(Pour lire la version française, cliquez ici.)
Thanks to Jonas Büttner (Instagram: @poly4g) for sharing his artwork.
I’ve always wanted to choose my last thought before death. I always planned for it to be the first time I kissed my wife in an all-night dive bar after we bought cigarettes in a bodega. The dive bar was one of the few places in City Sector 33 that allowed regulars to smoke in a back room after midnight. I thought, at the time, that my wife didn’t like me very much. She looked nervous during dinner, constantly looking away, practically grimacing when I talked, fixing her translucent body suit, and didn’t laugh much at my bad jokes. I thought she was only enduring my poor company for the night because we shared a mutual friend who set us up. I thought, “Yup, here we go again, another woman who’s bored with a mediocre janitor whose only hobby is writing a stupid sci-fi blog. Way out of my league.” But while smoking and admiring her beautiful face in the shadows, her mysterious glances, letting the silence between us build, I felt the flame of courage and thought, “Why not? Worst comes to worst, she denies me, and I move on like I’ve always done before,” and I went in gradually for the kiss. When I was close, her lips parted, her eyes seemed to ignite, then she replied with a wild, unexpected passion, grabbing my hair and pulling me in. We went back to my place and didn’t leave my cramped studio for three days, both of us calling off work. She awakened a desire that I never thought was possible, something primal that was beyond me, or perhaps hidden deep in an unexplored recess of my soul. And since that moment our lives have been locked, fused, and intertwined.
But as this horrifying creature slithers and clicks and sucks towards me, on this planet 64 light years from Earth, my mind loses control. Remember when I said I hate insects? Well, this creature is something between a giant praying mantis and a squirming, writhing mass of centipede-like tentacles, slimy sinews, and clicking pincers. It’s like a grotesque, shuddering weeping willow with something metamorphizing or being tortured and trying to escape on the inside. But after the first moment of terror, the certainty that this extraterrestrial abomination is going to kill me (the creature is so massive there is nowhere to run), that it has killed everyone on the ship, I feel a strange separation from my body. A defense mechanism, perhaps, against the horror, against the expectation of having my skin ripped clean off the bone. I suddenly think of the last time my wife made me laugh, the day before the ship crashed on this planet. Concentrating on the memory to prevent my descent into blackness, I mechanically put out the fire, as if someone else is doing it, haul my supplies over my back, then close my eyes as the creature moves over the debris of the ship. I remember I was talking about how excited I was to discover this new planet, to start a new life with her, and my wife gave me one of her mischievous smiles and said,
“But how excited are you?”
“No, I mean Walter…tell me exactly how excited. Be specific. Like really excited. Or really really excited?”
“Hmm, eight reallys excited.”
“Nooo. Eight reallys? I don’t believe you. You’re only…let me see your eyes, three reallys.”
“How would you know.”
“But maybe if I poke you in the armpit you might be four reallys…” and as I started laughing she kept her face serious, squinting her eyes, as she slowly moved her finger towards my armpit.
“Don’t go in there, your finger might not come out…”
“Oooo. Now I’m curious…” And in the middle of the ship’s greenhouse, while people nearby were picnicking in the miniature bio-sphere, I trapped her finger in my armpit and we tickled each other and rolled around. I know it’s one of those simple, silly things that couples have together, inside jokes that only they understand. But my wife could always make me laugh, no matter where we were, what was happening, and I loved that about her.
The creature-insect is less than twenty feet away. The stench is so overwhelming I taste a hint of it in the back of my throat, a mix between rotten sashimi and skunked beer. My thoughts plummet into darkness and I wonder: what if my wife is somehow still alive? What if she has managed to escape this creature? This thought galvanizes my stupefaction. The insect didn’t react when I put out the fire, nor when I hauled my supplies on my back, and even though there is nowhere to run, the insect seems to be moving haphazardly, without an object. If there is any chance my wife is still out there, I need to survive, I can’t wait here like a sitting a duck. I always promised her I’d be the first one to die…
I fix my sack of supplies more firmly on my shoulder, take a breath, and jump out of the crevice-cave, directly towards the insect. The moment I leave the little cavern in the rubble, the insect-creature shoots a centipede-tentacle towards where I’d been standing. I sprint towards the left edge of the mass, not knowing what will happen, and when I am ten feet away, prepared to tackle into the squirming creature, the thing leaps towards the cave, following its arm, attaching itself to the wreckage.
I keep running into the darkness, away from the spaceship across the field. I can’t believe my luck, but as I turn my head to see if the insect is following me, I trip. A screech (like metal scraping metal) erupts from the creature and I see it shooting towards me, huddling and rapidly slumping over the grass. “This is it,” I think, but the giant insect stops twenty feet away and begins sort of spinning, or gyrating. Gradually, the creature sinks into the ground and disappears.
Slowly, I stand up and walk cautiously to where the insect has burrowed. There’s a giant, circular pit in the ground, the same kind of smooth, abyss-like pit I saw on top of the cliff where my landing pod crashed. Why did it burrow when it was on the verge of killing me?
