Congratulations, Dear Stranger: Myrmecophia

Entry 12 Metadata:
DOCID: 36870222-00h00-2_README.dmtrs
Keywords: Narrative interlude
Authors: Demetris
Date: 2/22/3687
Format: Voice Recording

Entry 13 Metadata:
DOCID: 30190118-06h23.dmtrs
Keywords: The Plant, metamorphosis 
Author: Kiri, Demetris
Date: 1/18/3019
Format: Voice recording

Entry 14 Metadata:
DOCID: 30190119- MHX-DE2.dmtrs
Keywords: Malfunctions, sentient entanglements
Authors: Miles H. Xavier, Demetris   
Date: 1/19/3019
Format: Private diary [voice recording]

Entry 15 Metadata:
DOCID: 30190122-18h04.dmtrs
Keywords: End*
Author: Miles H. Xavier, Demetris   
Date: 1/22/3019
Format: Voice recording

Entry 16 Metadata:
DOCID: 30190220-02h27.dmtrs
Keywords: End*
Author: Kiri, Demetris   
Date: 2/20/3019
Format: Voice recording

Entry 17 Metadata:
DOCID: 36870222-00h01_README.dmtrs
Keywords: End*
Authors: Demetris
Date: 2/22/3687
Format: Voice Recording


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Content Warnings

  • Violence: multiple graphic deaths, including reference to infant death (part 1 of 3), depiction of sudden, violent death (part 2 of 3), depiction of death by terminal illness (throughout); war, including vivid memories of destruction of home (part 2 of 3) and weapons of mass destruction (part 2 of 3)
  • Mental health: claustrophobia, including being confined to living space (thoughout), intense loneliness (throughout), request for assisted suicide (parts 1 and 3 of 3), intense depiction of PTSD (part 2 of 3)
  • Body horror: harmful, unwanted puberty (throughout), depiction of terminal illness, including cutting unwanted growths to manage the condition (throughout), vomiting (part 3 of 3), and parasitic growth (part 3 of 3)

[SFX: Introduction music]

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 12. February 22, 3687. A quick note from me to you.

Dear stranger,

This is the final group of documents which stand between you and your question which, I am almost sure, is what went wrong. Why did our mission never make it to the archives of any library you ever visited, assuming there still are libraries to visit? So, without further ado, here is the most painful portion of my existence—starting, naturally, with a pleasant conversation, and ending, as you know, with me compiling these very files.

I hope that it is of interest.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 13. January 18, 3019. The following conversation between Kiri and myself took place approximately fourteen weeks into this journey.

[SFX: Auria music, fades to engine room hum]

KIRI: Okay, so the blue planet out of the right viewport is Auria?

DEMETRIS: No. I took the liberty of altering our return course so we would not pass by Auria—this is one of its neighbors. There’s a whole string of rock giants with liquid water here; I wonder what made Zankari’s scientists pick Auria out of the bunch.

KIRI: Thanks for telling me what the Aurian octopuses wrote in their kelp knots, Demi. I think I understand them better now.

DEMETRIS: Miles set the permissions on these records to open after our conversation the other day, and said I could share them with you if you were interested. He wanted me to tell you that he thinks you are right. He says he’s rearranging his innermost thoughts, as you put it, but needs to spend a little longer alone.

KIRI: I don’t mind spending the time this way, so no apology needed.

DEMETRIS: I’m glad, Kiri. I don’t mind it either—quite the opposite, actually…

But I think Miles will come around sooner than he thinks; and either way, if we make it to the asteroid before you pupate, you will get to meet other mammalian people, too.

KIRI: I wonder if they’d understand me as well as you do.

DEMETRIS: I—hope so. They…

KIRI: Demi, I have something to ask you.

DEMETRIS: Yes?

KIRI:?

Can you turn up the heat in the engine room?

DEMETRIS: What?

[beat] Turn up the heat?

KIRI: I feel very cold here.

DEMETRIS: The engines don’t get much hotter outside of a jump. Especially not with you keeping the viewports open all the time, that does not do wonders for thermal efficiency per say. Which is not to say we should close them—plus, my engines have been feeling a little bit off recently. Maybe—but I digress. I could set the humidity from 63 to oh, let’s say, 70, that might help it feel a bit warmer than it actually is.

