CRYXIS–By: LB Diamond (science fiction)
On my home planet, the sound of rain relaxed me. Here on Cryxis, acid rain meant the already thin layer of pitch covering my shelter could sluice away within minutes. Already, my hands were permanently stained black from the numerous applications of the sticky substance to the outer surface of my home. How many more times would I have to re-apply the smelly stuff?
Frustrated that I alone maintained the organic protection, I glared at my friend, Adler. He slept soundly in the corner covered in a waterproof, synthetic fabric blanket. His thick blonde hair stuck out in several directions, unkempt. The sparsity of fresh water made bathing regularly obsolete. It was by sheer force of will I tolerated my own stench, let alone his.
I wondered what I looked like. Had my short brown hair grown out? Was my beard as tangled as I thought? Did I have dirt caked in the creases and folds in my face? Were my blue eyes harried and wired with insanity?
How did Adler deal with it so well? He’d lived on this blasted planet twice as long as I had and nothing bothered him. I wished his lackadaisical approach to life appealed to me. Ever since I ship wrecked here, all I could think about was getting off this Godforsaken rock with an atmosphere. Each time I came close, defeat knocked me down. It left my heart and soul as dark as my hands.
Anger stirred in me. I hated Adler for his acceptance of his fate. Picturing my hands squeezing the life out of his throat calmed me. In the approaching darkness of night, I knew one of us would not survive until dawn.
Adler woke himself with a sneeze. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up and coughed. “Hey, Ricky, how are ya, man?”
Ricky. Why the hell did he have to call me Ricky? My name was Richard. “Fine. You?”
He rolled his eyes and rubbed his arms, shivering. “Damn cold. Makes me so tired.” His dark eyes peered out the porthole window. I’d stripped our spaceships for parts and used most of the outer sheeting for the exterior of our shelter. My escape pod hatch now functioned as our main door. “It’s dark.”
“Yeah and it’s been pouring for hours.”
“There goes all your work on spreading the pitch.”
“No kidding.” I wanted to punch the guy. My son Philip used to laugh whenever someone stated what everyone else thought but didn’t voice. He’d say, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” The memory of him burned in my mind and brought tears to my eyes. Had he and my wife Natasha been alive, I would have never accepted this mission. I would have been home on Earth. Instead, I was marooned on some shale covered, desolate hellhole with a guy I couldn’t stand.
Sure, being alone had its hardships. When I first landed on Cryxis, I was alone. For weeks I wandered the sharp cliffs and treeless mountains, never straying far from my ship in case the communication system rebooted to life. As my food stores dwindled, I realized fate gifted me death by starvation. It wasn’t until I found an oasis where plant life flourished that I thought survival was possible. That’s when I met Adler. He’d crashed his ship a couple of months before I did, and not far from my own wreck. He, too, wandered aimlessly until he found the clutch of fruit-laden trees surrounding a pure water spring.
Relieved to be alive and relieved to no longer be alone, Adler and I became fast friends. We worked together to build our original shelter in the hills above the oasis. Commiserating about our predicament helped us to pass the time. At first.
How ridiculous, the mission to search for life on this planet. I didn’t know what made the panel of astrophysicists and astronomers think it proved habitable. Most of the landscape was bare and broken up by canyons and steep mountains. Violent storms were commonplace due to sudden electromagnetic shifts. They caused our ships’ navigation systems to fritz out and made us crash in the first place. Not a day passed without Adler and I having to run for cover to avoid being assaulted by lightning or hail. Strong winds blew away pieces of our shelter at least once a week. We spent most of our time rebuilding our “home.” And the rest of our time was spent rationing food and water.
Yesterday was the first time we contacted another spaceship. Adler noticed the green activation light on the communication panel before I did.
“Hey, Ricky! Come here! The light’s on!” He gestured for me to hurry over.
I scrambled to him and peered over his shoulder. Sure enough, the system rebooted and came back online. I flipped on the audio. A static-laden whine crackled at us. “Look for a signal!”
Adler spun the dial, pausing now and then when a change in the tone indicated a stronger wavelength. The whine turned into a hum. “Got something!”
I held my breath. Say something! Call out! I pressed on his shoulder with my hand.
