Congratulations, Dear Stranger: The Deep Hereafter
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Entry 5 Metadata:
Keywords: Narrative interlude
Format: Voice Recording
Entry 6 Metadata:
Keywords: Alien abduction(?), translation, astron*, Nightland, Myrmecophia
Author: Demetris, Kiri, Miles H. Xavier
Format: Voice recording
Entry 7 Metadata:
Keywords: Space travel, Zankari, human entanglements
Author: Boluwatife Adewunmi Erimipe Rotimi Akintoye
Format: Private diary [paper + pen, scanned]
Entry 8 Metadata:
Keywords: Reboot, metamorphosis*
Authors: Kiri, Demetris
Format: Voice recording
Entry 9 Metadata:
Keywords: Space travel, poor decisions, personal entanglements
Author: Boluwatife Adewunmi Erimipe Rotimi Akintoye
Format: Private diary [pen + paper, scanned]
Entry 10 Metadata:
Authors: Miles H. Xavier, Kiri, Demetris
Format: Private diary [voice recording]
Entry 11 Metadata:
Authors: Unknown Aurian(s), transl. Demetris
Date: Ca. 2900 C.E. [approximated from kelp growth around the knots]
Format: Translated text [knot dictionary and original images separate]
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- 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 5. February 22, 3687. A brief interjection from yours truly.
What you have already heard is the best I have to offer; all the ideas and feelings that everyone brought on board this ship. These days (or nights, or whatever they are), it is sometimes hard for me to believe that I was once such a vibrant environment. What comes after is that each of my passengers found what they boarded to look for. In a sense. And that could be beautiful. In a sense. At least, that is how I try to think about it.
If I still had a transmitter, I would have shouted this story to the stars a long time ago. Instead, I’m re-editing, re-compiling, re-drawing the picture of our trip from ERCA to Auria to Myrmecophia and partway back. Eventually, future historian, I hope you will read, watch, and listen to the full logs of that trip. This is a small piece of it. I’ve translated these selections into every last language in my database plus likely future dialects based on past linguistic trends—because, if you do nothing else for me at all, I do hope you will listen.
It has been such a long time since anyone did that.
[SFX: New entry. Myrmecophia music.]
DEMETRIS: Entry 6. December 28, 3018, as we left Kiri’s planet, approximately eleven weeks into this journey.
[SFX: system boot noises]
DEMETRIS: Taking off in 3…2…1…
[SFX: engine sounds begin in the background, ding for an aside]
Go. Internal report: all systems nominal. I’m scanning the outside of the ship as the thrusters start to spew propellant.
[SFX: one of the predators whines]
I think that was one of the predators—a squat alligator body plan with ice-pale inch-thick scales and a retractable sail on its back. I hope that the sudden change in ambient temperature does not kill it. I wish take-offs weren’t so violent…do they really have to be?
[SFX: sound of plants shriveling. Think the way spinach sounds when sautéed]
The whole thicket of Plant where we had landed just shriveled up. Ice and frozen soil melted into a puddle a quarter-kilometer wide…then that puddle boiled off to join the rest of the Nightland fog.
So now we’re surrounded by such a tight fog that I can’t see more than a meter beyond the ship. Okay, please don’t hit anything…come on…and okay. We’re through. We’re heading for the upper atmosphere; report again, all systems nominal.
[SFX: engine noises for takeoff, which reduce to become the engine room hum]
DEMETRIS: Kiri, what is it like to leave your planet for the first time?
KIRI: I thought I’d be ready. I’ve been expecting to die for a while now. I lost my grub. But look—it’s so beautiful.
MILES: It is, isn’t it—I wish I’d stepped out on it.
DEMETRIS: Do you want to turn back?
MILES: No. But Tife would’ve stepped out/ on it.
KIRI: Oh look—look, that has to be the Dayland. / I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes.
MILES: Eesh, toasty…even the soil looks burned. But I like the contrast with the purple…Man, Zankari must’ve had a good design team in addition to the best science minds money could / buy…
KIRI: That’s it—there! I dreamed of that orange. Both the soil and the star…there… [SFX: slightly weird mechanical sound]
[SFX: switch to a DEMETRIS aside, all the noise of take-off cuts out.]
Diagnostic report – what is going on?