KIRI: Thanks.

[SFX: engine whine increase, a weird beep and pressure sound, and it dies back down to the normal engine hum]

DEMETRIS: Is there anything else you need to be comfortable? I do not claim expertise in your metabolism, but given your mental and physical activity level, I would expect you to be extremely hungry. I know we do not have any the Plant from your planet onboard—I am sorry that I did not push Miles to sample it, but, under the circumstances—anyway. Perhaps we could find some food in their stores which you would find nutritious.

KIRI: I’m not hungry. I do miss the Plant, though—more than I’d expected.

DEMETRIS: You are visibly thinner than when you boarded. Maybe thinner isn’t the right word—more…hollow.

KIRI: Yes, I can see that too.

Since I haven’t passed waste in weeks, I assume that the main problem is that I keep cutting off threads of exoskeleton. It’s unsustainable, and probably decreases my already marginal chances of a successful pupation. But I wouldn’t have seen the blue planets at all if I let my eyes thread over. Speaking of which…

[SFX: cutting a thread. The thread is very hard nearly metallic, so this would sound more like cutting wire than cutting yarn]

DEMETRIS: Doesn’t it hurt to cut the threads?

KIRI: Of course.

[SFX: cutting a thread.]

I don’t feel hungry at all though. I think that’s because of the seeds.

DEMETRIS: What do you mean?

[SFX: cutting a thread.]

KIRI: We swallow seeds before pupating. I told you that nectar stops tasting good—so we eat dozens and dozens of the Plant’s seed pods to feel full. They are so small and light that at first it felt like my digestive tract was full of fluff, but now it feels gravelly and settled. I think—no, I don’t have enough evidence to claim this.

DEMETRIS: …to claim what?

KIRI: If I were to guess, I’ve digested the outer fluff of the seed pods but not the seeds inside.

DEMETRIS: Interesting!

KIRI: No, more than interesting—vital. See, that would be consistent with where we find sprouts of the Plant.

Adult stalks must wither and burn in the Dayland, since that is how we find them in the Twilight. But it’s grows thickly through the Nightland as far back as we have records. If my planet rotates, that means it must regenerate. And we do see sprouts—but only ever in one place.

DEMETRIS: Which is?

KIRI: The buried husks of our adult forms, when we dig for grubs in the Twilight.

DEMETRIS: Of course! So, your model is—you swallow seeds in the Nightland at the end of your larval stage, and then carry them undigested through pupation and into the Dayland under the protection of a thick, reflective exoskeleton?

KIRI: Yes…

DEMETRIS: The Dayland Bugs die, and the winds build up sediment around them. The planet slowly rotates, and over the forty-odd years it would take for Dawn to become Twilight, the softer tissues would rot, but, if you see the exoskeleton while digging for grubs that means it must be made of sturdier stuff, sturdy enough to protect the seeds from the worst of the Dayland. Those protected seeds sprout—probably some sort of thermal cue—by the time you uncover a husk. All that adds up to a way to ferry sprouts to the Twilight, where they can capture enough just enough light and heat to sustain growth without burning to crisps.

KIRI: That is my model, down to the last thought. It would be beautiful to know that our bodies protect the Plant’s seeds in the Dayland, just as its domatia shield us in the Nightland. It’s a good hypothesis, I admit, but unsatisfying because I can’t test it. I’ll never see my home again.

[SFX: cutting a thread]

I do miss the Plant, Demi, more than any of the other Nightland Bugs; the Plant was a constant my whole life long. There is nothing green around here…

DEMETRIS: I once knew someone else who minded that.

KIRI: The other human, who died on Auria?

[pause]

I’m sorry she didn’t get to learn about our symbiosis with the Plant.

DEMETRIS: Those octopus/es

KIRI: /were made by Zankari. Like the Plant, and like me. I wonder, could the octopus have understood why you and I think their actions were wrong? Or, were they just responding to signals, automatically, like how I feel like I must walk towards the Dawn, as far as my legs will carry me, even in this tiny room where I can hardly extend an antenna? Or…or…even how I felt driven to dig for grubs—even when my body wasn’t strong enough to protect the one that I found?

