For Download (and the best reading experience): The Fall (PDF)
by William Burcher
The black here was more than he was prepared for. He had never before seen a black such as this. Simply calling it a color, or a shade, or darkness did not convey the depth, the profundity. It was shear nothing, shear absence and it seemed to drag you into a place within yourself that most were seemingly afraid to go. And secretly, in a way that he would never express to anyone, certainly not the other crew, it terrified him. He tried to stay on the day-side of the comet to avoid the black as much as he could. But even then there were the shadows.
“Marino, can you copy?” crackled the radio inside his helmet. “We’re doing some work on the comm system. You’re the chosen guinea pig.”
“Oh yeah? I had one when I was a kid, you know. Mr. Terror. He bit like a motherfucker,” he replied with a practiced, forced coolness.
“Mr. Terror. Copy that,” came Lewis’ reply. Lewis was always so formal and uncomfortable around him. Repressed sexual tension he told himself – she was supposed to be gay. They’d met a month before on Tau Station, two of a nine man crew on a detailed survey mission of comet Bramlett-Foss 82A. The Company was expanding its comet mining, sensing renewed market pressure from the Russo-Chinese Empire. 82-Alpha, as they called her, was a large short-period comet now just out past Mars. The Company thought there just might be enough cometary organics in the thing to completely change the dynamics of the game, perhaps enough to flood the market and lower prices so much that the Empire got out of the business entirely.
Although “survey” was the stated goal of the mission, they’d been told on Tau the Company’s real designs. Whole-Body Retrieval. Never done before on a comet this large. Secret, of course, but not so secret or out-of-the-question that it was a complete surprise to any of the crew. Smaller asteroids and comets had been moved into Lunar orbit over the years – so many that there was now a growing reaction against the practice on Earth among the granola “Yahweh didn’t mean for us to be in space” crowd, mostly centered in Salt Lake City and Mumbai. The Lunar skies were becoming crowded already and he’d smirked inside at the thought of parking a comet the size of 82A in a place where the New Mormons could actuallysee it circling the moon. So far though the UN hadn’t banned the use of the moon’s orbit for mining and by the time the Empire-paid bureaucrats got around to doing anything about it, the idea was to have the comet well-processed, and the Empire no longer caring what happened in the market.
“We’re going to be playing with the Cubes, testing the limits of comm out here, working with hypothetical failures. There may be interruptions to comm. Do you copy?”
“Copy,” he replied. The Cubes were tiny CubeSats, small, simple cubic satellites in orbit around 82A, helping to facilitate comm when he or another of the crew was no longer line-of-sight with the ship, the Le Guin. He, like any seasoned space man, dreaded any period of time without comm, even planned outages.
“Copy. We’ll commence in 30 seconds.”
And he paused, waiting. For a few moments he stood motionless upon the surface of the comet, looking out upon a scene of fantastic, terrifying beauty. Everything around him was darker than coal but it all glowed and shined strange, alien, sharp-metallic with the light of the distant sun. Spires of rock and ice rose towering above the roughened plain. Boulders of all sizes, jagged and harsh and shear were strewn as far as he could see across a horizon only a few hundred meters distant.
“Ok Marino. We’re starting with Cube 8. You can attempt comm manually if you want to test, but we’re recording data from your suit … “
“In Dixieland I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie … ” he began to sing.
“Marino, stop!” she quickly interrupted. “We’re getting some strange data. Standby … “
He ceased transmitting immediately. For a moment he heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing, and the audible status indicators inside his suit coming at regular intervals. Comm was dead. Breathe in, then out. In, out. Again. Slow. Then again.
“Marino, Control. There’s been an … anomaly,” he heard Lewis in spurts and stops. “Cube 8 is down, and falling. Some program … bug. Telemetry … meters. Repeat … 300 … southeast … you. Retrieve … 30 minutes.”
“Control, Marino. I believe I copy. You’d like me to retrieve the Cube when it contacts the surface in 30, 300 meters to my southeast. Is this affirm?”
Her response was full of static, but discernible. “Affirm. Affirm.”
“Control, Marino I copy,” he said as he turned around to scan the southern horizon. Before him was a field of house-sized boulders cut by a mad hand, jagged and harsh and looming. Their shadows cast long and impossibly dark as the sun held low in the sky of the slowly spinning comet.
