the water to get a better view through the murk, did anything I could to make that time pass. All I got was a face full of rising bubbles. And then, cool and calm…

ESC: I’m coming up now.

The communication problem turned out to be water damage to the receiver chip. She’s at work fixing it now. Alex and Luo are discussing plans to return to this remarkable new site, and I’m enjoying my first cup of tea since landing day. It’s a good day to be above ground, or water if you will.

RECORDING
6:00 Day 6

ESC: I think I’ve got it. Here, say something to the mic.
RPA: Anything?
ESC: Sure.
RPA: Erin has a pointy nose.
ESC: Is that all you could think of? Oh, hey, it worked! Sort of. Okay, let’s try it again but this time with a better insult.

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 6

One of the experiments on our checklist requires 50 of the same animal. The animal has to be under 4cm long and 2cm thick to fit in the vials we were provided. Of course, the scientists who devised the study had no idea what kind of life we would find, so the experiment has no timeline. It is an important one, however, because the results will determine how samples and specimens shall be preserved on future expeditions. We will be testing three preservatives: 70% ethanol, formaldehyde, and alcohol-glycerin-acetic acid (AGA), at room temperature and -30°C each. In addition to these, five specimens will be stored in each of four “control” conditions: water, nitrogen, Earth air and Ilion air. We don’t expect these to preserve at all but they will tell us a lot about how Ilion natives decay under natural conditions.

We were thrilled, then, when Erin crawled out of the lake covered helmet to boot in a spoon-shaped ectoparasite. Okay, most of us were thrilled. The parasites derived no nutrition from the fabric of her suit but they held on with unwavering determination despite our efforts to clean them off. It was only in the washroom that I saw their value as test subjects for the aforementioned trials. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pry them off without damaging their exteriors, which might interfere with preservation, so we’ll be returning to the lake tomorrow to gather spoonworms directly from the water, if possible.

Hidden Lake Habitat W Labels

Ecology of the Hidden Lake

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

What at first appeared to be a marsh turned out to be lake, blanketed almost entirely in a floating layer of vegetation. The habitat is uniquely Ilian, and thus worthy of continued study.

Central to the system is a colony of tightly interwoven red plants known as buoyphytes.  As the name suggests, their air-filled bladders are necessary to keep the mat afloat.  Any creature that tries to eat into the bladder is likely to drown in a bath of digestive enzymes; this is probably more effective as a defensive strategy than a nutrient source. Ammonia (a source of nitrogen) is already as abundant in the water as it is in the air. This does not mean, however, that the buoyphyte can survive on photosynthesis alone. In the absence of soil, the plant must trap and consume aquatic life in order to obtain phosphorus, bromine, sulfur, lead, calcium, iron, and other essential nutrients.

On the surface, lightweight wildlife can graze on the buoyphyte foliage as well as any other plants that may be growing out of the thin topsoil. Heavier animals such as the star walrus may deliberately break through the mat to hunt in the warm waters. A mold-like organism carpets the underwater surface, catching and decomposing detritus from the surface. The mold is a major food source for waterborne microbes, which in turn provide the foundation for the lake’s substantial animal population.

lakes

Naming Rights

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 7

We had a nice jaunt at my favorite lake today. Delightfully uneventful, even. This time, we followed the stream to where it empties (that is, vanishes) into the lake. Most of the hike was spent making jokes at my expense, some of which were admittedly pretty funny. “One tank for me, one for Alex, and two for Erin, just in case.” In fact, we brought three extra oxygen cans so we could stay out longer, and left them on what I’m assuming was solid ground before tiptoeing onto the mat.

“Who needs a net to catch the worms when you can just go for a swim and see what sticks?” Indeed, we ended up doing exactly that, too.  Alex volunteered to unhook himself from his tank and swim around a bit, which is good because I sure as hell wasn’t volunteering. We learned about proper spoonworm removal – submerge them in a jar of water until they detach on their own. We learned that even to a trained astronaut, swimming in the covered lake is an incredibly claustrophobic experience.  Alex was stuttering and shuddering when we pulled him out of the water, and I stopped being the butt of all the jokes from then on.

We spent the walk home throwing out ideas for a new name for the place. After all, “Marcario Marsh” is nothing short of misleading to whoever might follow our footsteps. We’re going for something more descriptive, and we all have our favorites:

Trapdoor Lake
Hidden Lake
Lake Surprise!
Pond of Pondering Your Mortality
New Lake Deception
Lake Holy-Hell-I’m-Underwater-And-I-Can’t-See-My-Feet-Is-That-A-Shark-Yes-It’s-A-Shark-Oh-Shit

Benign

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 8

Tagging a star walrus is out of the question, obviously. Nobody wants to bell that cat. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set up cameras and watch them from the safety of our tent. That got a lot easier when we when we discovered the lake because – check it out – that’s their hunting ground. And there’s one female who’s especially easy to keep track of. She’s got an extra tentacle thing on her face – Alex calls them palps, I think – four on the left and five on the right. Easy to ID. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t spend a lot of time with the other females, nor do we ever see any males display at her. She keeps to herself on the flat rocks just south of the shore, returning to her favored hunting spot every three and a half hours like clockwork. As far as I can tell, none of the others follow such a strict routine. Just her.

We’re not supposed to name any of the individual animals we collect or observe, or else we’d probably call her Old Faithful or something like that. But nobody said we can’t assign numbers to our subjects. So every night I get to compile footage of Nine frolicking in the water, tearing up the weeds to flush out some sushi, or to grab an earworm by the feet. She’s a clumsy eater and only takes small prey. I think the extra palp is a hindrance.

Then I upload the compilation to Odyssey, and Vander sends it to Earth. I wonder if anyone else is following the exploits of Nine. I’ll be severely disappointed if I don’t see Nine toys on the shelves of every toy store when I return.

Animal Diversity on Ilion

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

Aquatics – There seems to be no limit to the number of suction “feet” these freshwater swimmers can sport. Most land animals here have exactly two rows of feet of varying number, although there are exceptions (see: pantopods). Could these function as a respiratory system in marine species?

Brachyderms – Infrared footage shows that these creatures pump warm blood into their skin protrusions when threatened. This may break up its outline for camouflage purposes, or make the animal look bigger. The feature evolved multiple times, so “brachyderms” are not a clade. The existence of brachyderms supports our theory that at least some of the animals can see in the infrared spectrum.

Hairy grubs, star walruses, and other furred animals – At once the most familiar and fearsome beasts on this corner of the planet. Ranging in size from beetle to bear, this group may be well-suited to the freezing environments at the terminator.

Thoracostomes – This diverse group is characterized by a ventral mouth lined with teeth, like a radula, for scraping food off of rocks and boring holes into plants. A few species are parasites of animals as well. Their method of respiration – diffusion through the skin – limits their size, but not their abundance.

Pantopods – These bizarre critters roll around, feed, and climb with suction pads that cover their entire spherical body. Most pantopods are aquatic bottom-feeders. Land-dwelling pantos seem to have emerged from the water independently of the other animals.

Spoonworms – We used to think these were appendages of other animals, perhaps sensory organs, or something similar to the protrusions seen on brachyderms. Then, one of our scientists fell into a lake and came out covered in the things. We now know that spoonworms are ectoparasites, and will attack anything that swims. They primarily feed off aquatics, but will readily latch onto amphibious creatures for dispersal. They will not let go until fully submerged again, even if their host is completely inedible.

Taxa Notes – Banded Bottleneck

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

The bottlenecks occupy a similar niche to the weasel family. These obligate carnivores use their long necks and quadripartite mandibles to snap up small prey out of holes and crevices.

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

Taxa Notes – Unipus

This thoracostome actually has fourteen feet. The name was Rashid’s idea. He thought it looked like someone lopped off an octopus’s tentacle and gave it a face. It’s a very apt description.

River FloraDownstream

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 8

The ravine is only a half kilometer or so away, but don’t let that mislead. Most of its banks are impassable. To get to where Alex wanted to go, we had to follow it upstream for half a klick, half climb, half slide down the bank, and splash our way downstream again. What could have been accomplished with a good, sturdy rope in twenty minutes took two hours and all of our energy. The only ropes we’ve got are too short for our purposes and only to be used in an emergency.

I won’t lie, that crazy man has a knack for finding things. The area he led us to would have made a great swimming hole in another world. We took the opportunity to walk along the riverbed and enjoy a rare underwater view of the river, which was teeming with life. Schools of suckerfish swirled right under our noses, and yet they evaded our nets every time. The spoonworms were less shy in our presence; convincing them to let go of our suits was a task of its own. We found a new species of bottleneck feeding on an unidentifiable carcass. All that was left of it was a ropy, flexible skeleton and a couple of strange looking organs that, for some reason, remained untouched. You’d think Alex had discovered gold judging by the enthusiasm with which he bottled these. Erin looked less than overjoyed to haul the skeleton back to camp, so I took it and she carried the specimen bag in my place.