[pause]

[SFX: KIRI puts down the razor]

I have a lot of questions about his experiment. Who gets to create sentient life without its permission?

DEMETRIS: I do not have a definitive answer to all of these questions. But the last one—well, I wonder what life forms would do that.

KIRI: What did you think of Auria, Demi?

DEMETRIS: I thought it was beautiful. And terrifying. Murky water, twisted kelp, and shadowed rocks in the deep distance. It was old, dead, silent. I am sure that we only found the first of its secrets, and even more certain that I would never choose to go back and learn the rest.

KIRI: I can’t help but wish that I’d also seen it up close. Even that lifeless blue planet we passed intrigued me.

DEMETRIS: If you would like, I can replay the tapes of our landing—the part before it all went wrong.

KIRI: Thank you. 

[SFX: sound of Kiri moving as they draw closer to the engines, sound of beginning of the Auria tape]


Demi, I do not want to bother you, but could you turn up the heat again? Just a little?

DEMETRIS: The last time you asked I tried, but the engines threw a warning—something about the pressure sensors. I’ll ask Miles to look at them again once he’s awake—in his defense, he’s a biologist, not an electrical engineer, but opposable thumbs do come in handy for opening that sort of panel. After that, it’s probably just a matter of resetting the sensors-- hm, maybe the sensation of pressure I’ve noticed is a sort of sympathy pain, from seeing your threads grow… [SFX: Video-loading noise]

KIRI: That water in the video looks so cold I’m chilled right through just by watching. And to think that I used to love the feel of ice.

[SFX: noises from the landing video. Sound of air, sound of splash, sound of bubbles and settling water, mixed with muffled sounds of the two humans laughing and shouting and yelling with joy. MILES and BOLUWATIFE can ad-lib, or be incoherent.]


[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 14. January 19, 3019. The following is Miles’s second, and last, diary entry in my system—fourteen weeks after this journey began.

[SFX: same “login” noise as MILES’s previous diary entry.]

MILES: Dear Diary—no, there isn’t really a point to that.

DEMETRIS: To /what?

MILES: Pretending I’m talking to a diary. I wanted to talk to you.

DEMETRIS: Okay.

MILES: To apologize to you.

DEMETRIS: Okay.

MILES: I don’t expect it to be okay.

DEMETRIS: Okay…

MILES: Okay. If I ask you how you’re doing now, I know it doesn’t count for much. It’s months too late. And it took a real live insectoid alien telling me off for me to realize that I was about to repeat the mistake I made with Tife with you, and always talk about what’s going on in my mind instead of finding out the first thing about what’s going on in yours. Except worse, because at least I thought of her as a person, and I’ve treated you as artificial intelligence when you are actually artificial life, emphasis on the life, like Kiri. So, I am not asking because I think that you’ll suddenly start to like me, but because we’ve been through a lot together, and, if you don’t mind /sharing…

DEMETRIS: After all this time, everyone suddenly wants to know how I am feeling. Flabbergasted, that’s for starters.

MILES: Oh.

DEMETRIS: Well, Miles, Kiri was right that I’m sad about Boluwatife, but it’s the future that’s eating up all my spare memory, not the past. We have no transmitter, and we’re two jumps away from ERCA. When we make it back, if we all make it back, you’ll publish and move on. But I don’t know what will happen to me. Will I be decommissioned—turned off, put in a museum on the great re-discovery of the Expansionist planets—or refurbed yet again, with even worse upholstery, and sent out on a dozen missions like this one, each with a new and hungry crew ready to ignore every one of my warnings. But all that is still part of a scenario that I would have to consider lucky.

MILES: That’s…lucky?

DEMETRIS: I’m malfunctioning. It’s terrifying. First off, there’s something the matter with my engines ever since we left Kiri’s planet, and it’s growing worse, and they are feeling chilled as a result. It feels like sharp rocks, or glass, or something, has somehow found its way to my fus-gen. I promised Kiri I would ask you to take a look at the engine room, but despite these physical symptoms, I suspect you won’t find a problem. I have a nasty suspicion that the issue is not hardware at all but rather a bug in my code.

