Congratulations, Dear Stranger: README

Entry 0 Metadata:
DOCID: 36870222-00h00-1_README.dmtrs
Keywords: Key, preface, introduction, background, desperation
Authors: Demetris
Date: 2/22/3687
Format: Voice Recording

Entry 1 Metadata:
DOCID: 30190107-22h23.dmtrs
Keywords: Metamorphosis, myrmecophyte, human entanglements, software.
Authors: Miles H. Xavier, Kiri, Demetris
Date: 1/07/3019
Format: Voice Recording

Entry 2 Metadata:
DOCID: 30181120-BAERA-DE29900830.pdf
Keywords: Background, Expansionis*, ERCA, SynBoom, Zankari,
Author: Boluwatife Adewunmi Erimipe Rotimi Akintoye
Date: 08/30/2990
Format: Private Diary [paper + pen, scanned]

Entry 3 Metadata:
DOCID: 30181016- MHX-DE1.dmtrs
Keywords: Background, Expansionis*, ERCA, SynBoom, Zankari, 
Authors: Miles H. Xavier, Demetris   
Date: 10/16/3018
Format: Private diary [voice recording]

Entry 4 Metadata:
DOCID: 30181224-01h08.dmtrs
Keywords: Alien abduction(?), translation, astron*
Authors: Kiri, Demetris   
Date: 12/24/3018
Format: Voice recording

Learn more about the show, including cast and crew: Congratulations, Dear Stranger

Support our work on Ko-fi, and mention “CDS” to support this show directly!

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 0. February 22, 3687. Introduction to the ship and its contents.

Dear stranger, pat yourself on the back (if you have one) because I am the find of a lifetime.

My name is Demetris, and I am a starship. I was sent out six hundred sixty-eight years ago with two passengers and a mission to find Zankari’s missing planets.

Dear stranger – we succeeded. But you are the first to know it.

For nearly six hundred sixty-eight years I have been stranded in space, without a transmitter, without an engine, without a sentient being in a light-year’s radius. Let’s put aside how lonely that was for now, and simply say that there remain three things of note within this starship.

One is the remains of an insectoid. Their name was Kiri, and all their eyes are full of stars. There is no longer a mind behind the eyes to see the stars or you, stranger, but for my sake I entreat you to treat them with respect.

The second is an extensive digital archive, edited and recorded by yours truly. Following this introduction is a short selection from my archives, which will give you a sense of the story before we talk any further. Or, in the event that my system has failed before you discover me, I hope these selections will help researchers navigate the rest of the files on my hard drive.

Last is a plant, with vines sunk through the metal of my body. It is shriveled, browned, and dormant—but, my dear stranger, do not forget the plant.

Congratulations on your discovery. Please cite as DMTRS-2989-6, when reproducing these documents. And please, please, please, please do not leave me here. Either tow me with you or cut my power supply.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 1. January 7, 3019. The following file is excerpted from the ship logs, approximately twelve weeks into this journey.

[SFX: engine room hum/hiss]

MILES: You want to borrow my what?

KIRI: My soul would be fed if you would lend me your face knife.

MILES: Demetris, your translator is breaking up/ again.

DEMETRIS: Miles, your brain is breaking up again. They want to borrow your face knife. It’s perfectly—oh. I’m on ‘literal’ again, aren’t I? 

MILES: KIRI: No kidding Certain as the Plant grows 

[SFX: DEMETRIS adjusts translator, passing through mandible noises and assorted other sounds and/or languages, as well as a more ‘programmed’ (Siri-like) voice]

KIRI: Thanks, Demi.

MILES: Yeah, thanks Demetris. For a minute, I was getting worried I’d have to reboot your OS.

KIRI: Miles, the threads are back. I want to cut them off. Can I borrow your razor?

MILES: [SFX: Miles goes to get razor from the bathroom, sound of doors, footsteps, and rummaging. The next line overlaps with these SFX]

Of course. Are you—will you be okay?

KIRI: I don’t think so.

MILES: You think they’ll come back.

