Amber cavern walls covered in dusky roots, a golden ray of sun from above, and a shimmering coffee pool. And the Four Pillars in the middle of it all, of course.
Despite herself, Dr. Ellen Azwani gasped. The photo on her tablet was perfect, rivalling the real thing.
“Oh my, my, my,” she said, grinning. “Oh, Curtis. You’re going to love this. I bet you never thought I could be a photographer.”
The photo held little research value, she knew that. Particularly compared to the thousands of hours of video, the ground-penetrating 3d scans of the cave complex, the countless chemical analyses, or the other myriad bytes of hard data the project had generated. But the photo was pretty. It would make people care. Maybe even make them care enough to dig into the rest of the research.
An alert popped up on her tablet. Evening departure in: 30 minutes.
Ellen took one final look at the photo and then put the tablet away. Most of her things were already packed up, and the rest would remain in the cave. Like the console – the sturdy table with a secure compartment for electronics – and the power unit. She approached the console and keyed in a soft-shutdown for thirty minutes from now. Then she folded the monitor down into the secure compartment.
In half an hour pretty much everything would go into hibernation, other than the nav beacon. And of course, Nancy would remain behind too.
Ellen squatted beside the metre long ovoid drone, resting on its treads by the console. “Hey Nance.” She pet it. “I’ll be heading off soon, and I don’t know when I’ll be back. Probably not for a few months though. That’s the plan, but… who knows, right?” She took out her tablet and connected to Nancy, reviewing her programming. “I’m going to need you to watch the house while I’m gone. Okay?”
Nancy’s diagnostics indicated all systems were functional.
With a few minutes to go before lights-out, Ellen approached the Four Pillars one last time. They were arranged in a line, from shortest to tallest, in a shallow pool in this exact spot in an otherwise unworked, unremarkable cave. The tallest pillar was made of four segments, each about a half-metre cubed. The next tallest, three segments. Then two, and then finally one.
When she looked at the Pillars in profile, like the photo, the segments kind of made a triangle. And they were all covered in carvings of interlocking spirals. Some of them seemed to repeat in patterns, others were unique.
That’s what the Four Pillars were. What they meant or why they were here, Ellen had no idea.
“I wish I knew, Nancy. But I’m no archaeologist. That’s more Curtis’ wheelhouse, and he’d tell you to stick to the facts. So let’s stick to the facts, Nance.”
Her tablet indicated five minutes until departure. Ellen slung her pack over her shoulder and then picked up the two boxes too precious to leave behind. Mostly they were filled with backups of things she had already submitted, but as any good scientist knew, you could never have too many backups.
It wasn’t a long walk out of the cave and the sun was already setting in the crimson sky. Bingo was somewhere up there, but on the other side of the world. Just outside the cave, on the grassy patch where she ate most of her meals this past month, Mulberry was waiting for her.
Mulberry replied by automatically opening its driver-side hatch when she approached, its cabin lights turning on. Ellen got in and set her backups on the back seat.
“You would not believe the amazing photo I took.” Mulberry’s control panels lit up with information displays. “It’s just beautiful. If this was a movie, it would be the poster for it.” She checked the connection to the nav beacon in the cave – fine – and the nav beacon back at home – also fine. “The lighting is perfect, and you can see so much detail on the Four.” Mulberry estimated it would take about twenty-two hours to drive home, which meant an overnight. “I wonder who they’d get to play me?”
This place was far too trackless for full-autopilot, so Ellen put Mulberry into manual control, grabbed the wheel, and started the long drive. For a short while the only sound was the faint rustle and pop of its gargantuan wheels crunching over stones and shrubs, and the almost imperceptible whine of its powerful electric engine.
“Let’s have some music, Mul. Something… new-ish.” The cabin filled with Jakub’s playlist.
Just over thirty hours later – the trip and a sleep – Ellen and Mulberry arrived home. Home was a broad, flat hill, covered with gardens and a couple free standing structures. The two biggest were a Long-Range Reconnaissance Crawler Maintenance Garage – Mulberry’s house – and a broad white hemisphere, a Class-8 Environmentally Sealed Field Habitat. Ellen’s house.