Adler cleared his throat, picked up the microphone, and pressed the speak button. “This is alpha-alpha-six. Do you read?” He released the button and waited.
The seconds ticked by. No response.
“Do it again.”
Adler repeated his call out. Again, no response.
I sighed. “There aren’t any ships in the area. No one can hear us.”
Shaking his head, Adler replied, “You give up too quick, Ricky.” He spent the rest of the afternoon repeating his message.
No one answered.
Adler flipped the switch on the communication panel again. “Damn thing shorts out during every storm.”
I nodded. What else was there to say?
“We got any fruit left?”
“Depends. How long do you want it to last?”
Adler snorted. “I’m hungry.”
“Why you so moody, man?”
I stood, furious. “Are you kidding? We’re trapped, starving, and completely alone! No one’s going to come save us because we can’t locate anyone close enough to hear us. We’re going to die here, in case you haven’t noticed. And you’re asking me why I’m so moody? You’re an idiot.”
Adler’s eyes grew wide. He put up his hands, palms facing me in surrender. “Sorry. You’re right. The situation sucks. But what happens if we give up, huh? I mean, if you think the game is over, then why do you keep at it?”
How could he spout out such optimism in the face of death? The man had slipped into delusion. No other explanation seemed logical.
My intense stare trapped him. He didn’t move or speak. Raging winds and pouring rain made the only noise for minutes.
I apologized to Adler after our face off. He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed it as stress.
Like I said, nothing bothered him.
While he chomped on a piece of red fruit reminiscent of an apple, I tried my hand at testing the soundwaves. I’d expected the storm to last several more hours, but it stopped just as suddenly as it started. It was the middle of the night, but time made no difference here. The only thing that mattered was keeping busy during the waking hours. Idleness gave me the opportunity to plan Adler’s death.
“Alpha-alpha-six. Alpha-alpha-six. Is anyone out there?” My voice sounded strained. “Does anyone read? Hello?”
In a rage, I chucked the microphone away, but its coiled cord prevented it from slamming into the wall. Instead, it clattered against the communication panel and snapped off the light switch to the monitor.
“Damn it!” I stood and paced the floor, put out by my own stupidity.
Adler set his food aside and inspected the damage. “Hey, Ricky, it’s okay. The control still works. We can use pliers to turn it on.” He smiled at me.
I wanted to knock out every tooth in his mouth. “Good.” I ran my hands through my greasy hair, raking my fingers through the knots and tangles. Ignoring the sharp pull of hairs leaving my scalp, I flopped on my makeshift bed made of spare blankets.
I pulled the photo of Natasha and Philip out of my jacket pocket. Looking at it always calmed me. Their bright smiles stared back at me and reminded me of a happier time. “I love you,” I said. “I’ll be with you soon.” I kissed the picture and clutched it to my chest.
A strange voice awoke me. I sat up and saw Adler hunched over the communication panel again. He fiddled with the dial and the static whined in and out of phase.
In a tense tone, he said, “Alpha-alpha-six. Does anyone read?”
A faint hiss broke through the static. “Alpha-alpha-six this is Beta-gamma-five. Over.”
I gasped and jumped up. “They heard us!”
Adler threw up a hand to silence me. He pressed the speak button and called out again. “Beta-gamma-five. This is alpha-alpha-six. We are marooned on Cryxis. Do you copy?”
I held my breath, praying for a response. My fingers found Natasha and Philip’s picture and I pulled it out, pressing it to my lips.
“Copy that, alpha-alpha-six. What are your coordinates?”
Adler turned his head and peered at me over his shoulder. “This is great, Ricky!” He read out our location and waited for a reply.
“Copy that. Hold tight. We will contact central command for instructions on how to proceed.”
Instructions on how to proceed? Come here and get us, dipwads! “Are they serious? They have to rescue us. What other options are there?”
Adler nodded. “Yeah. But they’re at risk of crashing just as much as we were. Word must have gotten out by now that this planet is dangerous.”
He had a point. After all this, after we’d actually found someone, we were still at risk of being left here. I slumped to the floor.