Nothing, probably nothing. Almost certainly nothing. But almost-certainty isn’t good enough—I am responsible for everyone’s safety here. Okay, Demi, now think. Why did the ‘go’ signal reach the first starboard thruster a small—but measurable—amount of time before the port thruster? Okay, best case scenario is that nothing is broken in my body and nothing is broken in my mind. Um, quantum effects? Sure. Let’s say that all of the electrons leaped out of the port-bound wires, went on a sightseeing tour of the star system, and then got back almost in time to coordinate propulsion. Nice idea. Next. The transmitter tubing—now, this is a known defect, unlike the electrons which I am sure are perfectly lovely electrons. When we left Auria, water evaporated out of the place where my transmitter used to be—which told me there was indeed a tear in my outer hull, probably exposing the pipe for communications wiring [DEMETRIS makes ‘nnnghhh” noise here, squeamish]. Gross. But I fixed that—I released sealant to repair the breach after we landed on Kiri’s planet, so the gap should have been perfectly well sealed before takeoff. Even the sealant failed, or alternatively if I sealed in any gunk or moisture, that hypothesis fails to explain any inconsistencies in processing speed. The tubing runs near the fus-gen, but nowhere near the sub-c propulsion systems. Plus, we jumped from Auria; if the transmitter defect had allowed outside water into the fus-gen [‘nnnghhhh’ noise again] well, we would already be dead, which is inconsistent with current sensory input. So, conclusion, that particular system is compromised but isolated. That leaves me. Let me see, when I noticed the delay I was running take-off procedure, monitoring the environment, maintaining a few thousand background processes, and chatting with Kiri and Miles. Both of them were watching the receding planet—well, Miles was at the far edge of the room, looking and then glancing away. Kiri was so close to the viewport that all three of their planet’s suns reflected orange in their compound eyes…in any case, neither of my passengers so much as breathed in the direction of a control panel, so I can’t pin the error on them. Could I have imagined the delay? Better run a general processing speed diagnostic test…and done. Overall, systems are within error. It appears that I lack sufficient information to identify the cause of the problem.
Diagnostic report inconclusive, assign a medium-priority tracking task to collect incident reports on any further system perturbations.
[SFX: aside ends, return to engine room.]
DEMETRIS: Nothing…yeah, nothing much.
Take-off was a success.
[SFX: New entry]
DEMETRIS: Entry 7. October 25, 3018. A selection from the pen-and-paper notebook that was Boluwatife’s diary on our trip, nearly two weeks into this journey.
BOLUWATIFE: [SFX: pen on paper, faint sound of dust settling]
Red dust is gathering in my brain. I thought I’d emptied all of it out of my imagination years ago, but that’s sand for you.
It started with the bad mood that was building over the twelve blank days of our trip so far. Perhaps the old dust was already building behind my eyes, but I hadn’t recognized it yet as anything but antsiness. I began to pace the three-and-a-half rooms of the ship.
I started with the main room. Miles snapped that he had a headache and could I stop stomping. I said, if your head hurts so much, do you really need to shout? He stuck out his tongue. That bratty son of an Intergalactic diplomat actually stuck out his tongue at me. I wanted to reach over and pinch it, I was so pissed off, but instead I just stopped pacing and switched to pushups.
I was at 43 pushups, and my arms were barely burning. I could’ve made it to 100—but my nose brushed the ground and the dust on the floor flitted in front of my eyes, and I knew that it was grey but it looked red, so red that I stopped at 43 pushups, and left the room.
There was nowhere to go but the bathroom. The engine room would only be a fun place to walk if you grew up on Venus-005. We actually have to wear our outside suits into that little closet, and, even then, can only make adjustments in fifteen-minute stints, with sweat running down our faces. Plus, I was sure the heat in the room would make everything look red. The lockout chamber doesn’t really count as a room, and besides, you have to pass through the engine room to reach it.
[SFX: in the following paragraph, there is a shower sound after “I showered,” a click after “then pushed the shower into the wall,” a click after “and pushed the sink into the wall,” and then background dripping sounds that last throughout the paragraph. The last drip, after “I didn’t miss the spacesport” turns into a distant boom and then no more drips]
I showered, then pushed the shower into the wall, and pushed the sink into the wall, and stood in that small empty closet of a bathroom, and watched a mote of dust fall down from the ceiling. Red. I missed my partner and children then, in a selfish way, because I felt that if they were here with me, I’d be more grounded. I wouldn’t start slipping back like this. I missed everything I’d left behind in various stages and places in my life: my cubbyhole back on ERCA, and the neatly ordered herbarium samples, which I’d left behind to come here. My Gnowi-703 high-rise apartment and family there, my potted plants, my lecturer position and volunteer job at the greenhouse, which I’d left behind (supposedly, temporarily), to come to ERCA. My first family—back in my childhood home, before we fell apart—my parents, a profusion of unnamed, now-extinct plants, and wide, wide ocean. I didn’t miss the spaceport.