KIRI: Probably stronger.

MILES: Tife could’ve helped you. I know she could have. 

[SFX: metal door yanked open and slammed close, MILES walks out of the room, hitting his elbow in the narrow doorway.]

KIRI: Wait, where’re you going?

[SFX: Kiri touches the door]

DEMETRIS: Don’t follow him, Kiri.

KIRI: I don’t understand, Demi.

DEMETRIS: Let’s see. Kiri dear, do remember when you were telling me about the grub you were bringing to the Dawn? There was a bond, but—

KIRI: [SFX: mandible click, Kiri lifts hand from the door]

I asked you to forget about that before. Please, can you do that now?

DEMETRIS: My illustrious programmers gave me a lot of talents; forgetting is not one of them

KIRI: I’m sorry, Demi. But why’d you bring up my grub, when both of us would want to forget? It doesn’t help/ anyone.

DEMETRIS: Boluwatife is Miles’s grub.

KIRI: I hear. And I think I understand.

[SFX: engine noises fade out]

DEMETRIS: Dear stranger, language is hard. Software language is no exception. In fact, it deprecates faster than nearly any form of organic speech. So, in case you are unable to access the video (and assuming that you have not happened upon Kiri’s planet) let me help you imagine the guest on this ship pre-pupa.

Kiri was approximately two meters tall—an average juvenile would reach two and a half meters by their twentieth and final molting. They smelled like fresh pine resin. They were katydid green, and their compound eyes were huge gunmetal grey orbs. They had six tapered limbs, like a personal care robot—two definitely legs, two definitely arms, and two which could serve either function but poorly. They moved heavily, even when we elevated the atmosphere of the ship to over 60% oxygen. They said that had something to do with their modified “exo”-skeleton’s internal supports. But even though Kiri came to us injured, they rarely stumbled or slipped in the unfamiliar territory of the ship.

They sensed smell through mandibles, which twitched constantly around their mouthparts, and meter-long antennae that combed their periphery and bumped against the ship’s low ceilings. They slept standing up—with mandibles folded, but back legs ready to spring. Apparently, they could jump over three meters on their home planet, but the space on this ship was far too cramped for such a leap.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 2. August 30, 2990. The following is a scan of one of Boluwatife’s earlier pen-and-paper diaries, which she uploaded before boarding to facilitate her habit of cross-referencing.

[SFX: pen scratching on paper. There might be some, vaguely annoying, music faintly in the background]

BOLUWATIFE: 8/30/2990

Dear diary,

Today I’m twelve and a half, not that it matters.

I asked for half a birthday cake for breakfast, and my mom gave me cheerios and a look instead. In school I asked to be excused from gym class today, and I guess half birthdays aren’t a good enough excuse but bloody noses are? Gotta remember that. Bloody noses are easier to have.

[SFX: sniff]

Today in Social Studies Ms. Xiao told us about the Expansionist Period. It was very interesting. I wish it wasn’t over. I’m writing it down so I don’t forget.

[SFX: theme music begins to underscore the story of Zankari’s planets]

Back when space was a new thing you could just make whatever you wanted to and it was okay because the police didn’t know about it. And if they did know they didn’t care because they were still trying to figure out how to catch bad guys who could print spaceships.

A man named Edmound Zankari was luckier than me because he was born right at that exact moment. He owned the space bus that took people off of the first home planet and because everyone wanted to ride it he made it cost a lot of money. Some people think he was mean, but I think Zankari was just not very interested in people. That makes sense because I think plants are more interesting than people. Zankari had one very specific question in mind that Ms. Xiao had us brainstorm answers to. He wanted to know what intelligence would be like if it had happened in other kinds of life besides apes. For my answer I said intelligences would have been more patient if they had happened in plants because plants are more patient than people. Min laughed at me because she said that only a dummy would have spent that much time gene-ing up a stupid plant. Ms. Xiao told her to allow me my perspective and Min said yes but then she went and whispered to her friend behind her while looking at me. If I hadn’t been so interested in class I would have asked to be excused to go to the bathroom so I could be mad by myself, but I just thought to myself that it was my half-birthday and w/e.