Several hours and three lightning storms later, Adler and I received a reply. Central command had monitored the planet, searching for life and determining possibility of rescue since our respective shipwrecks. Taking a closer look allowed them to discover the unpredictable electromagnetic field shifts and unstable atmospheric changes they’d failed to see during preliminary observations. I had to wonder, if they knew about Adler’s crash, why had they sent me?
“Apha-alpha-six, this is Beta-gamma-five. Central command has forbidden us to conduct a rescue mission. The electromagnetic field is unstable. Entering the atmosphere is too risky. And even if we were lucky enough to pass through unhindered, getting off the planet presents another challenge.”
No kidding. I’d “discovered” that one on my own soon after I landed. Like a fool, I wasted days repairing my wrecked ship only to get stuck in a lightning storm 10,000 feet up. The voltage fried the circuits and sent me crashing back down. I wondered how I survived two crash landings. It made me think I lived for a reason and therefore was destined to find a way off the planet.
My hopes imploded with Beta-gamma-five’s message. Forbidden? Had central command surveyed the planet more closely, I wouldn’t have come here in the first place. It was their damn fault I got stuck here. Didn’t that mean it was their responsibility to rescue me?
Adler must have felt the same way. “Beta-gamma-five, could you repeat that please?”
They repeated the message, this time with a more emotional tone. “I’m sorry. Best of luck to you.”
I shoved Adler out of the way. Pressing the speak button, I begged, “Wait! You can’t just leave us here. Not if you know we’re here. We’re trapped. We’re going to die!” I hoped to sway the impartial messenger.
Empty static responded.
Adler and I sat in silence for several hours. We were so close. We’d contacted someone and they denied us salvation. I wondered at the people on the other end of the line. How could they leave us here? What weight did their consciences bear? Not that it mattered. They were going to live and I was going to die.
I stared at Natasha and Philip’s smiling faces. My vision blurred from my tears, but I refused to look away. It was the only thing keeping me together at the moment.
Adler broke my concentration. “Hey, Ricky. We gotta come up with another plan.” He sat with his back against the wall, arms resting on his bent knees. “The fruit is almost gone. We need to move on. Find another oasis.”
I laughed. It sounded foreign and disturbing. “Yeah? Is that what we need to do? And then what? Are we going to circle the planet, moving from oasis to oasis, eating fruit for the rest of our lives?”
He thought for a moment. “We could bring the communication panel with us. There’s more than one ship out there. Someone’s gotta save us.”
“No one is coming. Don’t be a fool.” I spit my words out at him.
“Well, what do you suggest we do? Huh?” Adler rose and gestured at me to respond.
I matched his stance so we stood inches apart. “There is nothing to do. That’s the point.”
His eyes grew wide. “Come on, Ricky. It’s no good if we fight.”
I stuck my finger in his chest jabbing him with every word. “Stop…calling…me…Ricky.”
He put up his hands in surrender. “All right, Rick—” He stopped himself and apologized. “Sorry.”
Shaking my head, I said, “Aren’t you even a little upset that we’re on our own?”
His head wagged up and down. “Of course, yes.”
“Then why are you so calm?”
“Because I’m ready to die, Rick. Might as well make the best of whatever time I got left.”
Adler’s words echoed through my mind and my soul. He was ready to die. How does someone prepare to die? Was there an algorithm? A step-by-step guide? “That doesn’t make any sense.” I blinked at him, perplexed.
“No?” He shrugged.
“Don’t be a wise-ass.” I stepped back, tired from the face-to-face confrontation. Our conversation was intense enough without it occurring during a stand-off. Sitting back down, I buried my face in my hands.
“I’m not. Look, if you want, I can help you.”
I lifted my head and stared at him. “What?”
He looked down at me, a serene smile on his face. “You miss Natasha. And Philip. So why do you hold onto this life?”
My heart picked up its pace. “What are you talking about?”
Adler spread his arms open. “There’s no need for you to keep fighting this, Richard.”
It was the first time he called me by my full name. The cold sensation of fear washed over me. “Have you lost your mind?”
He shook his head. “No. You’ve lost yours.”