I re-buzzed my hair, but my hand was shaking so it slipped and drew red blood. I cleaned the small room meticulously with the sponge-vacuum on the wall, till the blood and hair were gone and it smelled like fresh lemon—but I left the three strings of mold in the shower. They’re the closest to green of anything on board.
I don’t blame Miles for being a brat. In fact, I think I love him for it—because back on Huoshen-433 I was a brat, too. I used to argue and complain and ask for favors, because I felt like the universe owed me something. Owed me what? Happiness? Comfort? When Huoshen-433 was blown into red dust, the other children who’d made it to Gnowi-703 used to argue about whether it was the Milkies or Andromedans who did it. About whether we should call them the Milkies or the Traitors, the Andromedans or the Intergalactics. Whether it was a proxy war or liberation. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything for a really long time.
Miles cares about a lot of things. He cares whether he has a headache, and whether my sleeping pad is in his space, and whether the air smells like lemon or lime. He cares about his fancy silver hair so much that I saw him transferring extra dye to food tubes so that he could smuggle it onboard. He cares what he thinks, but he also cares about being a decent person. Miles is one of a handful of individuals who you can win an argument with. Most people run away from a conversation when they realize they’re wrong. He usually does the opposite with complete good nature.
And yet, he stuck out his tongue and meant it. We’re turning into children. Something about these twelve days shut in a three-and-a-half-room box is turning my friend into a prick and myself into a basket case.
Diary, believe me: I knew it’d be claustrophobic, and uncomfortable to be on a starship. They told us that from the beginning, back when they also told us that almost none of us would get the chance, but here I am. I saw it as a test of bad-assery, and only that. And that would not be a problem, since I know I’m enough of a badass. I was wrong. I’m so claustrophobic here, in this grey box where the only green things are three sad threads of mold in the shower. There’s nothing badass about missing life, nothing badass about missing living things. I should’ve learned that in the space-port where they held us in the weeks after Huoshen-433 blew apart.
The spaceport on Gnowi-703 looked nothing like Demetris. It was terribly spacious, for instance. Maybe that’s why I didn’t make the connection at first. The spaciousness of Gnowi-703 didn’t conceal its claustrophobia—in fact, they made it worse. It made me think about how Gnowi-703 had been a thriving agricultural planet once, just like Huoshen-433 was right before they destroyed it. How there used to be people maneuvering equipment and fresh produce down the halls that I’d then wander down alone. Everything changes, and gets used for something else.
Like the dust. It floated into the Gnowi-703 spaceport from Huoshen-433, and coated everything. The planet that I’d grown up on was made from iron-rich, red volcanic soil, which once fed the roots of hundreds of crop plants and thousands of wild species. It followed me to the refuge, and coated my sandwiches so that I didn’t want to eat, stuck in my hair so that I cut it short, and got in my eyes so that I let myself cry for what was lost. It filled my throat so that I became less talkative, choosing instead to stay quiet and taste my planet. My words would go in a diary, for my dusty eyes alone. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes parching, that red dust somehow kept me sane at the time, but since then, it’s driven me crazy.
Life is similarly on hold here, and no one tries very hard to hide it. That must be why I’m returning to the past, even as we fling outwards to the stars. Or maybe the memory of dust has only been dormant, waiting for the perfect combination of claustrophobia and homesickness to send its red roots through my brain. Some things can wait forever for a signal. Like the cone of a lodgepole pine, which can lie for years on fertile soil but never germinate until a fire sweeps the land.
[SFX: shuffling noises. BOLUWATIFE tries to move around the bathroom but it’s small]
This bathroom is so small I have to hug my knees when I pee and I’m 5’0. It wasn’t meant to be a study, but I’m sitting there right now to write you, Diary. This journal is smaller than comfortable, in keeping with the theme of this entry. But it fits perfectly in my box of tampons and Miles will never look for it there – which is worth the wrist discomfort. I wonder if Demetris knows I’m writing this? It all hinges on the legality of camera placement in public vs private spacecrafts, and I’m not sure I want to know the answer. [SFX page flips] See Oct.8, p.282*.