When she got out she stretched and looked up at the endless blue midday sky. Bingo would come by today, but it was still too early. She still had time.
“I’m home!” she sang, entering the habitat. It had been state-of-the-art when they bought it, a safe place to live for up to twelve intrepid scientists for a period of up to five years.
There had been six of them back then. Kent said it would mean more room for everyone, so it’d be more comfortable. Less chance they go nuts and kill each other over the bathroom. Ellen couldn’t deny she had a lot of room but she didn’t know about comfortable. Some days she would have killed to have an argument over the bathroom.
She didn’t regret the purchase though. The Class-8 was good quality. Sure, after five years the environmental seals gave way, and since then the odd thing here and there required maintenance, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. Twenty years later, and still going strong.
“I’m going to make mac and cheese,” she told Roberta. Roberta wasn’t a specific thing, more the general spirit of the kitchen. Roberta was the oven when she needed to be the oven, or the fridge, or the fryer, or the scale. Roberta had many talents and she was a great listener.
“Mac and cheese is Curtis’ favourite, and today’s a special day after all.”
She dug out a handful of what she called pseudocheese berries. They looked like plum sized olives, but their insides were a savoury yellow mucus that in no way tasted like cheese. But she had learned that if she added water and let it sit for a while, it would form a paste that kind of melted when heated, and it didn’t taste half bad for what it was.
The macaroni was the u-shaped bean – or seed, or nut, or offspring or whatever – of the noble macaronish tree. It wasn’t really macaroni, but that was okay, because the plant wasn’t really a tree either. More like a giant fungus, according to the genetic analysis. But again, the rubbery bean things were tasty when seasoned and heated, so she didn’t complain.
Pseudocheese and macaronish were two of the staple plants of her gardens, and by some trick of luck they contained a lot of the nutrients her body needed, and they weren’t poisonous to boot.
When the food got to cooking she did a once over on her research again, but her eyes glazed over. There was so much of it, decades of it, and it was such a jumbled mess. Every time she said she’d organize it she got distracted. Usually, with another incredible new discovery. And were any more incredible than the Four Pillars? It was hard to believe two years had passed since she found them.
Organizing and compiling the research had always been a do-it-tomorrow, and now she’d run out of time. She’d have to settle for an overview and her awesome new photo to do the talking. Ellen submitted the last of her Four Pillars research to the autosorter, which dumped it somewhere in the massive pile of digital data.
“Look at it this way, Roberta. It’ll give grad students something to do. See? I am contributing to the enrichment of the next generations.”
Roberta the oven dinged. Ellen took out her pot of mac and cheese, set out six bowls, and spooned her portion into one of them. It was a lovely day so she decided to eat outside.
The far side of the hill rose to a panoramic view of the valley. Most of it was long, windswept grass, but a river meandered through as well. The water wasn’t quite potable, nor was it quite water, but it was close enough that the Habitat’s filters could turn it into something fit for human consumption.
Large, knotted bulbs of roots dotted the countryside, vaguely resembling trees, and distant mountains rose into the horizon. If she squinted, it could almost be somewhere on Earth.
And then of course there was the corpse of the Asimov. Even now, more than twenty years after the accident, its name shined brilliantly in the sun. The paint truly was indomitable. The underbelly was a mess of blackened wreckage though, but at least the two kilometre long divot it had carved into the planet during the crash had mostly healed.
She unrolled a blanket near the others, as it was pleasant to eat in good company, and greeted them in turn.
“Hello, Arwa,” she said to the first grave marker at the overlook. “It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?”
Arwa never woke from cryo sleep. An undiagnosed heart condition. Just one of those things.
“Dr. Huang. Kent.” She nodded to both markers. Huang and Kent were in the maintenance bay when the Asimov’s star drive melted down. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. They were rated at 99.8% safe, it’s just that space travel always carried a risk, and when it came to the Asimov, well. Just one of those things.
Both Huang and Kent were presumed instantaneously vaporized.
“Jakub!” she said moving on. “My goodness, I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I just recently tried out some of your music, and I have to say, it’s simply marvelous. Thank you so much for having such good taste. I just wish I listened to you earlier.”