We expected rain. It was the edge of a rainforest, after all. What we didn’t expect was for the water to rise with such overwhelming speed.  We had a heated argument over whether to return the way we came, or to follow the river to Hidden Lake. Erin won that dispute when the current proved too powerful, so downstream we went. By the time we made it out of the water, we only had one oxygen tank left between us, and it was running out fast. Whatever disdain I might feel for Luo’s weak-willed reluctance to step outside every now and then, I don’t know what we would have done had he not met us halfway with spare tanks. At least he did something useful for a change.

Raya's Ravine

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 8

Alex almost got swept away! I told him you can’t just wade through a flooding river, but he wouldn’t listen. Nearly got us killed, all of us. Upstream will be faster, he said, if we just hug the sides. Well, it’s not any faster when the current picks you up and throws your sorry ragdoll over a waterfall. He busted up his tank on the way down. Could’ve done worse, I suppose, but we didn’t bring extras that day. There were only two between us for the way back. Nothing slows a group down like having to stop and trade air hoses every five minutes.

Did we make it back alive? Sure. Will I ever let him pull that shit again? Hell no.

Baldneck BottleneckTaxa Notes – Bald-Necked Bottleneck

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

With its blood-matted fur, vulture-like head, and feathery tongue, it’s no surprise that the bald-necked bottleneck is a carrion eater. While its single eye is rendered useless by a permanent casing of hard skin, its tongue can smell death from at least a kilometer away. We know that because we chipped one and tracked its movements. The day after we tagged the little land buzzard, it headed straight for Hidden Lake. We followed, and what else was waiting for us but the rotting corpse of a star walrus?

Autopsy

One Of Those Days

RECORDING
10:15 Day 9

RPA: Please tell me it isn’t Nine.
AWO: It’s too decayed to tell. It is female, though. It’s got the shorter tusks.
RPA: Then it can’t be her, right? We just saw her yesterday.
AWO: I can’t guarantee it isn’t her. Sorry. We don’t know how fast things decay around here.

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 9

Do you ever have one of those days where you just can’t focus on your job?  It could be that you didn’t sleep well the night before, or maybe your morning coffee tasted like lakewater, or perhaps it’s because your job requires you to wade knee-deep in alien guts in the name of science.

No amount of disinfectant will wash out the funk from today’s excursion. I’m sure that if we hadn’t brought our own air supply, we could have easily followed our noses to the star walrus that festered on the far shores of Hidden Lake. It wasn’t fresh by any means. We had to drive off the bottlenecks and thraxes that had gathered to feast on the entrails. And that was all that was left, really. Organs of the sort I had never seen in my life: a thick bag lined on all inside surfaces with grinding teeth, a stomach-like sac that branched into several blind pockets, the tattered remains of a mouth and throat, and some loose digesta (this went straight into a jar, where else?). Several frayed and gnawed-on bundles of fiber were all that remained of the skeleton. The blood was the same pinkish color as the surrounding plants.

For this special occasion, our own medic was here to help us reconstruct the digestive system. Luo had taken the place of Rashid, who had stayed behind to work on the plumbing. Luo swears he isn’t squeamish, but something was definitely making him uncomfortable today. If anything, the dissection seemed to put him at ease. He was much more agitated on the way there, fretting over the fabric of his suit, checking again and again for flaws in the tubing, and looking anywhere but ahead. It’s baffling the way he acts sometimes. Maybe he’s just having one of those days.

RECORDING
15:30 Day 9

AWO: Pity you couldn’t make it, Rashid. We’re having a blast piecing this star walrus back together. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein.
ESC: Don’t listen to him. It’s foul.
RPA: It can’t be worse than autoclaving the sewage.
ESC: Wanna bet?

Taxa Notes – Star Walrus

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

The star walrus was one of the first species we encountered, but its lifestyle remained a mystery until we discovered its habitat a week later. With the help of a dissected carcass and hours of field observation conducted from a safe distance, we now have a better understanding of how it lives, hunts, and eats.

Everything about this apex predator is adapted to life in a buoyphyte-lake habitat. Its dark blue skin renders it nearly invisible in low light conditions. Golf ball-like dimples cover the body to create turbulence and reduce drag. The bottom pair of mouthparts form rigid tusks, ideal for breaking through the floating mat. The other four pairs are flexible and toothed; these serve multiple purposes. First, they can point forward to give the body a hydrodynamic form. Second, the tentacles’ sheer strength can handle the toughest of beasts, including members of their own species. Finally, a star walrus can ambush surface grazers by tearing out large chunks of the mat from below. The victim would not stand a chance once it’s fallen into the gaping maw where there once was earth.

How does a jawless animal incapable of swallowing manage to feed on such large prey? The creature can evert its mouth up to two feet. This ability is necessary for transporting prey to the muscular first stomach, where the teeth that line the walls can grind it into a digestible form. The bolus then moves into the glandular second stomach, while fibrous skeletons, beaks, and other indigestible parts are regurgitated.

star walrus

Sleeping Giant

ERIN CARELLOS
DAY 11

The sleeping pills worked a little too well. I don’t remember telling Luo and Alex to leave without me, but I had, evidently. I woke up to a raging headache sometime after they’d left. It was midmorning, though you wouldn’t know it just by looking. Rashid was making a racket on the other side of the canvas wall. I wanted to throw a wrench at him but he was probably fixing something I would die without, so I didn’t. Also, no way was I leaving my bed, let alone the tent. The room was dark and I liked it that way. So instead, I grabbed Rashid’s pillow and threw it over my head.

Later, Luo shook me awake. “Dinner,” he said. Like I was just catnapping.

I sat up reflexively, then regretted it. Luo had left the door unzipped and the light blasted my retinas with fireflies and fire. As I shrunk away from it, something tugged at the skin of my neck. I ran my finger over it. “What the heck – ”

“TPR tape,” he said. “It measures your temperature, pulse, and respiration. I was just checking that you weren’t having a reaction to the Nox.”

“Was I?”

“Nothing life threatening, but you should probably stay away from it in the future.”

Over dinner he told me about their safari at Treble Cliff. They caught a hunter on camera, a doglike thing with four heavy legs and multiple centaur arms and a strange tail, giving chase to a calf of some sort of herd animal. It was fast by Ilion standards (Alex and Luo could have outrun it if necessary) but the hunt didn’t go well for the predator. Long story short, the poor thing got pulverized by what was supposed to be its prey. The two of them agreed it wasn’t safe to be anywhere near the murderous herd, so they put their geologic mapping away and headed back.

Privately, when Rashid was out of earshot, Luo told me the real reason they came back early. Two and a half years on Odyssey have given him an unhealthy fear of the outdoors and he had a near-breakdown on the ridge. That’s why he’s been staying in at every opportunity, but he didn’t want to say anything for fear of looking weak. Astronauts are supposed to be brave and strong, he said, and I said no, they’re supposed to be risk averse.

In its early days, I explained, NASA had a mascot for safety. A cartoon dog named Snoopy. Astronauts used to wear a pin with the little beagle on it at every launch. Each pin that made it back to Earth represented an astronaut who also made it, and the pins were awarded to the employees who made it happen. The tradition was largely forgotten among astronauts but the icon lived on in aerospace engineering. In my office at Ceres, Snoopy toys could be found at almost every desk.

He asked if that was where the Beagle probes got their name. I laughed and said no.

So anyway, that’s it, then. No more hikes for Luo, and no more sleepy pills for me.

Plains Lockjaw

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 11

I can already anticipate the questions awaiting our return. Two and a half years is plenty of time to come up with answers.

What did you say when you made first contact? Well, I didn’t say anything to the first extraterrestrial to make contact with the bottom of my shoe. Not even “sorry.” I could tell them I shook the lower-right tentacle of a star walrus and said, “how do you do,” after which it immediately attempted to swallow my head.

Why did they send a botanist to study the aliens?  A zoologist might ignore the sessile half of Ilion’s biosphere in favor of developing a tree of animal life more complete than ours. A biochemist might fail to spot the evolutionary link between animals and red plants, but could decipher the cellular processes common to both. A marine biologist would be outfitted to explore the bottom of the lake. The truth is, any of the above could take the same evolution and ecology courses that were part of my training and been equally equipped to untangle the web of life on Ilion.  If I had my way, I’d bring all of them along for the ride. I could use the help.