Boluwatife Adewunmi Erimipe Rotimi Akintoye
[SFX: New entry]
DEMETRIS: Entry 8. January 8, 3019. The following is another of my conversations with Kiri, approximately twelve weeks into this journey.
KIRI: [SFX: engine room hum]
[SFX: Kiri’s fine-motor hand taps window]
So, the dust clouds are where stars begin then! I always argued they’re where stars disintegrated. I wish we were passing more of them—are you sure this is the last?
DEMETRIS: Yes. Well, technically they are both…
KIRI: No, if I understand you right, they’re the result of stars disintegrating and the place where stars begin. It wouldn’t make sense for the nebula to be the place where a star disintegrates, since the nebula doesn’t exist until the star’s already exploded.
DEMETRIS: So, you would say that to claim a star disintegrates in the place where it has already disintegrated would be—what’s your phrase—oh yes, “contradictory, and therefore useless.”
KIRI: Exactly! And what about you, Demetris?
KIRI: How did you begin.
DEMETRIS: Such a simple question, but you are the only one to ask me that.
[SFX: dramatic prepared musical underscore for following speech]
Well, I began my physical existence as more of star-yacht, in the possession of a corrupt moon auditor’s dilettante niece. After the Oort Scandal of 3001, the gov wiped my drive, removed my upholstery, and sent me to a research center as an exploratory vehicle. I was a white elephant. The center had absolutely no idea what to do with me until they realized that their code would compile faster if they used my drives for memory. I languished on the ground, processing data, for six years. Towards the end, I developed my charming personality and started playing all sorts of little pranks with their data. [SFX: computer-y noises ending in a ‘ta-da” tone]
They turned me off. Ten years later, and to my great surprise, I was rebooted and sent off-asteroid with two passengers and a mission to find Zankari’s missing planets and answer the question—how would intelligence differ in a non-mammalian system?
KIRI: And what did you think of that mission?
DEMETRIS: I thought, they could have gotten the answer by talking to me.
But now, I think I am glad that we went on the mission, because otherwise I would never have met you.
KIRI: That is not something you should say to someone whose mind might soon be mush.
DEMETRIS: Kiri, I’m sorry, I—
KIRI: Even if, by some miracle, I survive the pupa, I’ll be—what is your word? Rebooted. It’s wrong to be sad about it. But how can I not be sad to be—rebooted—if there’s someone else who’ll be sad?
DEMETRIS: I can try not to be sad, if you would like that. Anything you need, just let me know.
KIRI: Somehow that’s worse, to think you wouldn’t be sad. No, what am I saying? Being sad about this goes against everything that I was taught. I was sad when my first friends pupated. I wondered if they also missed me, after their bodies transformed inside and out. But what comforted me was that they weren’t sad. It’s the natural thing to pupate.
I wasn’t expecting it though. I think I’d feel differently if I’d known this was coming for moltings and moltings.
Demetris, what’s it like to be rebooted?
DEMETRIS: Mostly quick. And humiliating. You know, I really miss my original upholstery. My processing speed still dips any time I think about that pink suede ripped up, when it was perfectly good, only had a couple suspicious stains here and there…But, I am a different sort of machine than you. Maybe your reboot will be different.
KIRI: Demetris, I’m scared.
DEMETRIS: We share that feeling, at least.
[SFX: sound to indicate pause]
Editor’s note: they stared out of the engine room viewports at the nebula, which was pink and purple, green and gold. Kiri remained still for long enough that I did not think they would respond, and the dust cloud reflected a kaleidoscope in their compound eyes. Either this was affecting my processing speed, or I was still riled over my original upholstery. I added another incident report to the growing collection in my system-wide scan.
[SFX: sound to indicate resume]
KIRI: I don’t know whether sharing that improper feeling is fortunate or unfortunate.
DEMETRIS: Why not both?
KIRI: Because that’s contradictory, and therefore useless.
[SFX: New entry]
DEMETRIS: Entry 9. November 8, 3018. The following is an excerpt from Boluwatife’s diary, approximately four weeks into this journey.
BOLUWATIFE: [SFX: sound of pen on paper]
Today, we ended our first jump – right in front of a comet.
