Dalliance

Dread

Like birth, the unremembered pain and disorientation struck her as a sudden release of pressure. The light was sudden and sharp, even though her clenched eyelids. Rigid hands slowly forced her slime-covered body onto her side. Her ears were blocked, so that the sounds around her were deep and remote behind the wet gasps of her own labored breathing. If she had been an infant, she would have screamed. Instead, she pulled herself into a ball, nursing the numbing ache in her limbs. She felt very heavy.

Coming out of forced sleep on an interstellar ship was a lot like being born. Rin hacked and coughed a few times to expel the slime. A towel was pressed into her hands. She sat up and scraped off the gel without opening her eyes. There was something in her mouth. Was it some leftover tubes? No. It was bits of her long hair, which was matted to her face. She pawed at the mess with numb hands until she had most of it behind her head where it belonged. It was good that they cut her nails before waking her.

She drew in a ragged, slow breath so she could push out a single word. “Coffee.”

“I'm sorry Rin. There isn't any coffee available.” It was Ando's voice, synthetic only in its perfection.

Son of a bitch. There were hundreds of cubic meters of supplies on this ship, and they didn't bring enough coffee to last the whole voyage? Coffee was relatively cheap, in terms of storage space. Also, why was the robot the one waking her up? Where was Dr. What's-His-Face, the guy with the French accent? He didn't have a lot of jobs on this ship. In fact, thawing people out and freezing them again was pretty much all he did. Why wasn't he here?

Rin pried her eyes open and nearly threw up. She was so dizzy that it seemed like the entire RAS bay was tilting to one side. Before she slammed her eyes shut again she saw Ando standing in front of her. The grid of blue lights that made up his face were arranged to show a neutral expression, except his eyebrows were raised. What was that supposed to convey? Concern? An apology? His small frame of white plastic and black metal had been standing directly in front of her. His hands were behind his back in a way that, if imitated by a human, would come off as horribly smug.

Now that her brain seemed to be warming up, Rin realized she shouldn't still be aboard the ISV Armstrong. The doctor had put her to sleep for the remainder of the voyage. They should be back on Earth. She should have been unloaded with the rest of the cargo and woken up in quarantine. Were they back? That would be nice. Maybe she could sneak a view from orbit before they went down on one of the shuttles.

She opened her eyes again. The room-tilt was still going on. She managed to hold them open this time, shielding them from the light with one hand.

“Not Earth.” she muttered.

“There's been an accident,” Ando replied in his calm, friendly voice.

“Oh?” Rin was starting to worry that all of the questions in her head were pointing to something really serious, and she just wasn't getting it yet. “Let me get dressed and pee,” she mumbled.

“I'll wait for you,” Ando replied. His narrow, child-like frame turned and descended the ladder to the medical compartment.

Her RAS pod was still hanging open, and there was a dribble of gel from the mouth of the pod to the table where she'd woken up. Rin peeled off the soaked medical gown and lurched across the room to her locker, which was beside the pod. The dizziness was incredible. It really did seem like everything was at an odd angle.

She managed to wrangle herself into the jumpsuit without falling face-first into the locker. As she zipped it up, she caught sight of the porthole for the first time. Her left eyebrow twitched.

Descent

She stared out, hand still on the zipper. There was nothing that could explain what she was seeing, a cloudy blue sky outside of the window of an interstellar ship. It was like looking out the window of your car to see fish swimming by, or the inside of some monstrous creature. This image made no sense. Interstellar ships never took off or landed. They were even built in orbit. Had they jumped in error?

It was at this point that she realized that she wasn't dizzy. The ship really was inexplicably listing forward and to one side.

That must have been one dozy of an accident.

Rin slid down the ladder to the medical compartment and fell on her ass. Partly this was because she was still addled from the long sleep, but mostly it was because she was accustomed to using this ladder in half gravity, and she was obviously a lot heavier than that now. The thump echoed hollowly in the hull, and she cried out. The pain, in her cold flesh, was intense and aching. She wondered for a moment if she had broken her spine. What was she thinking, sliding down the ladder? She experimentally tried to move, and found that she could still stand.