Where are all the peaceful plant-eaters?  Based on our reports alone, it may appear that everything here is out to get us. That’s not really the case. It’s hard to imagine much harm coming from a finger-sized thoracostome. A bite from a bottleneck could leave a mark, but they leave large animals alone.  I’ve been told of something monstrous lurking in the lake, silent and serpentine, but how much of that is real danger and how much is the deep and the dark playing tricks on the mind?

No, it’s the herbivores we ought to watch out for. Many of Earth’s meanest brutes are “peaceful” vegetarians.  The Ilian herds have made themselves scarce since a mysterious object tore through the sky and took root by the dry riverbed. But we know they’re around. From atop the northwestern ridge their forms color the distant fields red, yellow, and black, barely visible against a backdrop of similarly-colored flora. We don’t have a lot of information on these animals. What we have is footage. This video shows a band of buffalo-sized beasts mobbing an unidentified pack hunter. In a remarkable reversal of roles, the predator met its demise after straying too far from the pack. A pink streak of blood and bowels was all the horde left in its wake.

Their message was clear. The ridge has two sides: ours and theirs, and we’re just borrowing this land. The day the herd grows bold enough to cross the divide is the day we pack up and leave.

Taxa Notes – Plains Lockjaw

EXCERPT
Taxa Notes Vol. 1

The plains lockjaw is a heavily built predator that has adopted a quadrupedal gait. Its legs are built for shock absorption rather than speed. Still, they are faster than their prey and that’s what counts. Plains lockjaws are pack hunters. They use their spring-loaded mandibles to hold onto prey and puncture a major blood vessel located on the ventrum. Although the hunt we observed was unsuccessful, it was clear what they were trying to do.

Six ribbons of flesh hang raggedly from the tail; their function is unknown. However, we are fairly certain they are modified legs. Together with the four stout running legs and an additional two pairs of grasping forearms, they add up to fourteen. And as we know, fourteen is the standard limb number for Ilian land animals, with a few exceptions.

Weight

ERIN CARELLOS
DAY 12

So yesterday when I was writing my log I noticed I’m still using words like “morning,” “dawn,” and “noon.” And I know I’m not the only one who does it. These words are irrelevant here, but it’s a hard habit to break. It’s a really weird feeling when you get up to pee in the middle of the night and the main dome is bathed in glorious sunlight. And then you try to go back to sleep but your brain keeps telling you, No. It’s two in the afternoon. It’s always two in the afternoon. The blue footed thrax doesn’t sleep. The star walrus doesn’t sleep. So why should you?

I think there’s a saying about that. What is it again? “When in Troy, do as the Trojans do.” Because Ilion, get it? Screw it, I’m tired as shit.

MICHAEL VANDER
Day 13

I have it easy up here. While I only have to tuck my feet under the panel to keep from drifting, the gravity does its damage to the ground crew. Or is it the long days in the field, the uncertainty, and the isolation? Gravity can’t explain Erin’s heavy eyelids. I keep telling her to take the day off if that’s what it takes to get a little sleep. To take sleeping pills, maybe. She refused and wouldn’t say why. As for Luo, 1.2 g’s can’t be blamed for the weight of responsibility that comes with being the only doctor within six lightyears. He’s not exactly brimming with confidence. I can see it in his posture, the way he shrinks when he enters the main chamber, as if to occupy as little space as possible. Meanwhile, Alex paces like a tiger on a chain while he reports his findings. I fear he will push the team too far into dangerous territory, or just plain exhaustion, if he doesn’t keep his fervor in check. Both would be bad news, since we need at least one of our pilots in top shape for takeoff and docking. I can’t do that part for them, and the shuttle’s computers can’t be relied upon in anything but ideal conditions.

Photosensitive

ERIN CARELLOS
DAY 14

Carbon dioxide alarms went off tonight. A pity, because I was actually sleeping for once. Perhaps helped by the CO2? Not exactly the healthiest way to doze off, but I’ll take anything at this point. I could smell ammonia on the air, too. That means air was leaking in from outside, and it was my job to find out why and fix the problem. When we crawled out of the dark room we were greeted by a partially deflated dome. The anteroom was even worse, and it took a good deal of coordination to get into our outdoor gear without tripping over fallen struts and tent fabric. And then we had to actually fix the problem. I’ll spare you the boring details, but it took Rashid and me two and a half hours to fix the filtration system. Naturally, we were working in broad daylight.

So here I am, writing at four in the morning and getting less and less coherent each minute. Zach and any nieces or nephews that follow will probably have to ask me what the hell I was trying to say when they read this. Luo asked me to proofread some of his journal translations and they were so polished, I don’t know how he does it. He says he wants to write a memoir someday and he’s just getting a head start. Anyway, enough with the rambling. I sincerely hope we have enough energy to make it through tomorrow’s trip. I’ve given up on sleeping, with only two hours before morning, and critical repair work acting like strong coffee on my nerves (add that to the list of things I miss). It must have had the same effect on Rashid; he’s tossing and turning too. Alex, at least, is sawing logs. Lucky bastard.

Routine

RASHID ANDIYAR
Day 14

Luo and I once joked that if either of us was doing more than our routine work, then something must have gone horribly wrong. It might be the water purifier, the waste management system, the wiring…or worse. No mission is without its mishaps, so why should this one be an exception?

Last night’s air handler breakdown had me at my wit’s end. It should’ve been a quick fix – just replace the mass flow controller and call it a night. Easy! Too bad a mass flow controller isn’t something you can just print. The parts could be printed, but then we had to find what part was broken and wait thirty minutes for the printer to finish. I’m half expecting to discover a species of tree in Achilles Wood that grows mass flow controllers like grapes on a vine. Wouldn’t that be convenient. Either way, we’re slated to leave in four days. The equipment wasn’t built to hold much longer than that and neither were we.

So why is it, then, that we’re only now making our way to the forest on the far side of the ravine? That place is the very reason I landed us here. We’ve been putting it off because…why? We weren’t ready? Hell, we were more ready last week than today. We were fresh. Well rested. Alert. Eager to discover. Now? Well, let’s tally up the results. Three days ago, a live spoonworm stowed away on one of our boots and made it into our living area. Alex was not happy about that. This morning, he got a face full of hot tea because I wasn’t watching my step. Erin snapped at me over that. I deserved it completely, but still. I wasn’t expecting such a sudden and harsh rebuke for an accident that would otherwise be quickly forgiven.

Some real frustrations are showing through our usual repartee. We never fought when Vander was around to mediate, but he’s flying all on his lonesome, too far and high to rely on when things go awry. The same could be could be said for our doctor when the rest of us are out on our hikes, if his work were to become more than routine.

Recording
6:00 Day 14

LP: Maybe you should stay in today. You were up all night fixing that thing.
ESC: Yeah, I’m up all night every night. What difference does it make?
LP: It makes all the difference. Because Rashid was up all night too, but at least he got a good night in yesterday.
ESC: So you go instead? Because that’ll go well.

ESC: Sorry, that was mean.
LP: I don’t see why they can’t go, just the two of them.
ESC: Because it’s explicitly a three person job. Three transects, three people. No time for two people to cover that much ground.

ESC: Look, it’s an easy enough task. We walk in a straight line and count plants and bugs. That’s it. We don’t even have to touch anything. That’s for tomorrow.
LP: All right.

One Way Trip

One-Way Trip

RECORDING
16:15 Day 14

MDV: You look terrible!
AWO: Normally I wash up before coming in here.
MDV: You know full well that’s not what I’m talking about. Something went bad out there. You’re carrying it on your shoulders. If you could see yourself! What happened?
AWO: I’m holding it in my hands.
MDV: You’re-what is that? Where did you find it?
AWO: I don’t know. I don’t know.
MDV: It had to come from somewhere.
AWO: …
MDV: Is that blood?
AWO: …
MDV: Alex, whose blood is that?

alex

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 14

We chose this landing site because it was flat, clement, and right on the rainforest’s edge. The reasoning behind this was simple: Earth’s rainforests are a bounty of biodiversity, so we expected the same here.

This was not the case.  The first thing we noted was a lack of fauna larger than a few centimeters or so. What animal life crawled among the leaf litter was plentiful but unvaried, dominated by just a couple slug-like thoracostome species. Not much in the way of plant life could grow in the dense shade. The tall trees that had established themselves centuries ago reigned supreme and provided the lush canopy where I’m convinced all the floral and faunal diversity was hiding, well out of reach.