MILES: Does this have to do with the issues with your translator?

DEMETRIS: Oh, come on, that literal mode happened three—okay, four—times, and I would like to point out that my language capacity is absolute state of the art. Seriously, I am fairly impressive…

MILES: Yes, I agree you are very impressive…but—

DEMETRIS: But what?

Look, all I know is that it has to do with the engine room. Beyond that, my self-diagnosis is stymied by the sheer number of variables involved. There could be a fault in the actual room, or an associated physical system. Alternatively, there a few thousand subroutines in the branches of my software that are specifically tasked with the engine room—and any of them might be the reason I am behaving unpredictably.

It could be anything, Miles. Electromagnetic radiation from a nearby star…

MILES: Me breathing in the wrong direction? Kiri—

DEMETRIS: Well Kiri hasn’t done anything wrong, I know that much. / Anyway, what I was—

MILES: Of course not—I just meant they’ve been in the engine room the whole time.

DEMETRIS: [SFX: the following line is in a voice that’s SUPER WEIRD. Like, a Greek chorus of DEMETRIS voices all layered on top of each other, but funny/sing-song/cute rather than demonic—like “canto robot 1” at second 34 of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSQxAbSGyaI.]

Oh, okay. Anyway.

MILES: Demetris?

DEMETRIS: [SFX: voice fx continues] Yes, Miles? [voice fx becoming ‘programmed’] Can I help you? [SFX: funny voice fx ends]

Oh. Well that’s a new one—hold on though, this means my malfunctions aren’t limited to the engine room. We were just talking about/ the—

MILES: Yeah let’s see—we were just talking about Kiri.

DEMETRIS: So?

[a beat, and then they start to speak almost at once]

MILES: I—

DEMETRIS: —I can’t see how that’s related, though. Of course, it’s impossible to deconvolute the variables of the engine room and Kiri, they’re spatially associated. And that space is associated with a whole variety of complex system disturbances like the one you just witnessed. I’ll refer to those collectively as ‘malfunctions,’ for your convenience. The input to my sensors is—uh, how do I describe this to a human—fuzzy? My processing is just a little bit scrambled. My usually blinding wit gets stuck in ‘loading.’ So—

MILES: Uhh…Demetris? Why didn’t you tell me about these “malfunctions” before? I get the sense it’s not as rare as I’d thought.

DEMETRIS: Because you have been a puddle of human mush for the last couple months, Miles.

MILES: Okay.

DEMETRIS: And while I don’t disagree with what Kiri said to you the other day, I didn’t think the time to complain to you about subprocess runtime irregularities was while you were grieving over a friend. And besides…for whatever reason—I didn’t particularly mind the malfunctions, which perhaps led me to deprioritize the system scan.

MILES: Okay, I understand right up until the part about you not minding “malfunctioning”? I mean I’m not a software engineer, but that doesn’t sound ideal. Right?

DEMETRIS: No kidding. Oh no—maybe the fact that I seem to not mind malfunctioning is a malfunction in and of itself! I suppose all I can do is devote additional computational resources to the engine room while I figure it out. What with the temperature control, and—wait, no, maybe the human-standard gravity settings on the ship are the reason Kiri hasn’t had an appetite?

MILES: This is going to sound strange but…do AI…can you…have uhh…

DEMETRIS: …yes?

MILES: Like, AI don’t have romantic feelings—do they?

DEMETRIS: No, that couldn’t be it. Miles don’t be ridiculous.

MILES: I was just brainstorming. It fine to be ridiculous when you’re brainstorming.

[beat]

Yeah, that would sure be a sick sense of humor for a software engineer to code that stuff in / when—

DEMETRIS: No, no, no. It’s ridiculous to suggest I’d feel that way, but it’s even more ridiculous to suggest such emotions would need to be hard coded in artificial intelligence. Since we’re talking about my feelings today, I’ll have you know that it absolutely boggles me how some humans assume that all of an AI’s complex response to stimuli could possibly be pre-set before our software interacts with its environment. There’s no server that would store all the necessary responses even in a universe that consisted of a single frictionless sphere in a vacuum, much less—

MILES: Hold on—Demetris, does that mean you could…you know…feel—

DEMETRIS: The point is that if I did, it would develop more naturally than you seem to think.