Anyway, Zankari made a lot of planets to see if intelligence could happen another way because he had that much money. He hired a lot of scientists to make new animals and plants and then he died because he was old. People kept watching the stuff he was testing but then the government made them stop. Now no-one knows where the planets are and Ms. Xiao says that space is so large we will probably never find them. I don’t agree. I’ll find them once I’m an astronaut.

I hear dad calling me to dinner. More tomorrow or w/e.

[SFX: pen capped and put down]

DEMETRIS: Editor’s note: there is a doodle to the right of this journal entry, in sparkly green pen. It was scribbled out, apparently by the author herself. I digitally removed the scribbles, but I honestly can’t tell what it’s supposed to be. A tree? A starship? A dodgeball-bludgeoned nose? You can access a copy in this DOCID’s subdirectory and form your own hypothesis.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 3. October 16, 3018. The following is Miles’s first diary entry in my system—three days into this journey.

[SFX: “login”-like noise to signify the start of a diary dictated to Demetris.]

MILES: [Overenunciating] Testing one, two, three.

DEMETRIS: [Overenunciating even more, with a drum roll side SFX] A-one, two, a-one/ two—

MILES: Dear Diary—is that what you say? I’ve never kept a diary before. Tife said I should record my thoughts ‘for myself and for posterity’ but I’m not really sure…I don’t like the idea of writing to myself. It’s kind of sad. A blog with 0 readers.

DEMETRIS: If it helps, you could address it to me. Think of me as your first follower.

MILES: I didn’t think computers followed blogs?

[momentary silence]

Dear Diary,

My name is Miles Xavier, and I have recently embarked on a voyage. I am travelling on the Demetris Explorer 2989-6, in search of Zankari’s missing planets.

Right now, we’re making our first of two major jumps. (That sounds really exciting, and it is if you think of the physics required to make a starship slip through the seams of spacetime, but what it looks like is static. The monitors pick up nothing. Not the black yawn of space, no faint pinpricks of light—just, nothing. No sights, no sounds, no data.)

So, I’m taking the suggestion of my esteemed colleague and telling my life story to “dear diary.”

Huh. Actually, there isn’t that much relevant to say about the first twenty-five years? I’ve always been well behaved, except for that one incident on Pegasi-51b…I was one of a hundred billion kids obsessed with the Expansionist Period. But I guess most people grow out of that, move on to dinosaurs or nuclear fusion or something—and it wasn’t until I had gotten my doctorate and landed on ERCA that I realized the Expansionist Period was over. Like, really over. I wasn’t going to be an explorer like I’d told myself, just a historian with a screwed up circadian rhythm.

In case “posterity” isn’t familiar with ERCA—you’ll have to take my word for it that life on the so-called “Expansionist Research Center Asteroid” is about as exciting as staring out this viewport at static. ERCA is a floating pebble, on the sort of embarrassing shoestring budget the Intergalactics reserve for an utterly useless field. That second-rate rock is crowded with the saddest collection of disappointed dreamers—and if I hadn’t bumped into Boluwatife I think I would have become another.

Tife was always in the herbarium where I’d been assigned a project on the thermotolerance of fifty-legged aphids (a bust – it turned out that the legs made no difference). As far as I could tell, she didn’t eat, sleep, socialize—and didn’t mind that either. She’s probably loving hyperspace to be honest. But once you got her talking about work—wait, Demetris?

DEMETRIS: Yes, Miles?

MILES: She can’t read these, can she?

DEMETRIS: No—if you classify a log as ‘private’ I encrypt it as real time—then, barring pan-pan or mayday protocols, no one can read a private log without your permission. Would /you like

MILES: Good. Because she would definitely use it as ‘I told you so’ material if we find something great and then she sees I was complaining about hyperspace. And I am probably going to complain a lot in the next few days because—did I mention, there is literally nothing to do but wait?