After the explosion, the Asimov lost its orbit and began its unplanned descent. The gaping hole the star drive left caused a ripple effect in the hull, and the plating protecting the navigation bay tore off. Jakub’s fate is unconfirmed, but it’s assumed he was incinerated on re-entry.
Ellen turned to the last marker. She touched it, tenderly ran her thumb along the display which read, “Curtis Azwani,” and smiled.
“Hello, love. I made your favourite.” She gestured her mac and cheese.
Curtis had been with her in the control module, which by some stroke of luck landed right-side-up and didn’t careen headlong into the ground. But it was still an immense shock. His security harness couldn’t handle it, hers could. So, she survived and he… didn’t. Just one of those things.
She sighed. “I have some bad news.”
Almost as if on cue, her tablet chimed that it just got a connection. Ellen looked to the sky. She still couldn’t see anything up there, of course, but now she knew Bingo was in range.
Bingo was the only satellite they managed to launch before the Asimov fell to its death. Bingo, who was her shy friend these twenty years. Bingo, who visited her every now and then when he passed overhead, and gifted her with maps and surveys and global positioning. Bingo, who warned her when bad weather was inbound. And Bingo, her one line to the rest of the universe, her one chance of rescue.
“Bingo is dying. I wish I was wrong, but the data doesn’t lie.”
She thumbed her tablet, starting the transfer of her mess of research materials to Bingo, who would then pass it on home. Hopefully someone would be listening.
“He’s sick. His orbit’s been shrinking and he doesn’t have the power, or the capability, to correct it. I think he’s only got a couple more weeks before he hits the atmosphere and… well.”
Bingo responded that it got her orders. It cautioned her that the closest recipient was over thirty light-years away. Nothing Ellen didn’t already know.
Thirty years by light, just for information to travel one way. Over a century by star drive, to move frozen humans across the void. And then that was on a good day. The stars were antsy, they kept moving. She hated star math.
“Rescue was never a real hope anyway. And besides, there’s enough research here to occupy me to the end of my days. My goodness, Curtis, if you only knew. This planet is amazing. It’s so earthlike I can breathe here. I’m compatible with the local flora and fauna. And the discoveries? Back when the Casablanca Expedition first found alien life, it changed everything for us. But this planet?”
She pulled up her photo, showed it to the others. “Look!” She grinned even as tears welled in her eyes. “Look at those pillars! Look at those carvings. There’s simply no way that happened by accident. There’s patterns here. Craftsmanship. Proof of alien intelligence.”
She set the tablet down on the blanket, watching the upload to Bingo progress.
“I just wanted you guys to see it.” She wiped her eyes. “In the end, it mattered. This whole trip, it mattered. We mattered.”
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I think because I'm so used to your stories being upbeat with a more comedic bent, I went into this thinking there was going to be a cute little punchline at the end. And THEN I got to this sentence: "“Hello, Arwa,” she said to the first grave marker at the overlook," and the words "grave marker" gave me the biggest case of whiplash I've ever had in my reading life (in the best way!). I was not expecting this to be so sad, but it was. Just one of those things. As with the Star Wars/Trekkie story, I appreciate you easing us into the world he...
Yes, you're right, world building can be an absolute killer. Or the exposition anyway. When I was a kid, enamored with epic fantasies like Wheel of Time or LOTR etc, and when I tried my hand at my own, I was very much guilty of the info dump. Encyclopedic descriptions of forgotten histories, characters that will never be mentioned again, long winded analyses of the economics of barley and its minute impact on the flavour of a specific loaf of bread in a specific bakery... Maybe it was just busy work, to keep from having to write the actual s...
Wow. This was EXCELLENT. Coming from someone who typically shies away from Sci-fi and gets easily overwhelmed by the invented locations, terms, and general jargon, this was quite a smooth read. I loved how the story started with a sense that the main character was a part of something big, but didn’t quite hint at how alone she was. You unfolded that reality for the reader at a perfect pace. Some of my favorite parts were the descriptions of preparing food in a high tech kitchen with otherworldly ingredients. It added so much depth to your ...