Cursing her foolishness and rubbing her backside, she staggered into the head and took care of business. Emerging several minutes later with her hair properly pulled back into a pony tail, Rin discovered that her nose was running. She sniffed, a fresh splash of lukewarm water still dripping from her face. The towels were all missing for some reason. Annoying.

“Why did we land?” she asked Ando. She was very much afraid this question would sound insane, but it seemed the most straightforward way of proceeding.

“We crashed,” he said evenly, to her dismay.

Well, maybe... “On Earth?”

“No.”

Rin shut her eyes. This was not her fault. “I knew this would happen.” she said bitterly.

Ando's face took on an incredulous expression. “Why did you not warn the others?”

“Shut up Ando.”

Denouement

“Okay,” she said, feeling dizzy again and trying very hard not to freak out. “Where is everyone?”

“It will be easier to explain if we go outside,” Ando replied. He turned and headed aft, his rubber padded metal feet thumping hollowly against the thin deck.

As she followed Ando slowly through the ship, Rin couldn't shake the odd feeling. She had felt this way before, somewhere. The fluttering in her stomach, the lightheadedness. Her limbs had the oddly numb sensation, like they were on the verge of falling asleep. She felt the urge to take deep breaths uncommonly often, and maybe just sit down and rest for a while. Maybe she had felt this way in school, before an exam? The association hovered on the edge of her mind. If only she had the energy to grab it.

Rin shambled, half dazed, through the officer's sleeping area, through the day area, rec room, EVA storage. The ship struck her like a painting hung slightly askew, or seen in a mirror. Familiar, but not quite right. An odd odor hung about the place, like someone had burnt... something.

“Should I suit up?” Rin asked, pointing at the rack of space suits. They looked strange. Rin realized they too were hanging at a slight angle.

“No.” Ando led her into the airlock and cycled the doors. It felt very, very strange to be standing in the airlock without wearing a suit. Rin's heart began pounding and her palms began to sweat. Leaving the ship without a suit would get you killed. She slapped the emergency abort reflexively. The inner doors froze immediately in their nearly-closed position. A little red light flashed urgently beneath her palm.

“You're absolutely sure Ando?”

“You'll have to trust me Rin.”

Rin felt dizzy again. She took her hand off the abort button. The flashing red light hurt her eyes. “I deserve an explanation.”

“The others found the atmosphere breathable. The fireplace is just outside.”

“Fine.”

Ando crossed quickly in front of Rin and deactivated the panic button. It took both of his hands. The inner doors sealed.

The outer doors cracked into a widening seam of pure white. A silent inferno invaded the airlock. The crushing wave of hot, sticky air washed over her, flooding her sinuses. At least the goop had drained. A buzzing chirruping sound filled her ears. She forced her watering eyes to squint into the overpowering blaze.

Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the light. In another context she might have described the scene as “fantastical”. If this was a concept drawing hanging on a wall somewhere, it might have qualified as “strange and alien”. But it was pouring into her, coating her skin and filling her ears and the inside of her eyes, and the only word that came to mind was “unsettling”.

Everything was just a bit off. The sky was a very deep shade of blue. The sunlight seemed a little too bright and pale. The plant life was a darker shade of green than what she was used to. The undergrowth looked wrong.

The most unsettling detail of all was the trees. They didn't look or behave like earth trees. Thick trunks grew up in twisting patterns and ended in spikes, but they didn't have a canopy of leaves overhead. Instead curtains of leafy or grass-like stuff grew directly from the gnarled trunks, like a cactus with lawn clippings stuck to the body. The trees weren't grouped together into forests, but scattered over the landscape in isolation.

The hills rolled off into the impossibly blue sky, dotted with tree spikes and covered in an even layer of hip-high undergrowth. The ground sloped away from the ship, leading down into a shallow valley.

Rin took a deep breath and felt wobbly. She put her hands on her knees, shaking as if she'd just finished a sprint. Her first freezer nap didn't weaken her this severely. Had she been asleep longer this time? “When did we crash? How long have we been here?” she asked.