He could see the Cube above him descending slowly. It was falling almost directly toward a rift, a canyon that they’d not seen before. He wondered why the radar scans and the probes hadn’t discovered the thing but his mind didn’t dwell too long on the oversight. Shit happened, and it wouldn’t be the first time on this mission or any other that things mysterious and surprising had appeared, or that something had gone inexplicably wrong, he thought as the little comm satellite flashed brilliant in the sunlight. The chasm below was of course completely dark. He estimated that its mouth was a few hundred meters across, and he didn’t hazard a guess at its depth. Comets were known to possess fissures that ran through the entirety of their nuclei – the product of repeated impacts, their tenuous formations and the stresses of billions of years of travel around the sun. The fissure didn’t bode well for the retrieval mission. He tried reporting the find to Control, but comm seemed to be completely down at this point.
The gaping darkness a hundred yards away unnerved him more than he was already. It reflected the infinity of the space above only its black, its darkness was not broken by the diamond-brilliance of distant stars. The chasm was void. It was nothing. As he looked the darkness of it went inside and it touched a part of him, a part of him that was of itself, until another part saw this similarity, this equality and pulled away instinctively in fear. And he bit his tongue and breathed deep and held down the fear.
The Cube was lower now and he saw that it would not descend into the rift, but would come down on its edge. He began to leap and to hop in the curious way that suited the gravity of this place best – over boulders and shallow depressions, jagged, grey-black debris and rubble of all sizes. He would arrive below the Cube in time to pluck it from its slow descent to the surface. The radio crackled and hissed.
“Marino … status … copy?” Lewis spoke.
“Control, Marino. I do not copy. If you’re asking for a status report I am about to retrieve the Cube. There’s this fissure in the comet. I don’t know how we missed it. The Cube is coming down near the edge.”
“Marino, Control does not copy.”
“Control, do you copy now?”
“Mar … no … -y.”
There were further attempts at communication for a few moments until both parties accepted the present limitations and went back to their individual tasks. Marino saw the Cube directly above him now and he watched its gentle fall. The edge of the chasm was a few meters away. If he were on a body of greater gravity this would worry him more, but a quick jump on his part, even in the cumbersome suit he wore, could send him high above any threat he might encounter. But there was no threat. There was no movement here. There was only peace, static existence. And darkness.
Ten meters. Then seven. Then five. Three. And he lifted his arms to catch the gleaming gift from the sky.
And then he felt a shudder through this legs and a cloud of black and gleaming dust and debris rose up toward the sky engulfing him and then he and the debris were falling backward and his legs struggled frantically for purchase. His heart jumped and he instinctively activated his comm.
“Control! Control! Falling! The fissure beneath the Cube! Control!”
Lewis saw on her display that a comm had been activated and she listened to the scratches and clicks briefly before focusing once again on righting the programming errors that led to the outage in the first place.
Marino spun his way around still clutching the little satellite and the view that greeted him was one of horror. He was descending slowly into an abyss, an infinite darkness, into the fissure at a slow rate. A large section of the edge upon which he stood had collapsed and a cascade of debris was descending with him. He saw that the walls of the chasm were not shear but sloped downward into the depths gradually, comprised of a mountain of uniform rubble, like a pile of coal. He saw that the other side of the fissure was far, hundreds of meters, and he knew thus that the bottom was deep indeed. He heard nothing but his frantic, halting, gulping breaths and his own voice as he repeatedly tried to reach Control. He struggled for purchase on the loose debris but his legs would not contact anything solid, only loosening more rubble and adding to the dark cascade. His arms could do nothing but keep hold of the Cube. His heart thumping in his chest he tried jumping, leaping up, up and out of this mess but he could not and within seconds he was exhausted from the attempts, sweat floating up into his helmet briefly before the circulation system removed it.
“Control! Control! Do you copy!?”
Static and hiss.
And he glanced downward into the depth and darkness and seeing nothing but void and his own legs stumbling maniacally to keep his body upright, he breathed quick and full of fear. He looked up at the clear infinity of space and the brilliant backdrop of the Milky Way and he saw the light diminish slowly as the walls of the rift closed in. As he fell.