Thank you for the feedback! I'm so glad this story worked for you, given sci-fi isn't your usual. Something like that is always hard for me to gauge, so I love hearing what works and what doesn't. And yeah, I think optimism is probably the word. I think Ellen has made peace with her situation, and found a way not just to survive, but even to thrive. Thanks for reading :)
What a world-build! I'm loving the sci-fi funhouse with mirrors that distort everything reassuring and comforting, even a bowl of mac and cheese, in something wholly unsettling and new. Great sensory imagery right off the bat. Even the tips of your throwaway lines carry an iceberg of meaning: "And then of course there was the corpse of the Asimov." And who hasn't wished for a Roberta? (Roberta reminded of me of Rosie from the Jetsons. A loving, nurturing AI who always knew what you needed most.) It's a Brave New World, indeed, and I am he...
Thanks! I appreciate the feedback. The fun house mirrors comparison is an interesting one, but I can see it. Sometimes we're so desperate for normal we'll pretend it into existence. And it kind of works, if you squint. Completely unrelated, but Rosie Jeston would make for a great POV. I'm picturing a salacious noir tell-all of a robot driven past her limit.
Oh, she's a murderous lass. That Brooklyn accent was the tip off.
This story felt a bit like a rollercoaster of emotion, from the beginning descriptions of the beauty of the cavern she is in, to the fun of her talking to named appliances (I especially liked the line about Roberta being the spirit of the kitchen), then a bit of mystery wondering why she is alone, and then the sadness when she goes outside and reveals everyone else is dead, including her husband, and she is all alone and waiting for rescue. Despite this she manages to finish up with a hopeful note and find meaning in what she could easily ju...
Thank you so much! Both for reading and the feedback. You're right, the sci-fi/human balance can be tough, so I'm glad to hear it worked in this piece. Very useful to know. That it came out a rollercoaster is great too. It certainly felt like one when writing it. I think we've got a great capacity for holding opposing feelings within us simultaneously, and it seems like that influenced Ellen. Probably where words like bittersweet come from.
Hi Michał, Another great read from you. I love how you really stayed true to the genre, giving us technicalities and machines with names but still making it accessible to readers. I believe this is the second sci-fi story I've read of yours, and you write the genre well. It's funny how machines in sci-fi stories are always named, and you did that here. Nice subtle technique. You captured the sadness very well without being over the top about it. It was woven throughout the narrative, and you dropped enough hints to inform the reader withou...
Thanks for reading! I'm very happy to hear it wasn't over the top. It certainly seemed like a sad situation but I didn't want it becoming maudlin.
Fantastic story! Whenever I have a sci fi story to write, I’m coming to you for help. I enjoyed the imagery and language and the build up to the end. My favorite part was the food description and the idea that she figured out how to make Mac and cheese. Very interesting and creative. 😻
Thanks! The food was fun for sure. That kind of "normal" probably helped her cope with being stranded. Something familiar in an unfamiliar place.
Great story, Michał! It’s immersive, which I guess is another way of saying your world building is excellent. Really enjoyed this. Favorites: References to Asimov et al; Roberta the kitchen spirit ; pseudocheese and the noble macaronish tree, water that isn’t really water…
Thanks for reading! The feedback means a lot to me. I'm pleased to hear the world building came through.
WOW. I don't think there was a week I was let down by your story. The amount of world building you fit in a short story..! The imagery of the four pillars in the cave was amazing, I loved Mulberry as a name for the car and that Mulberry had a house.❤️ And everything had names. Then, description of the mac&cheese and the water, this whole strange habitat and Ellen's isolation, I was left wondering how she got in this situation, why she was alone, and as you gave us more and more details the story just gradually gained so much weight... Great....
Thank you, Riel! I also liked that Mulberry has a house :) It was probably influenced by all sorts of movies/books. I can't claim I came up with the idea of being stranded on an alien planet (or a deserted island, or wherever else) but I do like it. One of the most recent examples I'm aware of is The Martian by Andy Weir, but it's hardly the only influence. I like the 2009 movie "Moon" for example. I think it gets that weird mix of high-tech and super loneliness down well.