“We crashed on March twenty-second. It's now July fifteenth. We've been here for sixteen weeks.”

“It's July? I think the doc put me down for the freezer nap in late January.” She paused for a moment to do the math. The math-doing parts of her brain seemed to be a bit numb along with the rest of her and this took her longer than it should. “I was under for almost six months. That's dangerously long.” Rin muttered.

“Yes. Six months is the edge for many unpleasant risk factors. You don't seem to have any obvious signs of damage to your nervous system. Hopefully your youth can protect you from the other adverse effects.”

Was she at risk for brain damage? If she was brain damaged, how would she know? “I guess the long sleep explains why I'm so hungry,” she said. “My hands are shaking. At first I thought I was weak from sleep, but no. I'm starving.”

“I don't have any food.” Ando's light-grid face showed an apologetic expression again. “I'm sorry.”

“The crew,” Rin prompted, “how far away are they?”

“Just down there.” Ando pointed out the airlock and down the slope. “Watch your step.”

Rin looked down. The airlock wasn't flush with the ground, and there was a one-meter drop from the metal frame to the planet surface. Rocks were piled as a half-hearted stairway. The ground directly around the ship had been trampled down and there was a path leading from the airlock to a spot of bare rock about ten meters away, where a fire pit had been built. Cargo containers had been arranged in a circle around the pit. They were scuffed, dirty, and dented. They had obviously been out here for a long time. Something went zing-pop nearby, but Rin couldn't locate the source.

Stepping out of the ship was harder than she had expected in two ways. Her first difficulty was her body. Jumping the short distance betrayed her. She landed heavily, legs bent. Her body decided to collapse for a little while. It seemed a good idea to rest here for a moment. She knelt on the ground staring at the trampled soil -- still achingly bright -- and took slow deep breaths. The heat of the grit felt good to her palms, her fingers. The second difficulty was her mind. Seeing the landscape out the window she had felt safe. Even while she was in the airlock, smelling it, tasting the humidity on her tongue, the whole thing seemed distant. It was the Armstrong that had crashed. The Armstrong would have to deal with it. But now the grains and pebbles pressed into her knees, her hands -- why was she so tired? She had stepped, un-prepared, through the frame and into the picture. The unsettling picture, with the unsettling plants, and not a person to be seen.

Rin had crashed on this world. All the billions of square kilometers of barren lifeless planets she had seen over the voyage clamored from her memory. She was no longer looking out the narrow windows, down at the passing scenery. Now the scenery had swallowed her up. If she looked through the windows now, she would be looking the wrong way, looking in. The ship had disgorged her onto the gravel. The voyage was inside out, and Rin was outside.

She sniffed. Her nose was still running. Rin had never been allergic before, but she guessed this is what it would feel like. Laboriously, she raised herself to her feet and made her way after Ando like an anorexic hangover victim, shielding her eyes with one hand and taking small timid steps. Looking back to the ship, she saw the Armstrong was leaning against a cliff wall, which explained how it was standing upright under gravity. She hadn't even questioned it until now.

Rin hobbled to the edge of the plateau and looked down into the valley. He pointed, indicating something. She didn't see any orange or white jumpsuits. Finally she spotted what Ando was referring to: A bare spot of ground. There were mounds of overturned dirt, some obviously older than the others. Beside each mound was a metal footlocker with a name written on the lid. Rin had one just like them, presumably back on the ship.

“Graves.” she said, flatly. It should have been a question, but it didn't come out that way.

“Yes.” was all Ando said. His tone was flat as well, like his flat plastic face.

Rin shook her head. “This is messed up.” She eased herself down onto one of the containers. “We don't have any food at all? Like, even something spoiled? I don't care, just anything.”

“No. Dr. Fournier was the last person alive. When the food finally ran out he sampled some of the native plant life. He experienced extreme intestinal pain soon afterward, and died two days later.”

She would have cried, but did not have the strength. “This is insane,” Rin said. She looked up at the thick blue sky, now a ceiling over their heads, and her breath came in a shudder.

Houston