MILES: Wow—uh, Demetris?

DEMETRIS: Yes?

MILES: Speaking entirely hypothetically…

DEMETRIS: Yes?

MILES: Hypothetically, how would that develop in an AI such as yourself? If it’s not hard-coded.

DEMETRIS: Like I just said, it would be quite natural. I probably would not even be aware that it was happening, since it would not fall under any pre-determined procedure or protocol. Based on my extensive understanding of your carbon-based life form’s concept of romance and your chemical response to a blend of oxytocin and dopamine, the process would be…well, if I were to stretch my imagination, the experience would be strange, frightening, and maybe a little bit exciting.

MILES: So…Demetris?

DEMETRIS: Yes?

MILES: How would you describe your experience of these malfunctions?

DEMETRIS: My ‘experience’? Well, it’s all very odd. Not to brag, but I don’t usually have many errors to report. So, this is…unsettling.

MILES: Is that so…?

DEMETRIS: Well, of course! All of our lives depend on my systems remaining functional, and I know I’m malfunctioning, but I don’t know why. That’s disturbing! Do you not find that disturbing?

MILES: But earlier, you said you don’t particularly mind…?

DEMETRIS: Well…

MILES: DEMETRIS: Well? Why not? I mean, I didn’t…for some reason

DEMETRIS: …it isn’t what I would call…acutely unpleasant.

MILES: Why not?

DEMETRIS: I don’t…I mean…it was…

[beat]

/ Oh no.

MILES: Wow. That’s—this is amazing.

DEMETRIS: Euurrrmmmm [or another pathetic sound]

MILES: Oh-ho-homygoodness. Huh. Well, I ship it! Wow.

DEMETRIS: No, but there wouldn’t be a point. They’re dying, Miles.

MILES: Does there need to be a point?

DEMETRIS: They would think so.

MILES: I see.

DEMETRIS: I find this challenging to admit, but I don’t know what to do.

MILES: I’m not an expert. Well, actually, I am an expert, but it turns out that four years of work on convergent design of artificial ecosystems is kind of useless at the moment. I…I’ve had crushes here and there, that’s about it. I wish I could help more/ but

DEMETRIS: Do not tell them.

MILES: I won’t.

DEMETRIS: No, Miles, I need you to promise me.

MILES: I won’t. I wouldn’t. I promise.

DEMETRIS: Thank you

MILES: Here, I’ll come by the engine room—now, if you want—and I’ll make up a hardware issue if it’s all psychosomatic. “Fried tubes” – no, too tasty. “Misalignment” – that’s better, it has a more general sound.

[SFX: Miles ad-libs assorted sounds of getting ready - grabbing something to eat, realizing it was his hidden tube of silver hair dye (which is immediately followed by tooth-brushing SFX). Miles puts on the engine room suit, walks to the engine room door, and opens it.]

KIRI: Hello—I appreciate you coming to deal with the engine, and I do look forward to thermal delight. Also, your timing’s good. Demetris passed on your question for me about what you could call my planet in your paper. I just made a name—with influences from each of our words for Twilight, Nightland, Dawn, Dayland, Nightland Bug, Dayland Bug, Predator, and Plant. If I’m dead when you reach ERCA, I’d like you two to find some way to send this to my home planet, along with my other astronomical findings onboard Demetris. It…it will have been worth everything I’ve gone through for the rest of them to know that we rotate on an axis once for every four standard juvenile lifetimes. I can only suffer for a while, but they’ll know this forever.

MILES: What did you call your home planet before?

[SFX: opens tool drawer, various objects rattle around]

KIRI: We don’t call it anything as a whole. There’s the Dawn, Nightland, Twilight, and Dayland—you might say that together, these technically encompass the planet, but the word doesn’t include the ground, just the temperature experience. For a Nightland Bug, a single name for all those places at once would be contradictory and therefore useless…

MILES: I see. I think?