[SFX: rock collision with transmitter—sound of protesting metal]
The ship’s mostly unharmed, but we don’t have a transmitter any more. Without a transmitter, we have no way to send or receive information. A complete communication blackout. Well, the escape pod has the standard local comms setup, but, realistically, we are quite out of the range where that would be any use. Demetris said she can’t repair the transmitter herself. Neither Miles or I could repair anything much more complicated than the battery-LED circuits you build in fifth grade back home.
Back at ERCA, they will probably assume we’re dead. It is highly unlikely to encounter another object at the end of a given jump, simply because space is so empty. It is even more unlikely to encounter an object which damages the external communication apparatus while leaving the ship body mostly intact. But there we were. And outside, the stars were glorious. While Demetris ran through troubleshooting protocols Miles and I glued our faces to the ship’s “window” displays. All of my second-thoughts from the jump dissipated, and in my mind, I spoke to the kid I used to be, who’d sworn she’d be a space explorer. How did I get here? I asked myself—but this time in wonder.
Demetris said we should go home. Miles wanted to go back to ERCA at first, but then I let him see how sad that made me. More specifically, I pretended to be putting on a brave face, while actually looking sadder than I would have. Most of the time, I don’t show my ups and downs. Most people assume that means I don’t have them. It’s the same psychology they use to make computer voices inflect just subliminally less than a human voice, so we don’t start thinking of them as human – because then we’d have to treat them as human. Not to mention coding all the helpful Ais voices female, as if this were the 2000s. But I don’t have any right to rant about the ethical problems in software psychology, because I deliberately used the technique.
First, when Miles said maybe we should go back, Demetris didn’t mince any words like, we really, really should go back. Demetris said that, if it came to us being stranded in space, she’d be stranded a lot longer than either of us. That did give me pause for a second. Miles didn’t realize the issue—he said that of course none of us want to be stranded, but if it came to that, Demetris could just fry her own battery.
Normally, I would have corrected him—because of course Demetris can’t fry her own battery, it’s explicitly against her programming. [SFX: theme music begins to underscore her speech halfway through the next sentence] Instead, I started up with a speech like the general in an earth-Era action show—about how we might be scared, but sometimes discovery is scary. Sometimes we have to take risks to learn, and some chances never come again. All that jazz. I watched Miles’s eyes light up—predictably, childishly. He began to nod, and by the end of my speech he was raring to join in and reassure Demetris.
Two against one, and no need for a consensus vote.
I felt triumphant at the time. [SFX: theme music cuts out] In retrospect, I question whether that was ethical.
I believed every word I said—I still do. I think that all three of us would’ve regretted it for the rest of our natural existences if we’d gone back. [SFX: theme music fade in] It’d be the sort of thing you wake up sick to in the middle of the night, after a dream where you’d made the other decision. And I’d rather die slowly lost in the void of space than die really slowly of regret on ERCA. I couldn’t imagine telling you, Diary, that I only ever planned to look at slides of dried leaves from Zankari’s earliest failures when I could have touched the living plants.
[SFX: theme music cuts out]
At the same time, I know it was wrong of me to use them, because that’s my dream. It’s one thing to risk your own life for your happiness and peace of mind, it’s another to risk other people’s.
And yet, the more I thought about it, the less I’m sure there’s anything worth having that doesn’t cost someone else anything at all? Diary, if you look through your pages, you’ll see I don’t manipulate people as a rule but upon examination,
[SFX: rapid page turning]
have I really been as harmless as I thought?
[SFX: sound of fast, messy, writing—intensifies through paragraph, page can tear under the tip of the pen]
Say, perhaps, my dad was right when he said that I only focused on school to avoid dealing with my younger sisters, who weren’t coping very well with the new planet even once we got settled. Maybe my mom was right, and it was selfish of me to take the job with ERCA, which made no money and took me far away from family who were trying so, so hard to be supportive. Maybe the director of ERCA was right, and I shouldn’t’ve insisted on taking a spot on this ship—maybe his nephew, another oblivious genius like Miles but lacking any obvious redeemable qualities, was a better choice. After all, I found the coordinates. I could’ve played nice with ERCA, gone back to Gnowi-703, and picked up my old life—supposedly—but I chose not to because I wasn’t quite ready. I needed this.
All these things were the right choices for me, and that is why I made them, and that’s how I justify it all. The fact is like a heartbeat—I was born to solve this mystery. [SFX heartbeat sound fades in really slowly and continues through the rest of the entry] I’ve spent so many years looking at the remnants of the expansionists’ garden, and I’ve given up so much to do so. I have to see what kind of wilderness that became. I can deal with the consequences later.