Something else, something I could not recognize nor classify, inhabited the heart of the jungle. Some of the lower tree limbs sagged under the weight of a heavy, bulbous mass of flesh, pale yellow like pustules. It grew like a disease around the trunks and over the branches, with spines protruding in all directions. It wasn’t the epitome of natural beauty, but, like a cactus, what harm could it do as long as I’m careful not to fall into it?  I took note, stashed it away to investigate later, and continued along my transect.

Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty, but I really should have checked with the others to make sure they were aware of this potential danger. As it happens, we discovered the carnivorous nature of this organism in the worst possible way. It works like this: the tumor spears anything that passes over or beneath its spread. The barbed spines remain connected to the creature’s body by some sort of umbilical, with which it traps and reels in its prey until the catch-of-the-day is close enough to engulf and digest. Any animal unlucky enough to fall out of the canopy, or (like us) naïve enough to simply walk into Mordor, will likely fall prey to the creeping infection on its way back to the light.

Today’s catch was Rashid Andiyar, our good friend and valued partner on this five year expedition. Erin and I pulled him out of range, but not before he tripped and fell on his back. Inadequate slack on the line caused the spine in his neck to yank out, and any hope of saving him was lost.

get up

RECORDING
14:00 Day 14

LP: I guess there’s not much you or I can do for him at this point. I should get back to camp…maybe tell Vander what happened. What are you going to do now?
ESC: Well, we’re bringing him home. What, did you think we’d just dump him in the river?

ESC: Wait. Where are you if you’re not at camp?

LUO PING
Day 14

I was cataloging core samples of the mats at Hidden Lake when I got the call.  Alex and Erin were shouting over each other in a panic. It was hard to make out what they were saying, but I got the gist of it soon enough.

“It’s bad, it’s bad, something’s attacked us and I couldn’t cut him loose fast enough.”

“…came out of the trees like arrows, all at once…”

…An awful choking sound…

“…missed his jugulars, but tore the trachea…”

“Tell us what to do!”

And so on.

It’s beyond repair, I told them a few minutes later, but I refused to believe my own words. I made it as far as the ravine in a last ditch effort to bring aid to the injured party, against Erin’s order to stay inside. It wasn’t the oncoming panic attack that stopped me dead, or the sickening realization that I was outside, unprotected, and utterly alone – that would come after. It was a voice, barely intelligible through the static and grief.

“Luo – Luo, I can’t feel him breathing anymore!”

I made my way home after that. The day was beyond repair.

DSC_0040

Message In a Bottle

RECORDING
16:30 Day 14

MDV: And then he died?
AWO: No, not yet. That’s why we were in such a rush to get out of the forest, but it was hard because we couldn’t just stomp around knowing what was watching us from the trees.
MDV: Of course not.
AWO: We had to evade it without taking excessively long detours. You can thank Rashid for that, by the way. He’s the one who figured it out.
MDV: Figured what out?
AWO: How to not get shot.
MDV: Which is?
AWO: Don’t step on the tendrils that grow under the trees. That’s how it knows where we are. They’re hard to see, but once he pointed it out the going got easier.
MDV: How long did he stay with you?
AWO: A good twenty, thirty minutes maybe. We got to our air stash that we left at the clearing and he thought it would be a good time to stop for a breather while we swapped out, even though we had enough in our tanks for the way home.
MDV: A breather.
AWO: Yeah, he was having a difficult time of it, actually. Breathing.
MDV: And then…
AWO: That was it. Given his bold cowboy attitude I always thought he would go out with a bang, but he was real quiet about it, almost apologetic. He waited ‘till we weren’t looking.

Tendrils

MICHAEL VANDER
Day 14

On any other day, there is nothing I look forward to more than the daily report to Earth.  I have the privilege of compiling all the spectacular photos and invaluable notes and flinging them in our homeworld’s direction. Somewhere, in another time, bright young eyes are seeing what we’re seeing; their worldviews are changing in tandem with ours. We brought with us the responsibility to carry something meaningful back home. Returning with the entire party unharmed is just a bonus. I knew that from the start, but that didn’t make a lick of difference, didn’t take away from the shock of hearing the news from what remained of my crew.

Alex would never risk contamination by failing to wash up thoroughly before entering the living area, so I knew something was wrong when his sweaty, unkempt face appeared on my monitor. The sleeves of his barrier suit were tied around his waist, the bottom half hung loose over his legs, and his boots tracked mud and blood on the floor. After a minute’s delay, he opened his mouth as if to speak, shook his head, and fiddled with a strange object in his hands. It looked like hollow bone, about a third meter long, with thin grooves and sharp protrusions running down its length. It was completely white except for a few reddish brown marks here and there. The bloodstained quill would be the last specimen collected on our travels, a testament to what we sacrificed to bring a piece of the universe back to Earth.

I wish I could express how exploration of exotic worlds fosters a deeper understanding of our own, how a strong bond forms between men, women, and entire nations working toward a common goal, how easily we forget about the drama of greed, violence, and corruption when all we can see is the immediate need to stick together and watch each other’s backs in face of the unknown. Rashid and I used to have long discussions about this. His greatest fear was that a disaster would put an end to deep space exploration. I wish I could spell out how devastated he would be if a second mission to Ilion were halted on his account. I wish I could send home a message in a bottle with nothing but these words, written in a hundred different languages:

“Never. Stop. Exploring.”

Odyssey I landing site jpg

The Stakes

RECORDING
14:00 Day 14

AWO: You have your kit with you, right? The full one, not your first aid pack.
LP: I do.
AWO: Don’t put it away. We’re going to need it when we get back.
LP: It won’t help, Alex. Rashid’s dead. You said it yourself.
ESC: He wasn’t talking about him.

Taking Him Home

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 14

I’m not in any mood to dwell on what happened in Achilles Wood earlier today. I can write about it later. Or not. Right now I’m in what medical professionals call “a pickle.” Thing is, Rashid wasn’t the only one shot by…whatever that thing was. I wasn’t in immediate danger so we just sort of ignored the tent stake sticking out of my left arm. Rashid was still alive and we had to find a route out of the woods that wouldn’t get us skewered again while keeping him from choking on his own blood. The good news: we didn’t get skewered again. The bad news: well….

The thorn had about twenty minutes to do whatever it pleased. It made good use of that time doing what it was designed to do, which was to pump digestive juices into my muscle. We learned that digestion of protein and lipids is similar between life on Ilion and Earth because…well…it worked. It probably would have paralyzed me too if I hadn’t evolved on a different planet. So there’s that.

Alex used his expertise to identify what was unmistakably a venom sac and seal it off with some transect wire. He saved its contents in a vial, which wasn’t as much as he would have liked (the rest was in me, remember?). As for the thorn, we left it in place because we’re not idiots. Also, we had Luo on the radio and he expressly told us not to pull it out until we got back to the igloo.

Think getting spiked in the arm hurts? Try getting un-spiked two hours later.

So this is where I stand. I was Rashid’s backup pilot and now I need one. Lily was designed to be flown by two pilots in ideal circumstances, or by one in an emergency. I am now half a pilot. Our departure is three days from today. Judging by my arm’s size (thick as a tree) and color (as black, red, and blue as the view outside) this won’t be a three day healing process.

What does half a pilot do in a situation like this? For starters, I still have my brain. I have four years of training behind me and two and a half years of simulator practice to top it off. I have two crewmates with eight working limbs between them. They’re fast learners and I only need one of them anyway. I’ll pick Luo because Alex has a lot on his mind and besides, Luo’s been through med school so he must be good at memorizing things.

I hope three days is enough to memorize all of Little Iliad’s controls.

LUO PING
Day 15

“Where’s Alex?”

For someone who had slept thirty minutes, marched ten klicks, taken two different narcotics, and lost almost a liter of blood, in that order, Erin was surprisingly lucid. Until now.

This was yesterday. I was disinfecting the floor of the wash-down room, hosing the blood down the drain, and restoring some semblance of order to the cramped space. She was in there too, slumped against a rack of spent oxygen tanks, her eyes trained on me as I went about my duties. She sipped water from a pouch borrowed from my suit. Her helmet’s straw had been chewed to nothing, I’d discovered earlier, as was her lower lip. I tried not to dwell on how it got that way; it would only make things worse. Despite being “home” I still felt some residual panic, like someone had clamped electrical leads to my adrenal glands and was hitting the button at random.

“Talking to Vander,” I said with some bewilderment. I was surprised she didn’t remember him leaving. There was a whole discussion about it, which she was a part of.

Erin looked up a notch, as if in thought, but the glazed expression never left her face, her stare fixed on a point slightly below the roof’s annular strut. “Should have been me,” she mumbled at last.