I opened my eyes. The room was empty, save for a pile of fruit stacked in the corner. The communication panel was powered down. Rain pelted against the roof and sides of the makeshift shelter. I sat up, scanning the area for Adler. If he’d gone outside during a storm, he’d most likely not return. Maybe he was suicidal after all.
With a sigh, I stood and went to the door. Though it was daytime, the heavy cloud and downpour reduced visibility to a couple of feet. I grabbed a water-resistant tarp, covered my head, and went outside. The ground was slippery and I stumbled several times on my way down the steep slope to the oasis.
“Adler!” I called out to him, thinking maybe he’d traveled here to fetch some water. The stream flowed at little more than a slow trickle, but it sprung up from the ground, fresh. Its source was covered by an outcropping of rock, so it didn’t get tainted by the acid rain that fell in sheets on a daily basis. I looked there and everywhere around the little patch of vegetation. No Adler.
Had I imagined him?
“Hey, Ricky. I’m here.” Adler stepped out from behind the trees.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?” I gestured to the rain. “It’s storming.”
I squinted at him and took a step closer.
He was completely dry. And clean. His hair was combed, his beard shaved, and his clothes looked immaculate.
“Adler?” My mouth gaped.
“Come with me, Ricky.” He extended a hand.
“Where to?” I pulled back, suspicious.
“Fighting this won’t change anything.”
“Take off the tarp, Ricky.”
“No way.” I took another step back. He wanted to kill me, I knew. There was no other explanation for his weirdness.
Adler closed his eyes. A gust of wind came up and ripped the tarp from my hands. I was exposed to the rain, vulnerable to its acid. But I didn’t get wet. The rain came down, but instead of soaking me, it…went through me.
“What the hell?” I raised my arms up and watched the drops slip through my body and land on the ground.
“Now you know, Ricky.”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t know. What’s going on?”
“You’re already dead.”
Adler’s words triggered an avalanche of emotion that wracked my soul. Dead? How could I be dead? I was just…I mean…he and I were trapped on this planet together. We’d almost been saved. I didn’t remember dying. It made no sense.
He closed the distance between us in a flash.
“Whoa!” I stepped back and stumbled, landing on the ground in a heap.
He leaned over me. “Don’t be afraid. I was sent here to help make your transition easier. But you were so determined to find a way off this planet. I had no other way than to hit you with this. I’m sorry, Ricky.”
“Wait. You said you were ready to die. You didn’t say you were dead.”
Adler nodded. “Lying to you was a mistake. But I figured if you saw someone who’d accepted their death, it would make it easier for you to recognize your own passing. I should have never done that.” He sighed and sat down next to me. “I’m probably going to get into trouble for that one. But you’ve been my most challenging case.”
“So I’m dead.”
I looked around. “Then what is this place? Hell?”
Adler laughed. “No, my goodness, no. You crashed here. But you didn’t survive. I think you were so shocked by what happened that you refused to accept it.”
“I didn’t survive the crash.”
“Think about it. Your electronics were out. You had no control of the ship. How would you survive a freefall from tens of thousands of feet in the air?”
It made sense. How could I survive such a thing? It was impossible. “Oh my God.”
“Ricky, what can I do to help you?”
I turned to Adler. “I want to see Natasha and Philip.”
He smiled. “That’s a great idea.”
Adler and I walked for hours. I wondered where we were going and why it took so long to get there, but I didn’t ask. Mulling over the fact that I hadn’t really survived the crash distracted me.
The slippery shale under our feet gradually transitioned to soft grass. We were surrounded by thick forests and lush fields as we walked. Sunshine poured down instead of rain. A soft, warm breeze rustled through the trees and brushed against my face. I closed my eyes and soaked in the pleasant sensations.
“Daddy!” A familiar voice called out to me.
I opened my eyes to see Philip running toward me. He leapt into my arms and I hugged him tight. His body was warm and his hair smelled like soap.
“Where’s Mommy?” I asked, still holding him tight.
Philip leaned back and pointed.
I peered into the treeline and saw a figure emerge. Golden hair and pale limbs shone in the light. “Natasha,” I whispered. She wore a white dress and it fluttered in the breeze. Her soft lavender scent wafted in my direction. I smiled.
Adler patted my shoulder. “Go to her, friend.”
I did as he said.