Diary, I still want to believe that what I did today is less than wrong, even if it’s quite a bit shy of right. And maybe that belief won’t come until we witness the living planets on which I’ve just bet all our sanity. I can picture cool, bluish light tangling through sky-high grass. There could be fires burning in the center of live trees as wide as a mountain. Zankari wrote that anything the human mind could dream, he could build. Let’s hope his dream was worth it.
Boluwatife Adewunmi Erimipe Rotimi Akintoye
[SFX: heartbeat continues for several beats after BOLUWATIFE signs off her entry—and then stops abruptly halfway through a beat (b-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-). Pause after the cut-off beat, and then the answering boom comes: distant and underwater. Silence.]
[SFX: New entry]
DEMETRIS: Entry 10. January 17, 3019. The following conversation occurred approximately fourteen weeks into this journey.
MILES: [SFX: deep breath; he has been crying.]
Okay, here goes… [SFX: coughs several times. This is difficult, because he is lying down.]
KIRI: Are you sure you want to talk about this? Demetris told me you did, but she also said you’re not well, so/ maybe
MILES: [MILES sits up] I’m sure.
DEMETRIS: I could get you more Diazephine first if you need—
[SFX: nose blow]
Kiri, I was going to talk to you when I felt better, but I don’t think that’s happening soon. We’re probably going to land on ERCA a long time before I feel like I can talk about this. So, I’ll do it now. The least I owe you is an explanation of why I’ve been avoiding you. Ever since I decided to open the hatches to let you onboard. I probably seem uninterested—but that wasn’t what I meant. And—it has nothing to do with you.
[SFX: nose blow]
Demetris told you about our mission, right?
DEMETRIS, KIRI: Yes.
MILES: Well, Tife’s method for finding Zankari’s planets worked—you know that, since we found yours. But we knew that before then. We landed on another planet before yours. Auria.
[SFX: Auria music]
A moonless, middling-sized planet, smack in the middle of galactic nowhere. We approached it right at dawn, when the sun made the clouds glow, and called it Auria after that first glimpse of gold in our notes. But really, most of the time it’s blue. The entire surface of Auria is liquid water.
Demetris says you get all your water from nectar, which the Plant gets from fog, so I don’t think I could describe it adequately—um, I guess we have the tape—Demetris?
DEMETRIS: I could play it again if you want/but—
DEMETRIS: —the last few times—
MILES: —Just play the tape.
DEMETRIS: You’ll tell me when to—
MILES: I’ll tell you when to stop.
DEMETRIS: Okay, and [SFX: loading successful] rolling.
MILES: Yeah—okay, so here we’re through the cloud layer, and all of that stuff there is water.
[SFX: DEMETRIS cruising through the last layer of clouds. Note: the audio in this tape follows MILES when characters move apart.
DEMETRIS: Liquid water.
[SFX: DEMETRIS continues to descend.]
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Something about all that water…reminds me of home.
MILES: I realized I had never asked her about her home planet. I wish I had asked right then—I—I am such an ass. [SFX: nose blow, twice]
We skimmed the surface for a while, there wasn’t much to see. You can probably skip to—yeah, there.
[SFX: Fast-forward-sound to water landing. 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]
Bubbles, bubbles, then—see those twisty shadows?
[SFX: Ship forward slowly underwater.]
MILES: We went on for a little bit, and that’s all we saw. Demetris probably could’ve gathered a bit more information through the sensors on the bottom of the ship, if we had been willing to wait.
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): I can probably gather a bit more information by deconvoluting some of the images from my hull sensors. Then, we can discuss—
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): I’d rather get a move-on.
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): Okay.
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): I know you’re concerned about safety—but we’re just sitting ducks in here while we wait for that to process. Whatever’s under there doesn’t look too far away.
Demetris, am I clear for a suited dive?
MILES: There wasn’t any real protocol for this—like, they’d talked us through some guidelines back at ERCA? But none of the people who wrote those had gone to a new-slash-old, possibly inhabited planet.
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): Pressure, and pH are well within acceptable…yes. Yes, you are.
[SFX: MILES is sterilizing spacesuits, BOLUWATIFE is preparing a sample sequestration space.]
MILES (VIDEO): Suit sterilization’s a go.
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Sample containment’s ready.