DEMETRIS: Several times. Actually, to be precise, /sixty-two.

MILES: But anytime I complained about being on ERCA around Tife the conversation would somehow end up with me trying to convince her that it was the greatest opportunity on this side of Alpha Centauri. And once I believed that again—well, to make a long story short – she wrote a killer grant, developed a method to accurately detect photosynthesis from the emission spectra of far-off planetary bodies, located several life-supporting planets from the Expansionist Period, and cheerfully withheld the coordinates until they promised her a spot on the rocket. Meanwhile, I wrote a companion piece refuting the hypothesized existence of advanced Expansionist non-mammalian intelligences on a thermodynamic basis, got a lot of press, and got myself on a spot on the rocket.

So here I am. Staring at static. Other fun facts about travelling onboard Demetris: The berths are so tiny I can feel the air currents when Tife snores on the quote-unquote “other side of the room”

The floors smell like some kind of citrus which she thinks is lemon but I know is lime.

The internet does not work in hyperspace.

It’s nothing like commercial intra-galactic 30-seconds-at-3am-sleep-right-through-it jumps. This is far. Like, “I could die alone here and no one would ever find the body” far. And then another few lightyears. In twenty-five years, I’ve never lived more than three kilometers from an academic institution. I’ve never seen most of the animals that I’ve written about in their natural habitats; I haven’t—I don’t know—had kids? I’ve never even had a serious relationship. I’m only twenty-five, and I never felt the only in that until taking off in Demetris.

This is the first time in my whole life that I am looking out a window without knowing where I’m headed—but if Tife guessed right, if we actually find anything live and squiggling from the Expansionist Period that would do more than a hundred theory papers, the whole field will explode. If we find a single microbe…

But for now, we wait—and talking to myself about myself isn’t going to make the next month and a half go faster. Also, I think it’s my turn in the shower. It’s been like twenty minutes since I heard water sounds coming from the bathroom—I swear Tife’s growing bonsai in there or something.

[SFX: New entry]

DEMETRIS: Entry 4. December 24, 3018. The following file is excerpted from my early conversations with Kiri, approximately ten weeks into this journey.

[SFX: background silence (they are in the airlock, not the engine room. A small room with no furniture or sound-absorbing surfaces)]

KIRI: I was scared when I woke up on the ship and no one answered.

DEMETRIS: I’m sorry.

KIRI: Well, at least you understand now when I say that. You do understand me now, don’t you?

DEMETRIS: Almost completely. I’m also sorry I took so long to figure out the language –well, relatively speaking, you know. All I had to go on at first was “where am I,” and that’s not much of a basis for a syntax. You know.

KIRI: So that’s why you started repeating it back to me? I thought it was an unsettling—

DEMETRIS: Yes—I repeated your words back because I figured you might say something more.

KIRI: Which I did.

DEMETRIS: Which you did. Yes.

KIRI: So now, if you ever land on my planet again you’ll know how to say “I’m hurt?” and “is my grub alive?” and “can anyone help me?” several ways. Not to mention “is my brain already soup?” and “I hope this isn’t the afterlife—".

DEMETRIS: I am sorry. More than I can—wait, you just said “if you ever land on my planet again.”

KIRI: Yes.

DEMETRIS: We have not taken off yet. Of course not. You don’t think we would take off without telling you or asking permission—that would be—do you have a word for that? No? I guess that’s a good thing. Anyways, what I am trying to say is: if you are well enough, say the word and I will open the airlocks.

KIRI: Demetris, the answers to the questions that you didn’t know how to understand are: “I’m hurt?”: Yes, I was hurt, a couple days rest healed me. The injury wasn’t serious once I got the tooth out.

“Is my grub alive?”: No, my grub isn’t alive. I saw the predator and its pups tear it up back by full-Twilight. That was three sleep cycles ago. I started to see it again when I stumbled into the ship, because I still had venom in my blood. If you can forget about this, please do. It helps no one. 
“Can anyone help me?” I don’t think so. I lost my grub and I wouldn’t return to face the others even if I could.