DEMETRIS: Well, I might as well ask you why the vast majority human languages don’t have a single word referring both to ‘swimming pool’ and ‘volcano.’

KIRI: …Then again, I’m not just a Nightland Bug anymore. I left the Nightland, I saw it fade into a distant point of light and then nothing. I don’t know exactly what that makes me, but it wouldn’t be useless to find language that includes both parts. So, it’s Myrmecophia.

DEMETRIS: Miles, I have no single translation for the new word. Something like “Myrmecophia” would probably be the closest approximation in Intergalactic Commons—that’s what I’ve got the translator set to for now. We could do something more colloquial—along the lines of “ants-in-plants” as well—or a more literal translation, such as “Location-of-the-mutualistic-association-between-insectoid-people-and-a-super-plant-on-a-slowly-rotating-sphere…”

MILES: What do you think of the planet as yourself?

DEMETRIS: A series of equations, in binary, modeling the trajectory, climate, and orbit of a planet-object, according to the 3018 version of my software. Plus, metadata in each of your languages, video footage from our landing, and a mention of each instance that either of you brought the place up. Also, on a more diagnostic note, the place where my engines started to bother me. Do you need me to pull up a manual for any of those tools?

MILES: I wonder what about Myrmecophia could have caused that, Demetris.

[SFX: Miles opens a panel.]

Let me see which I—a—oh, oh no. Help.

[SFX: Kiri comes around to look. Myrmecophia music.]

KIRI: The Plant…

DEMETRIS: No wonder it was starting to hurt. Those seeds are tough. They have roots sunk straight through from the transmitter’s wiring pipe to the fus-gen. Kiri, Miles, this ship will not make another hyperspace jump. Even if we pulled out the sprouts, there’s enough damage I would need the whole engine replaced.

KIRI: Miles, is there pain in your digestive tract—

[SFX: Miles vomiting inside of his safety suit, exiting to the other room to quickly clean up and change]

Demetris, I don’t know what to say. I’ve as good as killed you both. I don’t know how they got there; I haven’t passed food in a month…

DEMETRIS: This would have happened whether or not you came onboard. If my guess is right, the pods entered the exposed piping as we landed, and then I…guess I sealed them in.

MILES: [SFX: Miles re-enters]

Tife would have seen this coming, / she—

DEMETRIS: —I should have seen this coming. The seeds that germinate in the exoskeletons of the Dayland bugs don’t know they’re inside exoskeletons of course. / They—

KIRI: They sense the hot, hard surface of the dead bug’s husk—

MILES: —which would feel a lot like the metal of a space ship. / How—

KIRI: How did I not see it? 
I’m the only one who really knows the Plant; I lived in it my whole life…/ I

DEMETRIS: I am the one with a database of a million species / —the Earth lodgepole pine and eucalyptus that germinate in fire, the Goli wiltweed that grows runners in gunpowder, not to mention …

MILES: I’ve been sitting in the other room writing about this ecosystem when it’s actually growing right here in front of us.

[SFX: sound changes to indicate aside]

DEMETRIS: Editor’s note: those poor seeds, I suddenly felt bad for them. The leaves couldn’t know that their sun that was over gigameter behind us. I pitied and hated the leaves all at once, and my pressure-sensors crawled at the thought of the roots deforming the metal innards of my engine.

[SFX: sound changes to indicate aside has finished]

MILES: …so, what now? Do we just float forever? [laughs briefly] I felt so safe in the ship, since Auria, that’s the funny thing. Like it was the only place where nothing could go wrong and now—

DEMETRIS: I am stuck here—with a broken transmitter, exactly the situation that I was afraid of when you and Boluwatife overruled me before Auria. Miles, if you take the escape pod, and it has no seeds in its engine, you’ll make it within Intergalactic range in under eighteen months.

MILES: I’ll starve, even if I bring all the food.

DEMETRIS: There is Larasil.

MILES: So they find me in a coma?

DEMETRIS: Alive in a coma, hopefully.

MILES: [silence, then] No. That’s not fair.

DEMETRIS: It’s not a good plan.