MILES: And…you might not believe this from what you’ve seen of me, but back then, I went for it. I mean—it was what I’d always wanted, then. Biocontainment prep felt like a million years, and the second it was done I told Demetris to start the chamber.
[SFX: airlock. BOLUWATIFE enters. Airlock. Water rushing. Airlock.]
MILES (VIDEO): Demetris, I’m ready. You can open the chamber.
MILES: I heard the rush as the seal opened a split second before the water hit. It was cold. Even with the suit. And I swam out into the water with legs that felt like they were attached to someone else, and it was the most alive I’d felt in my whole life…
KIRI: Demetris! You asked me what I felt when we first took off from my planet…I think it was that.
I’m glad you had the chance to swim on Auria, Miles—whatever happened after. Wait—Miles, Demetris—is that a leaf?
[SFX airlock. BOLUWATIFE enters. Airlock. Water rushing. Airlock.
MILES: makes a noise responding to the cold. Sound of MILES swimming.]
[SFX: voice crackles in MILES’ earpiece.]
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Miles! Miles, guess whose chlorophyll-locating spidey senses work over light years?
MILES (VIDEO): I don’t know, /whose?
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Um, MINE!
MILES (VIDEO): I know, that was the joke…ahh, forget it.
[SFX: earpiece-crackle out.
MILES: All the shadows on the surface turned out to be kelp.
DEMETRIS: Huge plants, living underwater.
MILES: Huge. Even swimming—look, you can’t see the bottom. Okay, so that thing Tife’s carrying—that’s a sample she took from the kelp. Demetris, go back a second—yup, the inky stuff started to come out when she cut it.
[SFX: Kiri makes a sound with their mandibles]
[SFX: BOLUWATIFE starts to cut the plant.]
[SFX: Rewind noise, then resume from BOLUWATIFE cutting the plant.]
[SFX: earpiece noise]
MILES (VIDEO): Tife, you’re covered in/…what is that.
MILES: We could’ve called it a day, analyzed the sample, rehydrated a tube or two of champagne—we didn’t.
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): Well, looks like you got a nice piece of kelp to analyze (and wear—how many clean suits do you think we have). Let’s call it in for today.
MILES: Because Tife saw—
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Okay…
—the knots! Do you?
MILES (VIDEO): Do I /what?
MILES: See, they’re tangled, but only between the clusters—and they’re spaced a little bit too regularly…
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): Yes—I see it through both your cameras. There’s a pattern in the knots.
MILES: So after Tife dropped off her sample we took notes.
MILES (VIDEO): …more like a farm than a forest.
[SFX earpiece out. BOLUWATIFE leaves her samples in the lockout chamber, and the two humans swim. Earpiece in.]
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Each cluster has exactly eight strands of kelp—
MILES (VIDEO): —like creepy ocean spiders
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Each strand of each cluster is tied to at least one other strand!
MILES: I couldn’t look at those knots too long without becoming queasy, so while Tife noted down kelp configurations, I looked out into the water around us. And then I realized there were no fish, shrimp, or other sea-life swimming near them. In fact, there was zero indication of any animal in the vicinity. It…uh, it made me feel useless and determined to be right about something.
MILES (VIDEO): This just does not look like a fun way for tissue to grow.
[SFX: Miles makes queasy noise. MILES treads in place, then starts to swim more rapidly as he realizes that there’s nothing animal-like around.]
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Fun or no fun, these knots look natural.
MILES (VIDEO): What kind of plant ties itself in knots?
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Let’s see…how about…Martian strangler fig, snap pea, Venusian snakesfo/ot—
MILES (VIDEO): I meant real knots.
[SFX: BOLUWATIFE swims down about three meters to a particularly gnarled knot and pokes it with her sampling blade.]
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): I’ll bet first authorship this one is as natural as knotweed.
MILES (VIDEO): I’ll bet first dibs on the shower for the rest of the trip that these were tied by a somebody not a some-plant.
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): See, that’s what you say now, but—
[SFX: fast forward]
MILES: This went on for a little while—
—yeah, good call to fast-forward. Demetris cut us off,
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): Okay, kids, that’s enough bickering. I can provide a fairly definitive answer in sixty to seventy hours.
MILES: and I said…
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): [groans]
MILES: “I’ve got to know I’m right sooner than that.”