Oh my goodness, this is brilliant work! I love your depiction of her madness of isolation -- how she assigns personalities to her devices and environment. How you let the fates unfold of her predicament is full of intrigue and suspense. The bleak but hopeful ending is perfect. Very well done!
Thanks! I'm very happy to hear that. Bleak but hopeful can lead to lots of interesting things -- glad it worked out in this story.
Such a creative story, Michal. I really enjoyed it. I like how you characterised Amber, with how she names everything, and how excited she gets at her discoveries. It made me feel for the character when the story came to a close with the strong final line you wrote. The six bowl detail was clever. It was sad, but well written. I also thought your world building was great! Never overwhelming. the not-really-macaroni-&-cheese scene was my favourite part, with Roberta being a spirit in the kitchen.
Thanks for the feedback! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The kitchen was fun to write, as it opened the door to a little bit of silliness. Like the dieter that eats a carrot and pretends it's a donut.
I really enjoyed this - I got kind of emotional at the end, lol You led up to the reader finding out Amber was alone very well. I liked the tidbits you gave us along the way, which not only pushed the story forward but were descriptive and helped me better picture what the alien planet is like for her. It was really good, and you packed in a lot. I liked when she got on the sealed-8 habitat and how you kept having her talk to the things around her. I started to guess that she was alone, then when you ended that part by her having 6 bowls l...
I'm glad you picked up on it, especially with the bowls! I wasn't sure they would work, and I wanted enough clues to make the reader suspect something was amiss, so it's good to hear they panned out. Thanks for reading, and for the feedback :)
Michal, Your stories are always so incredibly rich and beyond clever in a way that makes me wonder how you come up with such details! Something I liked is how she named the vehicles and satellites and ovens... It made me think of your story where the appliances get up to no good! I agree with others, Ellen was so endearingly optimistic through the whole thing despite being totally alone. The conclusion, with her words surrounding it being worth it were heartbreaking and also held so much truth. There's a balance to the things we do and...
Thank you so much for the feedback! The idea of being stranded (on a deserted island, on an alien planet, in the past 'cause your time machine broke -- whatever) is one I often come back to. How would we act in such a situation? What are the challenges? There's so much here to explore. The big ones seem to be loneliness and balancing hope with acceptance. In Ellen's case, I think she accepted that she would die here. She just chose to first live as full a life as she could.
This was a great read Michal. It was both sad and optimistic at the same time, which isn't an easy feat. I got Jane Goodall vibes in your protagonist (a bit of a hero of mine): grace, poise and purpose. She really spoke to me. Well done.
Thanks for reading! I was hoping for something like sad and optimistic, but Jane Goodall didn't occur to me until you just mentioned it. I think Ellen would have been honoured at the comparison, and possibly a little embarrassed :)
This story is a departure from your crazy, humorous ones. And boy, you have totally nailed it! The POV's characterization is great. The world-building you have achieved here is breathtaking. The vibe and the world brought to my mind, The Martian. Of course, the protagonist here is not as crazily optimistic as Mark Watney(I always wondered how he could pull off a lonely stay for a long time without manifesting any psychological damage), but more realistic. Maybe because she has survived for a longer time. Good read, Well done!
Thank you so much! Yeah, I wasn't feeling the funny this week, and it doesn't seem like a good idea to force it. A comparison to The Martian is high praise! I'm a big fan of the book, and it seems like a great example of modern hard science fiction. A very believable Mars mission.
Sad and scary in that "person-who-got-their-memory-erased-and-doesn't-know-why-they're-crying" kind of way. Indeed, star math sucks. I think the balance of sci-fi detail to inviting story is just right in this one, and I appreciate the little nods (Asimov, Roberta, some I surely missed as not much of a sci-fi guy). Don't have much to complain about... you did a great job telling the story outside the story, if that makes sense. Good read!
Thank you! And yes, that makes sense, certainly what I was shooting for. I'm glad the balance worked out, because in the initial draft of this one was starting to balloon and a fair amount got cut.