“Pardon?” Is this survivor’s guilt?

She ignored me. “It’s not right. I should be with him.”

Not sure what to say, I returned the hose to the rack, spending more time than necessary to coil it.

“I have to go,” she was saying with increasing urgency, still staring unfocused at the tent’s supports. But she didn’t move. Couldn’t. Could just as well be staked to the floor, I thought, and immediately grimaced at my choice of words.

Finally, her eyes snapped into motion and darted about before settling on the door leading to the main chamber. “He’ll never recover from this.”

I understood now. She was worried about Alex, because while she and Rashid got along most of the time, they didn’t share the same bond he and Alex did, and in her mind it was unfair to make Alex deliver the bad news. Because worrying about the living was easier than thinking about the dead. Because she probably didn’t recognize just how shell-shocked she herself was at that moment.

Specimen 14-1

Guinea Pigs

RECORDING
17:00 Day 14

MDV: One more thing, Alex.
AWO: Uh huh?
MDV: I’m writing this report and, uh, the thing in the trees. It needs a name.
AWO: You’re asking me? You know who’s better at naming things than me?
MDV: I know who. But that’s not an option right now. Can you do this for me? There’s no need to overthink it. What else shoots arrows?
AWO: Cupid? No, that’s too nice. Archers. Archers from Hell.
MDV: Devil’s archer it is, then.

RECORDS
Ilion International

Specimen 14-1 – Recovered from the survivor’s arm: Tethered thorn of the devil’s archer, 29 cm in length. Extensive tissue damage at site. Fleshy portion contains two fluid chambers with tubes leading to the hollow thorn. Report from the crew’s biologist suggests a digestive purpose. Extract from the chambers was contaminated with human blood but saved regardless.

Sample 14-1a: When injected into a fan thrax, the substance paralyzed the creature immediately and liquefied it within the hour.

Specimen 14.2Specimen 14-2 – Recovered from the victim’s clothing: Broken thorn with two fluid-filled sacs and 11 cm of tether. Minor tissue damage at site.

Samples 14-2a and 14-2b: 2.5 mL and 1 mL extract from the large and small chambers respectively. Currently stored in separate containers; may react when mixed. Chemical analysis pending return of crew.

Specimen 14.3Specimen 14-3 – Recovered from the victim’s clothing: Untethered thorn, 15 cm in length. No tissue damage at site. Report suggests a reproductive purpose. Contains one fluid-filled chamber and multiple eggs.

Sample 14-3a: When injected into a hognose thrax, the creature was not paralyzed nor digested but displayed altered behavior and a strong attraction to the scent of archer venom. Venom likely contains a neurotoxin.

LUO PING
Day 15

Bringing live animals into the tent is a violation of protocol. On paper, this one entered the wash-down room on its own accord, ostensibly through the pipes. The rat-sized thoracostome was unexpectedly swift on its stubby legs. Alex restrained the animal while I administered 0.5 cc of the venom solution. At a 1:2 dilution, I wasn’t expecting much to happen, but the effects were dramatic.

Hognose ThraxThe creature no longer feared the three aliens surrounding it. Instead, our guinea pig went into a raw panic that ended in a mad clamber for the trees. The closest approximation of a tree trunk was the legs of one of its captors, rooted to the floor, afraid to budge. Erin made no attempt to remove the animal until it buried its double snout in her sling.

“Hey, hey, you’re scared, I know. But that hurts.” She picked it up by the hind feet and set it down on the floor, but it climbed back up.

“Any theories, Alex?”

“I don’t think it’s scared. I think it’s attracted to something…a smell. An irresistible odor.”

“A taste for blood?”

“Our blood? No, not likely. This sample came from a quill that had no cable attachment to the archer that launched it.  It would be useless for hunting because the target would just run away. Unless…unless it ran to another tree. Then it could pollinate other archers.”

That mystery solved, we euthanized the animal and began the next test on the second creature to conveniently wander into our dome. This one wasn’t so lucky. The fan thrax convulsed, retracted its eyestalks, and unfurled its dorsal sail before collapsing in my hand. A jet black blister formed at the site of injection and spread outward until the skin grew too thin to hold the fluid inside. I could feel a pulse and it wasn’t my own.

Fan Thrax

Alex was entranced. Erin went pale. I looked around for something else to rest my eyes on, but the only feature within my line of sight was a man-sized tool chest lying near the soap drum. The tools were currently scattered across the tables in the other room. We needed the box for something else.

“Just kill the damn thing already.”

I wasn’t inclined to argue. The body had lost its vibrant pink color in favor of a tar black, but it continued to twitch nonetheless. I dropped it on the floor without ceremony and put it down in the only way I could think of at the time, by grinding it into the floor with my boot. I should have killed the animal earlier. In my rush to end the poor creature’s pain, I almost forgot to collect the digested tissue for analysis. This was, after all, the reason we conducted these tests in the first place. There was no entry in the medical handbook for archer stings. I had to work out a treatment on my own.

Between the venom’s corrosive activity and the mechanical action of my foot, the tissues proved to be difficult to section, mount, and stain as planned.

I also should have worn heavier gloves for this. The seepage got under the nitrile somehow and was starting to burn. My hands felt slippery even after wiping them down.

“Alex, fetch me some mild acid, will you?” I followed him into the living area, careful not to touch the walls of the tunnel connecting the two bubbles. It wasn’t easy. This place gets smaller every day, I thought.

“Will 70% ethanol work? That’s all we’ve got in our kit. I left the rest in the forest.”

“No. Forget it, I’ll just keep rinsing.”

It was Erin who found what I needed to neutralize the base: powdered orange juice. The can was almost empty, but it did the job.

“I hope you’re not thirsty,” she said. “All we’ve got left is water from the tap. Stuff tastes like PVC.”

“Are you sure?” I turned to see Alex rummaging through the kitchen, which was nothing more than a sink, a stack of food crates, and a hot plate for boiling water. Cups weren’t considered to be worth the mass, so we’ve been using our spare specimen jars as mugs. A few of these sat unwashed by the sink. “There’s some tea in here. Cardamom and black.”

“Only one person drinks that.” Erin snatched the bag from his hands and gave it a whiff. She didn’t bother to close the bag before tossing it back in the pile. The seeds rolled across the floor. “He rationed the stuff like it’s the apocalypse. And for what? It’s the end of the world for him and all he left behind was his goddamned tea.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We’re flying out in two days and we’re short one pilot, and half a co-pilot too. I can’t fly this thing one-handed. How does a crash course in piloting sound to you? Because that’s the only way we’re getting out of here.”

I wanted to say just like giving you a crash course in brain surgery, but she looked about ready to break. Perhaps crash course wasn’t the best choice of words. I pictured myself drunkenly steering the shuttle into the lake.

Maybe some of that tea will do me good, but I’ll pass on the ethanol.

RECORDING
19:00 Day 15

LP: If only we had ice.
AWO: We can make ice. There.
LP: In the freezer? Then where would we put the samples?
AWO: We’ll throw them out.
LP: Throw out the samples? What’s gotten into you?
AWO: You said you needed ice. That’s my solution. If you can think of a better one I’d hear it in a heartbeat.
ESC: Guys, guys, wait.
LP: I didn’t say –
ESC: Guys.
LP: What?
ESC: Will I die if I don’t get ice?
LP: It’ll bring down the swelling.
ESC: But will I die?
LP: No, but –
ESC: Then don’t make ice.
LP: Really I get to make that call, but if that’s what you wish then I’ll respect that.
ESC: Thank you.
LP: Alex, worrying about a crewmate’s health. Erin, worrying about the samples. Has the world turned upside down?
ESC: I worked hard for those samples.
LP: Still, it’s not like you to –
ESC: Rashid worked hard for those samples.

ESC: Now can you see why I might be a little upset if we just tossed them?

140 Proof

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 15

Something fishy is going on with Alex, I think. He’d packed up and sterilized the trash while we were training at the shuttle as he said he would. But when I returned, his figure was slumped over the table. All I could see were his ears and bald spot, both ruddy, and a jar of water at his side. I should have said something. Should have asked if everything’s all right, should have asked Luo to take a look, but he was still looking for his alcohol scrub. Oh well. It’s the middle of the night again and everyone’s asleep except for me. I’d go on but I’m too cold to think steady, too sore to hold the pen steady, and the screen’s light is making my head throb. The words don’t look like words anymore. I hope this doesn’t keep up because I’ve got to be on my best behavior tomorrow and we’re out of coffee.

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 15

It’s not a constant ache. There are times when you forget anything happened at all, and life feels like business as usual.