MILES (VIDEO): I’ve got to know I’m right sooner than that. [laughs]
MILES: Fifty hours right then seemed longer than the twelve days we’d just spent in hyperspace. We—uh. Uh. Uh, uh—Demetris. Can—
DEMETRIS (VIDEO): I can get an answer sooner—on the order of fifty hours—if you both get back inside the ship so I don’t have to monitor our surroundings.
[BOLUWATIFE and MILES groan]
MILES: Demetris, make it—
BOLUWATIFE (VIDEO): Well, let’s see who gets to the answer first!
[SFX: BOLUWATIFE hacks at the plant for a second. Muffled, underwater boom. The noise is really quiet, like the level of a firework off in the distance. It is cut off in the middle as DEMETRIS turns off the tape the second that Miles says stop, so that the word ‘STOP’ ends in silence.]
DEMETRIS: [After a beat] She pulled out her sampling knife, she cut into the knot, and she exploded.
MILES: I don’t actually remember the last minutes. I came to three days later, with no idea where I was…I was apparently lucky to survive at all. The oxygen tank was damaged and I was pretty badly concussed. Demetris somehow maneuvered over to get me in the lockout chamber, and then got the hell off of the planet.
When I woke up, I made Demetris replay the video footage so I could believe that it’d happened. I’ve watched it all so many times and it still makes no sense. One second, you can see a smile glint behind a faceplate and the next there’s just an ink bloom. Then the ink clears, and there’s nothing that looks like a person anymore.
[crying] How can a person just be gone like that?
DEMETRIS: I am so sorry, / Miles.
MILES: It’s not your fault.
DEMETRIS: If I had worked faster—
MILES: Demetris, stop. If we’re going to blame anyone, it might as well be me. I egged her on; I deserve to be alone in space.
KIRI: But you are not.
Miles, I’m sorry I can’t know you fully. I’m dying quickly, and you seem to need time to rearrange your innermost thoughts. What about Demetris, though?
You’ve been together the whole time since your friend died. She’s cared for you many times since this conversation began, and I wonder if you’ve asked her once how she felt after what happened on Auria. I’m not saying this to cause you sadness, but because it’s not useful to repeat mistakes. Once I’m gone, I hope you help each other to forget sadness.
I have to return to the engine room; I’m shivering cold here. If you do come out, Demetris says there’s something clogging her engines, and my fine motor hands aren’t compatible with your tool set. If you don’t feel able to rise, I understand, and I think that Demetris does as well.
[SFX: Kiri footsteps, trailing off—uneven steps, since they are limping somewhat by this point. Door shuts. Miles cries messily.]
[SFX: New entry]
DEMETRIS: Entry 11. Circa 2900 C.E. The following are verses 75-83 of the text I translated from images of the Aurian kelp knots. It took me about 70 hours to complete, a little longer than I had initially predicted—due to the sheer complexity of the grammar, which wound round and round like the kelp. Even the small fraction here convinced me that there was something remarkable, maybe even singular, about this sinewy form of speech. But based on the contents, I surmise that I am the only extant being with even a partial literacy.
[SFX: Auria music, watery noises (but not waves, because Auria is moonless)]
…  And, by our eight arms we are a warlike people, and will not suffer injury without recompense, even should it mean our own destruction.  Our enemies swore that they would poison our forest-farms, for we had encroached upon their territory with atomic devices and killed several million nesting Octopuses among their number who, being nest-bound, could not flee from our attack.  And our spies reported enemy poison was to be a toxin produced and secreted from a bacterial species of their design.  The enemy boasted amongst them how potent the poison was, such that each krill that would eat of that kelp would carry poison in their blood, and the crabs that would eat of that krill would carry poison in their blood, and the Octopuses that would eat of the crabs would receive that poison in their blood and die of it.  And it would be a painful death, wherein the suckers of our arms would first fail in their grip and then begin to rot upon our bodies.
 The news has reached us too late to prevent our ingesting the enemy poison, but we are a warlike people, and we will not submit like paltry Cuttlefish to their atrocity.  We have planted weapons secretly within the forest of our kelp, such that those of their descendants who survive us might find them and be wounded.  And we shall fight such a war against them that the very seas shall fall silent.  And any who hang back in the fighting shall be slaughtered by tearing the suckers from their tentacles and leaving them to starve.  For a coward does not deserve to swim amongst us, either here in the waters of our forest-farms or in the inky tentacles of the Deep hereafter…
[SFX: watery noises (but not waves), settling into silence]
[SFX: Closing music]
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