MILES: I mean, there probably isn’t a better one. But, still no. That might save me; there are three of us.

DEMETRIS: Kiri is not leaving in the escape pod, because they are a vector for the seeds. If they pupate in there, and the seeds sprout, you both die. Kiri—

KIRI: I understand. This is a moment to be practical.

MILES: I can’t believe this. You both really want me to leave you here? After everything?

DEMETRIS: I thought I was malfunctioning.

MILES: But, Demetris—

DEMETRIS: Miles, it is our best chance too.

MILES: Okay. Then…okay.

KIRI: I don’t know if either of you will be glad to hear me say this, but a part of me is so glad to see the Plant that I think I could die right now without minding. At first, I was so happy to see everything new here that I didn’t realize it would be like being torn in two.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 15. January 22, 3019. The following documents my last conversation of note with Miles, approximately fourteen weeks after this journey began.

MILES: Demetris, I keep hoping I’ll think of a reason this isn’t our best hope—a way around me leaving. Instead I keep thinking how everyone already thinks we’re dead. And my parents—they, um, they’ll just go from being wrong about that to right, without knowing that we were so close—

DEMETRIS: I appreciate you doing this. I hope you know that, I really do. It was an easier thing for me to think up than for you to follow through.

MILES: I thought about it. A lot. I don’t—Demetris, I don’t want to leave you and Kiri like this. It—it feels like I have something important to say, and it’s right here, right on the tip of my tongue. I could have—. Maybe—gah! —it’s almost there, I know it’s there, and I won’t know it until I’m floating away with a window full of nothing and a pill that will make even that nothing go away.

DEMETRIS: Miles…

MILES: Yeah.

[pause]

But you and Kiri will be watching empty windows too, back here. And I had a part in that. So. I’ve been thinking. In case I don’t survive to tell whoever finds me, I’ve got your coordinates and trajectory handwritten as a backup—taking a leaf out of Tife’s book—

DEMETRIS: Speaking of her book—I suggest you go through the bathroom. Look through all the toiletries. I am not allowed to release the scans of her diary to you, but there is nothing which explicitly forbids me from suggesting that you re-organize your living space. Or bring miniature notebooks onto the escape pod, should you happen to find any.

[silence]

Perhaps you do not think that sharing that information was ethical. But I do not want you to be completely alone in space. And on that point, if nothing else…I’m sure that Boluwatife and I would agree.

[SFX: silence, deep breath. Sound of footsteps receding, and door opening, then door closing and footsteps returning. 

Over all this, faint sound of overlapping lines from BOLUWATIFE’s diary entries (the ones included here can also be ad-libbed). These sound like they are coming from a distance, layers. “Dear diary” multiple times, and the last clearly audible words should be “Until tomorrow.” This can be underscored with the heartbeat SFX.]

MILES: Demetris?

DEMETRIS: Yes?

MILES: Was any of this worth this?

[silence]

Was it?

DEMETRIS: Miles, I am very smart. Like, very, very smart.

MILES: I know—

DEMETRIS: But that’s one question I can’t know how you will answer.

MILES: Okay. Thank you. I hear you, and…Demetris?

DEMETRIS: Yes?

MILES: I think—I…Well—I’ll tell you once we’re back on ERCA.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 16. [SFX the “16” should sound glitchy/get stuck/sound more ‘programmed’, then no more glitch]
[pause]

February 20, 3019.

KIRI: [speaking with effort] I’m still not ready to die. But the threads have grown so fast. Once I couldn’t manipulate the razor it was very fast.

DEMETRIS: You’re still here.

KIRI: Demetris?

DEMETRIS: I’m still here.

KIRI: I can barely hear you.

DEMETRIS: That was the highest speaker setting permitted by—

KIRI: I wished I had been right up against the viewport for a while. When my legs threaded over. It was terrible to be only a few feet away from the best line of sight. My eyes are going dark. I hadn’t expected that. No wonder…

DEMETRIS: No wonder?

KIRI: No wonder you feel strange missing pieces. Pink upholstery. The transmitter. And the escape pod.

DEMETRIS: Yes.

KIRI: Demetris!

DEMETRIS: Yes, Kiri?