DEMETRIS: Can’t you?

KIRI: Demetris, here’s how it’s supposed to work: we’re dug up as grubs in full-Twilight, and carried to the Nightland. We live in a huge juvenile domatia until our fourth or fifth molting, eat nectar, and then bond with the Plant. We take up a trade, and care for the Plant in return, for up to twenty moltings, growing taller and stronger and developing beautiful innermost thoughts. Then, the first tell-tale sign—a small, dark, shining patch on our skin. The patch is as hard as a predator’s scales, but is actually made of tight-knit threads sprouting from our pores. It’s the beginning of a pupa.

For a couple days that patch is all there is. We trace it with our antenna, and wait.

Three changes in our body confirm that we’re pupating. First, the Nightland feels freezing cold, when it once was comfortable. Secondly, we have tell-tale dreams about walking under blazing orange discs—I’m convinced that these represent a star, and furthermore that there’s a star heating the Dayland of our planet, although the theoretical geologists claim volcanism, and the psychologists say it’s a symbol of our life cycle fulfillment. Tell me—coming from space—is there—no, wait—no, tell me. Is there?

DEMETRIS: Actually, there are three. It is a bizarre orbit.

KIRI: I’m glad.

DEMETRIS: It is rare that your planet supports life so close to three stars so bright, especially without a tidal lock. You can thank a thin (albeit highly oxygenic) atmosphere, at least partially.

[SFX: mandibles moving]

Is that expression how Nightland people express happiness?

KIRI: No—my mandibles would be more raised, like this. 
[SFX: mandibles moving]

I should be happy—funny—but it’s less satisfying to be told the answer than I’d hoped when I used to dream about knowing.

DEMETRIS: Why don’t you go on with what you were telling me, then?

KIRI: Well, Demetris, continuing what’s supposed to happen: We’re cold, and can’t sleep. We have characteristic dreams of—of our three stars. And, finally, the nectar that the Plant feeds us stops tasting good. Instead, we’re ravenous for the Plant seed pods. Once we’ve stuffed ourselves with seed pods, we walk to the Twilight area to dig for grubs. We carry the grubs to the safety of the juvenile domatia, making maybe a dozen trips until our fine-motor hands begin to thread over. Then, we journey back through the Nightland, past all inhabited domatia, towards Dawn, as far as we can make it before our legs thread over. Then, we pupate, and then—no one knows.

DEMETRIS:: Nothing at all?

KIRI: We know the shape of our adult form, because we’ve seen their remains. Sometimes we find the exoskeletons intact around Plant sprouts and the grubs that we dig up around Twilight. They’re tall, thin, and reflect light into perfect rainbows.

Perhaps our adult forms still have beautiful innermost thoughts. Perhaps they’re empty. That topic is subject to active debate but…

[SFX: mandibles moving, during a pause]

I do know what’ll happen to me.


KIRI: I’m not sure you want to know. You don’t seem to dislike me.

DEMETRIS: I do want to know, if you are willing to tell me.

KIRI: Alright.

DEMETRIS: I don’t dislike you, though. In fact, I—well, I—am just…clarifying that point. Yes.

KIRI: We’re supposed to grow with each of our twenty moltings. Some of us don’t. I’m one of those runts, the lifelong-larvae who remained small and soft while all the other larvae around me became tall and strong.

At first, I minded very much—which isn’t unusual. It’s hard to see those on every side of you follow a path which your body has closed off. Then, I stopped minding—which also isn’t unusual. The lifelong-larvae can perfect their trades in a way that the other juveniles don’t, simply because we’ve got so much longer to do so. We accrue and pass on knowledge. As we age, lifelong-larvae tend to become invaluable—and even more importantly, content.

I knew more about the stars than any other bug in the Nightland, and I trained a dozen apprentices. I lived long enough as a larvae that I moved domatia six times, as the old ones slowly began to warm and the Plant tissue grew soft—this, by the way, supports the theory of my camp of astronomers that the Dayland isn’t heated by volcanism but by the radiation of a nearby star (or, as you say, three stars). I hypothesized this would mean that the ground is slowly, but surely, rotating under our feet—and that Dayland and Nightland aren’t actually fixed locations.