Then you remember, and it hits you head-on like a bull. And it doesn’t stop there. It rams you again and again until you’re so beaten you can barely stand, and when you do, it throws you back in the dirt. As you lie curled in the dust, you hope the next blow will make you forget again.

That’s what it feels like to lose someone.

Motivation

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 16

Not two days ago it was enough, if difficult, to shore up the motivation to march southwest through the river, the savanna, and the viscous fog of insomnia.

If I knew what was waiting…

Yesterday, at six hours sharp, the morning alarm trilled twice and I failed to wake from a drug-induced slumber.

By nine, I found myself in the workroom, not entirely sure how I got there, where Luo was discussing my situation with Vander on the comm. Alex was outside “performing routine maintenance” on the water distillery. He returned with two thoracostomes “found stuck in the supply pipes.”

Thirty minutes of ethically questionable animal testing later, I proposed my idea to Luo. We grabbed a quick bite and made our way to Little Iliad.

At eighteen hours we cut off shuttle training because I was shivering in the 30 degree heat and my arm was so swollen Luo had to cut my sleeve off.

We’re going back today. No choice. It’s a matter of balancing Luo’s flying skills against my ability to survive the trip. Motivation is no longer sufficient. If Luo makes a mistake at a critical moment, we die. If I lose consciousness at a critical moment, we die. If I perish mid-flight, I take Alex and Luo and the memory of Rashid and all the fruits of our labors down with me.

Cabin Fever

LUO PING
Day 16

This is nuts, was all I could think as I practiced the power-up procedure for the twenty-seventh time. To an experienced pilot, this step is as automatic as putting the code in the dash and waiting for the car to boot, at least for those who still drive. Docking with the ship, on the other hand, is like parallel parking in three dimensions while taking an exam on advanced mathematics, and most people never truly master it. At least that’s how Rashid put it after pulling off an exceptionally smooth landing on the plains sixteen days ago. I likened the power-up procedure to preparing a patient for a major surgery. Sure, it’s not as demanding as the task ahead, but the tiniest error can have catastrophic consequences.

“Take-off is nothing like landing,” said Erin when we moved on to the next part of the lesson. “When you’re landing, the terrain whizzes by and leaves you with no time to think. You just have to do it by feel. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure before you get the hang of it.” She took a moment to glance at the screen in front of her. On it were four lights, all green. “That part of training was a real nightmare for me. Gave me nightmares, too.”

And here I only had the rest of the day to learn the ins and outs of flying. The way she put it, our situation was hopeless.

“Luckily for us,” she went on, “we’re not landing anywhere tomorrow. Hopefully.” Erin reached over to my side and hit a button. A spherical grid projected from one of the monitors. “Once we set a trajectory, it’s a simple matter –”

“Wait, how are you going to do that when we’re flying?”

“Huh?” she said. “Do what?”

“What you just did. You had to get out of your seat to reach that button. How’re you going to do that when we’re strapped in?”

“I’m not.” She looked at me with something like pity, or resignation perhaps. “Everything from the portside window to the center panel, that’s your responsibility.”

There were about a hundred switches, three dozen dials, five displays, and three joysticks in the area in question. They were labeled in English and Russian, but not Mandarin. It was bad enough that the type was almost too small to read from the seat. “I have to know all of that?”

“Every button. Well, okay. Most of them. Unless you want to switch to digital? I just thought the analog controls would be easier for you to learn.”

By evening I had a good grasp of the startup sequence and docking maneuvers, but the rest was still a mystery to me. Erin wanted to continue the session but we were making little progress at this late hour. Her already thin patience had run dry hours ago and neither of us had eaten since morning.

“Why don’t we call it a night,” I said. “If we get an early start we can finish tomorrow but there’s no point in staying up through dawn. We have to sleep.”

Erin turned to protest. I don’t remember what she said, because all I could do was gape. Had she not been speaking, I would have thought I was staring into the cold eyes of the undead. There was no living, working human inside that suit, only a body pulled from the bottom of a lake, with flesh the color of concrete, ready to fall off the bone. Her eyes were only half open, recessed in their orbits as if afraid of the sunlight. For a split second I wanted to run outside, but only the thought of exposure frightened me more than the specter sitting beside me.

“Y…y…you’re not well.”

She blinked. “I haven’t slept.”

That can’t be all, I thought after coming to my senses. Having worked with astronauts for fifteen years, I’d seen my share of insomnia in all its forms. No, that couldn’t be it, but I had an idea what might be ailing her. I’d been keeping an eye on an abscess that had formed where the archer’s stinger pierced her upper arm. If released into the bloodstream, the infection could spread to the rest of her body leading to fever, organ failure, and death if not treated in time. We had to get back right away – not just to our campsite, but to Odyssey’s medical bay. That wasn’t an option at the moment, so a prompt return to base camp would have to suffice.

the way there

On the walk up here, Erin had me by the arm the whole way. She talked all the while to keep me calm, to divert my attention from the open land that stretched from camp to shuttle. She tried her best to take my mind off the events that had transpired two days ago, and the way everything seemed to fall apart afterward. She talked about the house she grew up in, how there were two small lakes within walking distance and a large one only twenty kilometers away. I should visit the area sometime, she suggested, and see for myself just how beautiful it gets in the spring. Before I could promise a visit, I found myself in the comforting shadow of Little Iliad.

Now it was my turn to take the lead. Just as she had supported me on the way to the shuttle, I carried the weight home. There were no words, just the scrape of boots on the gravel-strewn riverbed where a tributary of Raya’s Ravine once flowed. There was no fear. How could I be afraid of death when the prospect of spending the rest of my life on this planet was so much more terrifying?

the way back less extreme

ERIN CARELLOS
Day 16

It’s three in the morning and writing is the only thing keeping me sane. I haven’t been able to accomplish much else since I collapsed on the anteroom floor and somehow ended up in my sleeping bag even though I don’t remember leaving the anteroom. I’ve woken dozens of times, each time into the same freaking night, this night that won’t end no matter how many times I try to sleep through it. I know that if I step outside, the blinding light will take over and it will be day again. I’m not sure if I find that comforting or not.

***

Ghosts aren’t real but that doesn’t change that fact that I saw one just a second ago. It spilled out of my duffel bag and distorted the canvas door behind it before splitting in two. Was it Rashid’s? Mine?

Sick Leave

RECORDING
9:30 Day 17

MDV: Luo, what did you call me for? You should be preparing for your flight. That’s in forty minutes, you know.
LP: Yeah, about that. There might not be a flight today. Erin’s not responding to any of our antibiotics.
MDV: Not at all?
LP: No. Antibiotics are a joke. She needs viral, but the incubator’s on the ship. The most I could do was prepare a Ringer’s to get her blood pressure up but it won’t do any good if we don’t treat the underlying issue.
MDV: Well, isn’t there something else you could do, if not to make her healthy again, to make her…awake…enough to fly you home?
LP: Vander, last I talked to her she was half asleep, mumbling about goanna heads or something. You expect her to handle Little Iliad?
MDV: Lily’s not as hard to fly as you seem to think. Most of it is automated.
LP: That’s not what Erin told me.
MDV: She’s just being cautious. That’s how pilots are trained to think, with checklists and fail-safes and all that fuss. But most of it’s unnecessary.
LP: Oh, okay.
MDV: Luo, how much did she teach you?
LP: Start-up and docking. Not much in between.
MDV: Hmm, I suppose that makes sense. Under better circumstances, she could have done the rest of it herself.
LP: It’s just…I can’t even imagine how this’ll work out.
MDV: You know, there is another option.
LP: Yeah?
MDV: You could keep on training, and by the end of the week you might be good to fly on your own.
LP: The week! Vander, by the look of it Erin won’t make it through the night.
MDV: I know. You’ll have to train under me. I haven’t flown this model in years but a week should be enough to refresh my memory.
LP: No.
MDV: Luo –
LP: No, it’s not fair. She has a right to live as much as me and Alex.
MDV: I appreciate the sentiment, but I can’t let you risk the entire crew for one person. Why don’t we all head over to the shuttle and figure out if you even need the extra training. Then we’ll decide.

Where are you going, Rashid?

Back to Achilles. We never finished our survey. Actually, I could use your help if you’d like to join me.

I’m not going back!

Don’t worry. It’s different this time. It won’t know we’re there, can’t hurt us.

I can’t go with you. Luo and Alex need me to stay with them. And Vander.

You sure? It’s not so bad, you know. 

Yeah. You go on ahead.