As if in answer to my question, I hear a Sniff Sniff. Son of a bitch… But as I turn I see, in the light of the four, green moons something that I can only describe as…cute and cuddly. A long, furry creature is trotting on eight, tiny legs towards the pit, sniffing the ground constantly. The thing resembles a basset hound, with floppy ears sweeping the grass. It has a pink snout, with a three-nostril nose at the tip, but no eyes, and a fat, swinging belly. It sniffs the edge of the pit, then moves towards me, the ears flopping up to its nose, as if they are attracted to it by a force. On an impulse, I get on my knees and give it a rub behind the floppy ears as if it is actually a dog. I can’t help myself. I love dogs. And this creature somehow exudes safety and goodness. While I scratch the floppy ears, the creature purrs like a cat and gives me kisses with a long, purple tongue. I see sharp fangs glint in the green moonlight.
The eyeless, purple-tongued basset creature trots back over to the pit, tilts on to its side, and shoots sparkling liquid into the abyss. I think I heard a distant, echoing screech. The basset returns to my side, licks my calf, and trots the direction it came. I decide to follow this cute companion. My instinct tells me that following this animal is my best chance at survival.
While following this dog-like animal, who I’ve named Bunky, my thoughts return to my wife. Until I find irrevocable evidence that she is dead, I will continue to stay alive and keep searching, fighting against (or running away from) whatever I come across. If I find other members of the ship (or somehow make to the city that was supposed to be under construction by Migration Wave #1) who confirm that she has been killed, then I’ll commit suicide. That’s always been the plan between us…or least, the plan I told her, and which she constantly argued against.
My wife is 16 years older than me. As we were falling in love, we discussed her dying before me and thinking about how I could survive without her. I wouldn’t want to. I’d kill myself soon after she was gone. I don’t have any friends and in general I don’t like people. So, after this lighthearted discussion on who would die first, I immediately start working like crazy, hardly sleeping, taking X30 stimulants, so that my body would give up before her body and so we could potentially live in luxury and comfort in the present…
That’s why my wife wanted to have a child. So that when she passed away, I would still have someone to love, something to live for, a piece of her left behind. But when we met she was 41 and only producing fragile eggs that couldn’t hold (she had led a wild and exhausting life between 20-40, she had 2 miscarriages), so we were too late. For weeks she cried against my hairy chest every night in bed, telling me that if I wanted a family, if I wanted a child, to just leave now, to not waste her time. I told her no. There was only her. My love. I didn’t care about a child or a family. I told her that it made no difference to me whether or not we went on adventures just the two of us, or with a child in tow. If anything, a child could hold us back. She didn’t believe me. She saw how I loved dogs and children. She fell into a deep depression.
That’s when I started applying for us travel to Kepler 852-b, as part of the Great Migration wave #2. I figured that if we couldn’t have children, we might as well take advantage of the fact and voyage to a new planet. Secretly, during my breaks at work, I worked relentlessly hard on our application, calling the right people to give us the best chance. Somehow, we were accepted, and when I told my wife she burst into tears of happiness.
Before being put in deep sleep on the spaceship, I reminded my wife of my pact: if she died before me on this planet, I was following her soon after. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but nor do I believe in a life worth living without her. She said, “No, if I die before you, I want you to find an alien wife on Kepler 852-b. Promise?”
While lost in these thoughts, I notice that Bunky and I are approaching a jungle. He slips through the thick foliage. On the other side, in the shards of moonlight, I see a small clearing and a small nest, where Bunky plops down and immediately starts snoring. I guess now I wait, I think, for Bunky to wake up. Surveying my surroundings, I see that there are colorful vines hanging from the trees, violet and orange, and web-like threads connecting the branches and trunks. The moonlight is dim in this enclosure, the shadows seem to contain unspeakable dangers, hidden malice, and I feel uneasy.
*Crack* *Shkt**Crack**Crack**Shkt**Snap*…something is bushwhacking nearby. I hurriedly pull out my little axe (why didn’t the NASA scientists pack a gun or some sort of projectile?!) Bucky is still in a deep slumber. I nudge his belly with my foot and he grumbles. No help from Bunky.
The noise is getting louder. It’s approaching. Without thinking, I stupidly yell, “Stop! Who’s there? What’s there?” Silence. I ready myself. At the other end of the clearing the foliage parts, and a man stumbles towards me, a man I know…
“We…we don’t belong…here,” he splutters, as he trips and almost falls. In the moonlight I see that his face is dirty and scratched, his clothes torn, his darting eyes wild, and his mouth drippling spit. “They…they sent us here…to die…how can we…” The contrast between the wreck of the man before me, and the man I knew, is almost too much to bear.
“Captain Premidaire?” The last time I saw this man he was giving a magnificent speech in front of the entire crew of the spaceship, before we all went to our deep-sleep chambers. Preston Premidaire, the leader of Migration #2. He had been clean-cut, perfectly-dressed with glittering badges on his uniform, with a charming smile. He was one of the most respected military generals on Earth.
“Aye, my friend, fancy a wouldayouknow place?”
“A what? Where is everyone else on the ship? What happened?” For a moment the disoriented general seemed to concentrate and he looked at me with grim determination.
“We escaped, there was so much, you have to find the, go now because I won’t abandon the calling to-” he collapses in the clearing and I rush to lift him up.