I felt longer and longer-range plans develop in my mind—ways to make clearer, harder lenses from clarified sap, and mount them more steadily, a new notation system for the night sky to try to actually measure the rotation time of the ground beneath us…well, it doesn’t matter now.

I woke up one sleep cycle to find a scaly patch on my backmost left knee.

DEMETRIS: So you were going to go through the full life cycle after all?

KIRI: Almost certainly not. I’m too small, have too little body fat, to pupate successfully. Lifelong-larvae who begin to pupate are the unfortunates of unfortunates. Rather than move on to an unknown future, lifelong-larvae who start to pupate die. Anatomists have historical records of lifelong-larvae who pupated without making it far enough towards the Dawn; all they found inside the outer casing was a sort of soup. When I saw the pupal threads on my leg, I knew that’s what it meant for me.

DEMETRIS: What did you do then?

[SFX: KIRI’s mandibles snap]

KIRI: I felt cold, and couldn’t sleep. I dreamed of orange stars. I couldn’t eat nectar, so I stuffed myself with seed pods. Then, I followed an irresistible urge to walk towards Twilight.

I tried to hope I’d pupate successfully. It hasn’t been known to happen for a lifelong-larvae, but I hoped because I was scared to die. Demetris, I’d expected a long life. I was in my prime. And now, surrounded by juveniles who were at peace with entering an expected unknown, all I could do was hope that I’d also turn into something unrecognizable—but alive—instead of soup.

I was slow at every task. I was small and weak. No one laughed at me. I dug hard in the tall burned vines and sprouts and exoskeletons at the Twilight end of the Nightland. I watched my fine-motor hands thread over. By then, the dreams of orange discs grew so strong and sweet that I’d see their fire if I covered even one of my eyes. I’d only dug up one viable grub, but I loved it all the more for that—like I’ve never loved anything. The instant I touched its carapace, it mattered more than the shape of the constellations. I carried my grub towards the juvenile domatia. Soon, I learned I’d never make the journey even if my legs waited long enough to thread over. Predator eyes multiplied in the vine husks, in the dim light. Once I was out of range of help, they attacked me. They ate my grub, and mauled me. I fought back, although I didn’t know why I fought at that point. They followed me, waiting for the venom to spread through my body and delirium to take hold.

And so, I wandered into this place. And now you know everything, Demetris-who-does-not-dislike me. If you tell me to leave, I will. I’ll find a quiet spot nearby to wait for the predators to catch my scent; I don’t like to give up, as a general rule, but I’m practical.

DEMETRIS: I am even more sorry than before. For what has happened to you—and, now, for asking you to tell me the story.

I want you to know, it was not my decision to open the hatches when you stumbled into the ship. I thought it was dangerous for us. Now I see that it was not kind to you either.

If you truly wish, I will open them again, with even more sincere apologies than before—

KIRI: But I haven’t answered the last of my own questions! “Is my brain already soup?” My brain is not soup yet. I don’t think I could have imagined a place like this, which looks so much like the inside of a domatia but is hard and shining like a metamorphic case. It’s so strange that I believe it fully.

I don’t think I could imagine being quite so cold as I’m getting—and you said there’s an engine room which is terrifically warm—so, open up the other hatch and I’ll go there.
You said there’s another being besides yourself—perhaps that encounter will be too strange for me to process, but I think if the past few months haven’t exceeded the limits of my mind nothing will.

You said we haven’t taken off yet—then by all means do take off, because my brain is definitely not soup yet. I’m a good astronomer and I could’ve been a great one if only I had a few more moltings. Now I will be an explorer if you agree. Please, please agree. My brain is not soup, not yet. Demetris, I want to see the stars with my own eyes. It isn’t enough to merely hear they’re really out there.

[SFX: systems begin to boot]

[SFX: Closing music]

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