ALEX O'HEARN
Day 17

Shuttle’s packed. Luo and I are taking a break from decontamination prepping to grab a bite. Nobody has much of an appetite to speak of, least of all Erin who is halfheartedly swatting at something I can not see from here….a bug? There are no insects on Ilion.

berth

LUO PING
September 4, Year 3
Day 17

Erin was in no condition to walk to the shuttle in full gear, so she stripped down to the bare essentials: an emergency mask with an hour’s worth of air; shorts, boots, and a tank top; a plastic drape to protect against dirt and bugs, and a pouch of water.

“This feels very wrong,” she said as she stepped between two pitcher-catcher trees, careful not to brush against the bulbous, thorny fruits growing out of their trunks. At first I thought she was just being conscious of her relative nakedness. Then I saw that Alex, too, was giving the plants a wide berth. Pitcher-catchers were harmless, but I followed their example regardless.

Vander was out of range when we reached Little Iliad. I took Rashid’s seat and Alex sat to my right, in Erin’s. He was there to serve as an extra set of eyes and hands, no more. Erin was lying in the cargo bay, sleeping…or dead, for all I knew. I tried not to think about it. I could barely focus as it was.

I gave Alex an overview of what I’d learned. It was mostly contigencies – what to do when something goes wrong – as the basic functions were automated. I also had to know when to light the torch, so to speak, since the timing depended very much on the weather, time of departure, and Odyssey’s position. It was one of the few steps that couldn’t be preprogrammed, and it would not be practical to program it midflight. I only half understood this part.

Vander, now in range, hailed us and wasted no time gauging what I knew and didn’t know. His verdict: “You’ll be okay as long as everything goes smoothly. If not…”

“We pray.” Erin had snuck up on us, fully suited in orange and white. She was leaning heavily on the back of Alex’s seat. Her seat, really.

“Not necessarily,” Vander replied like nothing strange had happened. Of course. He must have seen her coming. “If I’m in range, I can bark orders at these two until we fix the problem.”

“Yeah, I don’t like this plan. Too many ‘if’s.'”

“You have a better idea?”

As if on cue, Alex hoisted himself out of his chair and shuffled to the cargo bay. Erin took his place. I glanced at her uncertainly – she was trembling and out of breath – but she motioned for me to strap her in and immobilize her arm.

“If you’re gonna keep me alive, I might as well do my job.”

worried

Double Blind

RECORDING
6:30 September 5, Year 3

ESC: We’re losing you in 18 minutes. Just so you know.
MDV: That’s fine. As long as we don’t lose you.

MDV: You hear that, Erin?
ESC: I’m doing the best I can. Just let me concentrate.

ERIN CARELLOS
September 5, Year 3

I don’t think Luo knows how close we came to smearing our charred remains across the smoggy Ilian sky. I’m certainly not going to tell him that he lit the rockets too early, sending us into a spin before we could hit thin air. I’ll leave out the part where he blacked out and I had to unbuckle myself to reach the controls on his side. I won’t mention how surprised I was that I could move the arm at all, that adrenaline really is an effective painkiller, or that I knew where to find the attitude controls despite the fact that I was looking down the barrel of a gun.

Cutthroat pitch. What a terrible name.

Not that Luo is to blame. “I still have no idea what I’m doing,” he had murmured while Alex was sealing the cargo bay. “I flip a couple switches here, push a button there, and wait for a specific light to blink three times before turning an unmarked knob exactly 23 degrees clockwise. Fine. But I don’t know what it’s all for. I feel like a trained monkey.”

And I said, “Is that what you’re worried about? Look, I can’t teach you rocket science in two days.” His lack of confidence was getting tiresome. He’d performed fine on the last couple of simulations.

My first mistake was to forget that simulations weren’t a perfect representation of what goes on during a launch. Sure, the horizontal takeoff was easy enough. The shuttle cruised at a low altitude for an hour and a half with very little vertical acceleration. It wasn’t too different from a ride in a commercial spaceplane. There were few distractions and almost no turbulence. That was all fine and dandy until Luo misunderstood my command and lit the rockets at only 2,000 meters, which is a mistake no pilot would make. Except Luo is a doctor, not a pilot.

My second mistake was to overlook the fact that I had received an excess of high-g training during our prep years and Luo had not. Our ascent peaked at 7.4 positive g’s. Without thinking I tensed my muscles and held my breath at three second intervals, as per training, and I still couldn’t see past the tunnel vision. But even with my sickness factored in I held out longer than he did. Two days of intensive training went out the window the minute Luo’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. What good is a blind, crippled pilot? A hell of a lot better than an unconscious one.

Oh, and there’s one more thing I overlooked. It was actually really easy to man the controls by myself during orbital flight and docking. Why? Because weightlessness is a wonderful thing. I could perform as many “ECA’s” (extra-chair activities) as I wanted. So all those hours Luo spent on docking maneuvers were a massive waste. We could have spent that effort on more important things, like you know, the actual flying part. Which as you might recall didn’t go so well.

My fault.

RECORDING
8:45 September 5, Year 3

MDV: Helmet stays on, Erin!
ESC: There’s flies inside.
MDV: Flies?
ESC: Yeah, it’s driving me insane. I need to let them out.
MDV: I’ve got three cameras on you right now and I’m telling you there are no flies within six lightyears of your face. Pull yourself together!

lily arrives

ERIN CARELLOS
September 5, Year 3

So I’m glad I didn’t tell Luo all those things because I talked to Vander and he confirmed that I misspoke during the early ascent phase. I gave Luo the wrong numbers to work with and of course he didn’t know better. Why would he? Though Vander said I was completely out of my mind half the time so at least I have an excuse.

Nothing to Say

ALEX O'HEARN 
September 5, Year 3

It was the one place I felt I truly belonged, and it hurt to leave.

The side window offered me a sprawling view of the landforms around our landing site. The escarpment that made up Base and Treble Cliff stretched for a seemingly infinite distance. The perpetual midday light reflected off the river as it emerged out of the western rainforest boundary only to be swallowed again by Hidden Lake. Beyond that, it was impossible to distinguish one feature from the next; they sped by too fast. Once we reached a certain altitude, there was nothing to see but sky and haze. Then, black. Not the darkness of space, but of blindness.

I’ll leave the rest for another time. My head is aching and spinning from either the microgravity or the events of the last few days; it’s hard to tell. Or it could be something else entirely. I’d rather not talk about it right now. It’s not exactly my proudest moment.

LUO PING
September 5, Year 3

There was no celebration when our shuttle locked into Odyssey’s manipulator arm and shuddered to a stop, just a collective sense of relief. I let myself relax a little. It was in Vander’s hands now.

“Welcome home,” he said over the radio. “I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little worried there for a second, but it’s good to have you back.”

Erin said, “Just glad to be in one piece. I’d like nothing more than to sleep in tomorrow, if you don’t mind.”

Alex said nothing. Rashid said even less.

Animal

ERIN CARELLOS
September 6, Year 3

You know how in action movies, there’s sometimes this part where the good guys are in peril and the only way to get out of it is for someone to sacrifice themselves. And while the others are saying “No! Don’t do it,” you, the audience, never think twice about it. Of course they’re gonna do it. Wouldn’t you?

Okay, but here’s the thing. When there’s even the slightest chance of survival, even at great risk to your friends, sacrifice isn’t an option anymore. It doesn’t even cross your mind.

Or, to put it another way: there are two kinds of dying dog. The first wanders off in search of a quiet place to expire, not to be found until it is done; the second stays put and growls at anyone who dares approach, despite having no strength to fight.

Guess which one is me.

I can justify my decision on the basis that everything worked out: I’m alive, Little Iliad isn’t drifting in a decaying orbit but is firmly berthed to Odyssey, and Vander has company again. And I heard Luo. He was going to get my ass to the shuttle if he had to drag me across the plain in my sleeping bag (he didn’t). But that doesn’t make me feel any less of an animal.

***

Before we had a chance to make ceremony, Luo guided me to the medical bay. Up until now, we had only used that station for research purposes. We’d used the IV drip to test the effects of elevated blood pressure under varying gravitational conditions, for instance. Alex and Luo once spent two months lying in this bed to see how the body adapts to high acceleration when the pressure is taken off the joints. It was all stuff like that.

Now I’m in here for a very different reason. I can’t move. I’m strapped in so I won’t drift, and most of the time I’ve got a needle in my right arm so I can’t even scratch my nose or brush the hair out of my face. It’s driving me nuts.

Vander came in last night and offered to keep watch so Luo could sleep in his own bed. Maybe it was the drugs but I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched Luo struggle to teach Vander how to use all the equipment. I thought, how mixed up are we that our doctor is a pilot, our commander is filling in for the doctor, and our pilot was killed while conducting a biological survey?