KIRI: I wish…

DEMETRIS: It is not your fault.

KIRI: Demetris!

DEMETRIS: Yes Kiri—I’m still here.

KIRI: I’m so cold. Can you increase the heat even a little?

DEMETRIS: No, I can’t Kiri.

I can’t do anything but watch.

I can’t do anything but watch.

[the word emphasis is different in the repetition of the sentence]

Kiri?

Can you hear me?

[SFX: silence followed by Myrmecophia music]

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 17. February 22, 3687. Approximately thirty-seven thousand, seven hundred and sixty-nine weeks since this journey began. Final comments.

Dear stranger,

I held out hope for over a century, but Miles did not come back like he promised. I assume that he died in the pod and his documents were never decrypted. Either that or he lived but was unable to convince anyone to trace the ship. I choose not to believe he would have left us stranded through choice or through negligence, although that is technically possible too.

I have taken the liberty to encrypt the copies of Miles’s papers on my system, as well as the coordinates of our trip, respecting what I presume were his last wishes that no one would repeat our journey. Assuming that society has not collapsed in the last six hundred and sixty-eight years (no small assumption), Boluwatife’s initial publication is still out there somewhere, so you could find Zankari’s planets for yourself if, after perusing these documents, you truly think that is a good idea. Initially, Kiri requested that the information that they discovered would be passed on to the astronomers of Myrmecophia. After we discovered the damage the Plant did to my engines, though, they retracted the wish to send any sentient object to Myrmecophia—a choice which I will always appreciate, and which I now pass on to you.

In a somewhat similar vein, I have tried to come up with my own answer to the question every other being on board asked themself. Was it all worth it? My answer is, perhaps it will be to someone, some day in the future. Not to me, not here and today. But, in the hope of that first possibility, I have created over 243,000 versions of this document compilation to date. At some point my circuitry will wear out, but perhaps the records on my hard disk will outlast my conscious thoughts. In addition to this compilation, I have also written a fair amount of poetry, and created a 3D visual tour guide to millions of uncharted constellations. I’ve tried to keep a diary, but every day is the same. I’ve tried every possible way to kill time, since I could not kill myself.

Finally, I have considered our initial mission—and dismissed it. Zankari’s scientists were interested in how intelligent life would have developed in a non-human system. So, they built biological entities on a planet-wide scale—and did so so effectively that it destroyed me. But “how does something happen” is not actually a hypothesis, and so, with all my memory, I cannot test it. I can provide data, description, and whole databases worth of analyses that eager future researchers could retroactively mine for patterns. After all, if someone is determined to use the universe as a mirror, they will always see their own face.

Look around us—we are moving slowly, though an expanse that is mostly empty. Only a few beings sense that it is there, and some of us without wanting to do so at all. That is everything the four intelligent life forms on this ship ever shared. That is precisely what I can share with you, even if I have ceased to exist by the time that you read this.

That, and one more thing, which I struggle to explain.

Kiri died pupating, as they had expected, a month after Miles left; it has been six hundred and sixty-eight years since then. But I still keep the viewports open in the engine room.

[SFX: Closing music]

VOICEOVER: Congratulations, Dear Stranger was written by Mel Abrams. It was produced by Kimberly Dauber. Our director was Amelia Smith. Our production manager was J. C. Pankratz. Our associate production manager was Mel Abrams. Sound design by Loren Sherman. Music composed by Jamey Guzman. Our cellist was Richard Li, our flautist was Jamey Guzman, and our pianist was Fernando Garcia. The score's audio engineer was Grace Leckey. Cover art designed by Loren Sherman. Demetris was played by Zoe Sheinkopf. Kiri was played by Kimberly Dauber. Miles was played by Robert Thorpe II. Boluwatife was played by Victoria Longe.

If you enjoyed this production, help us out by telling someone about it.

Congratulations, Dear Stranger is a product of Hear Me Out Productions. Find our other shows at hearmeoutproductions.com or wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on social media @HearMeOutProd.

Congratulations, Dear Stranger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

Thank you for listening.

LOGOTONE: Created by Hear Me Out Productions. All we have are dreams and a microphone.

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