Vander didn’t say anything after Luo left like I thought he would. I could tell he wanted to get something off his chest but maybe he didn’t want to bring it up while I was drugged to oblivion. And that was fine by me, because I had my own concerns to voice.

“Alex, he’s…I don’t think he’s taking this well. I saw him drinking and I don’t think it was water and I asked him when’s the last time he wrote anything in his journal and he said he doesn’t remember and I’m just worried about him, okay?”

Vander just told me to relax and try my best to sleep through the night. It wasn’t until the next morning that either of us was ready to have a serious talk about whatever was on his mind. My head was clearer and with Luo due to return in less than an hour, Vander couldn’t put it off any longer.

“What you did there, in the shuttle. I just wanted to say, it was unbelievable. Good fortune doesn’t cover it. It was all you, you and Luo pulling off a feat I would never have imagined possible.”

“Well, I didn’t want to die.”

Something about what I said must have hit a sore spot, because he couldn’t look me in the eye after that. “I, uh…well, I was about to write you off. Do you know Luo talked to me before you left?”

“I heard some things but I wasn’t really listening.”

“Anyway, he wasn’t feeling too confident about your chances, so I told him…I told him he’s best off training an extra week with me. And we both knew you weren’t going to last the whole week.”

I hadn’t even considered Luo training under Vander as an option. Thinking back on it, it wasn’t a bad idea. “I think I would have done the same in your position.”

“You would have done the same because you’re a realist. With odds that slim, any reasonable leader would have made that call. But that’s not why I did it.” He let go of the handhold at the foot of my bed and floated to the ladder. He must have heard Luo at the door. “I did it because I couldn’t bear the thought of spending the next two and a half years alone.”

MICHAEL VANDER
September 8, Year 3

Good news has been scarce these days. So when Camera 16 notified me of an animal presence in Nine’s favorite hunting site, I clung to the news like a talisman. I wish I could tell Rashid…

No Fly Zone

ALEX O'HEARN
September 8, Year 3

Vander said something during our flight that made my hair stand on end. There are no flies within six lightyears of your face.

Now, I’m a botanist, not an entomologist. Insect pollination hasn’t been in the equation for most of the plants I work with for several decades. Who’s going to let bees roam free on a space station if they don’t have to? So no, I don’t miss the flies. It doesn’t bother me that I’m six lightyears from Earth. What bothers me is that in a few years, I’ll be six lightyears from the nearest pitcher-catcher, the nearest live thoracostome. Probably forever.

Quarantine

Hey folks.

So you’ve probably been hearing about our situation for the last few days. I don’t know how much detail they’re giving you but I sure as hell hope they’re not keeping you in the dark. I’ll try to fill you in as best as I can. There’s a lot that went on so I’ll write it up or something and attach it to this video, maybe. I don’t know.

And yeah, there’s no hiding it. I look like shit. Luo says the viral’s doing its job but…have any of you ever gotten viral therapy for a resistant infection before? They say if it doesn’t make you sick as a dog then it’s not working. So, uh, I think it’s working.

If my math is right you’ll see me in just a year. Hard to believe, I know! I’ll have to wait a bit longer than that but I think I’ll manage. Anyway, try not to eat yourselves alive worrying. This must have been scary as hell for you and I wouldn’t trade places for anything.

Take care.

ERIN CARELLOS
September 10, Year 3

I’d forgotten how much harder it is to move about the ship when it’s accelerating at two g’s. In free-fall, I would use the ladders to pull myself along its length. It all felt very horizontal.

The world took a ninety degree turn yesterday. Imagine the ship as a tower and you’ll get the idea. Our bunks sit at the top, just below the water tanks and prow shield. A hatch in the floor leads to a ladder, which passes through the Astrotorium on the way to the kitchen and common area. The Astrotorium is our observation deck. It is little more than a low-ceiling cylindrical room with three slit windows and a plastic bench at each. Unless we’re orbiting a planet, I don’t see the point of it. It’s just stars. A view of the void.

Alex’s garden is more beautiful by several orders of magnitude. There’s nothing like the smell of earth to bring me back to Earth. The kudzu spans the walls and pipes without regard for up or down, leaving little space for the slower plants to spread. But they try. Each time I pass through, the power’s shifted in one direction or another. It’s a battle in stop-motion.

long way up

The engine control room lies in the deepest dungeon. It took no effort to float here and power on the jets, but in doing so I’ve effectively cornered myself. You see, I’m confined to this prison until I’m strong enough to climb the ladders – one-handed, no less. That won’t be for a while, so there’s not much to do but cycle through the two dozen-or-so readouts on the reactor’s monitor until the graphs lose their meaning. The monotony puts me half to sleep and the engine’s resonant rumble finishes the job. And that’s when the fever talks.

I’m at Primrose Lake with the family, like we used to do every year. My cousin Nikki is standing on a floating island made entirely out of seaweed, holding a child-sized fishing rod and crying for help. I try to swim after her but the water is freezing and my arm is getting tired.

We keep the engine room ice cold to allow the machines to run at max efficiency. I keep three or four blankets down here, but they’re always slipping off in the night.

The thorn slides easily through skin and muscle. The half-decayed tissue doesn’t do much to hold it in place, but something catches on a barb before Alex can pull the whole thing out. Before long he’s drawing out other things, each more bizarre than the last – bloody pieces of bicep, veins, tendons, bone splinters, hair, and teeth – he pulls until nothing’s left.

“Infection is likely given the circumstances, so don’t be alarmed if you start feeling worse,” Luo had said. “It’s not an effect of the venom.” Other than that, the test was clean: no alien pathogens in the blood. The certainty in his prognosis was more comforting than any empty reassurance would have been. Had he not been honest about it, my imagination would’ve dredged up something much worse to fill the vacuum.

“All right, you’re free. Now get up and get moving!” Rashid scrambles to his feet, the loose thorn still caught in the fabric of his pants, but he doesn’t seem to hear the second part. “Come on.” He doesn’t budge. His eyes are on the limb that sags over our heads. He backs away in horror and trips over a root as the pulsing growth takes aim at his exposed neck.

Okay, this one’s an actual memory and not a fever dream, but who would know the difference?

sun a brighter star

Never

ALEX O'HEARN
March 19, Year 4

The cardamom is dying and it’s my fault. Even this hardy hybrid requires daily misting and constant monitoring. I haven’t been doing that. I’ve been spending my waking hours in the Astrotorium watching Barnard’s Star blend in with the rest. Given enough time, the red dwarf’s light will fade until it is no longer visible to the naked eye. When that happens, I will turn my attention to a different star.

I’m afraid of what comes next. There will be a quarantine period. I’ll give it three months at least, possibly longer for Erin. Our biosecurity protocols broke down when we had more immediate problems on our minds. Once we’re cleared for release, there will be a welcome-back ceremony where our friends and families can greet us as strangers after fourteen years of absence. There will be a funeral. What do I say to his family, most of whom I haven’t even met? To me he’s been dead five months. To the Andiyars, he’s been away for fourteen years. The true meaning of never won’t sink in until our ship returns one man shy.

ghosts

Looking Forward

ALEX O'HEARN
April 18, Year 5

Messages from home are arriving with greater frequency now that we’re nearing our beloved planet Earth. My mother – she’s been waiting for me all these years, despite her ill health. Applied Astrobiology – the latest issue includes a study by O’Hearn, Ping, and Carellos, the first paper ever published from outside the solar system. Raya Andiyar – she wants to write a book about us, dedicated to her brother. Can we meet up when we disembark, she wants to know?

moon2

MICHAEL VANDER
May 1, Year 5

It’s considered bad luck to announce your retirement before taking a journey, lest you tempt fate, but I think the danger is past us now. So…I’m retiring. I’ve already seen the universe. I want to see Lisa and Julia. I want to see their children, and their children’s children.

LUO PING
May 4, Year 5

Erin says she will never go back, but I know better. All that talk about doing the job, no funny business, no complications, no risk-taking, etc. is a front. Underneath that shell is an explorer trying to dig its way out with only a spoon and a compass for tools. It’ll break free soon enough, probably while she’s hiking around one of those lakes she always goes on about.

But me, oh no. My feet are never leaving Earth’s crust again.

ERIN CARELLOS
May 24, Year 5

I used to be anxious about adjusting to the new world, a world fourteen years older than I left it. It may have been only five years from our end, but I think I’ve aged at least twenty. I’m all caught up. Maybe I’ll get a dog, a girlfriend, and a flat in Cold Lake, where my brother and sister-in-law and the boys set up house. I have a lot to look forward to, indeed.

last planet

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