He gasped. He gulped. “Together,” he said audibly, not worrying now if Control could hear the terror in his voice. “Get it together. Now. Breathe,” and he did; slowly, more slowly. And he achieved some calm as he fell. “Together,” he repeated, and he resigned himself to managing his stumble. He had that. He had his orientation. He was upright. He was descending standing, and could maintain his position if he relaxed and did not struggle, and let his feet manage the rubble on their own. He thought for an instant what he must look like from below – this figure falling slowly within a cloud of fist-sized rock and ice, the cloud illuminated at intervals by his forward helmet and wrist lights. He held on, too, to the idea that Control knew where the CubeSat had descended. They knew! And Lewis was smart. It might take some time, but they would send someone out, or the probes at least, and they’d find him. They’d discover the fissure and know, logically, that this was the only place that he could be. He would be found. The probes could tow him out of this place, even if it was deep. And although the comm wasn’t working now, his system was still operational, as far as he knew. And at the speed that he fell, there was no need to worry about any impact injury. His situation was not hopeless. There was hope. He noted the time.
After 16 minutes he came to rest at the bottom of the fissure. A small avalanche of debris had come to rest with him and atop the pile he stood for a moment before collapsing like a child. All around him the darkness lay, oppressive and incalculable. The only exceptions were the walls of the chasm illuminated by the laser-like beams of his lights, un-refracted by atmosphere or particle. Crystal clear, crystal light, no edge, no exception – then dark, black. Above him, far above him hung a sliver of light from a distant starry sky but this seemed only a memory of a different time and a different place. Here in the deep he had only himself, and the remaining power in his suit’s batteries to separate darkness from light. About these he need not worry at least – RTG’s or plutonium batteries – they were good for months. Just sit here. Keep breathing. Drink when you need to. Piss when you need to. Stay here. And they will find you.
“Control, Marino,” he would broadcast at regular, but lengthening intervals. The reply was as empty as the darkness around him. He began to dread transmitting – the inevitable silence which greeted him in response. His logical mind told him that of course there would be silence – Control could only communicate if a probe or another of the Cubes was directly above him, line-of-sight, but another part of him whispered and sighed, telling him stories that scared him more than he admitted he was already – telling him that he would not be found, that he would die here. He began to tell these voices to be quiet, first only mentally, but then with an audible voice. “I will be found,” he would repeat. “They will find me.”
His oxygen levels were good – at least a day left. All of his status indicators were normal. The CubeSat lay beside him on the rubble pile. He thought briefly about attempting to use it in some way but quickly realized that this was hopeless. The Cube was designed for easy retrieval and then to be manipulated only in a controlled environment by specialized technicians – not by grunts in suits with thickly gloved hands in a vacuum. Minimal thrusters anyway, and the thing was damaged he thought, looking at one of its faces, collapsed. He left the box sitting beside him, untouched. He sighed and he sat, his lights on their lowest setting, illuminating the pile just beneath him. For an hour, maybe two he remained, trying not to let the reality of the present overtake him. The walls of the fissure were rubble. He’d quickly dismissed the notion of climbing out. There were no ledges to jump to, there were no cracks to squeeze himself into and ascend. He was walled in on three sides and the fourth looked questionable – sealed off by steep, unscalable walls of rock and ice. The way between the walls was a kind of slot canyon, narrow to the point the walls seemed to touch. He did not see a way through from his vantage point atop his pile, and he hesitated even considering this option, as slim as it was. The first unquestionable law of being lost and having knowledge that others would be searching for you was to stay put. He and the Cube had fallen almost directly below the position Control had last known for the Cube’s resting location. Searching below this point would be logical. It would not be long. It couldn’t be.
He had to repeat this to himself after the first four hours had passed. But he’d swallowed the urge to get up and explore the slot canyon, and gave the wait another four. After twelve he could no longer convince himself of anything. His descent into darkness then began. The fear, for hours now held deep below welled up inside him into his heart and then his conscious, thinking mind. This place terrified him. He was alone here. Alone. The nearest human was tens of kilometers away and was apparently impotent to help him out, out of here. His oxygen was still good, but it was depleting. It would deplete completely in time. In time, if he was not discovered, he would die. He would die in this place.
He looked around at the harsh rock and jagged, dark ice that reflected his helmet’s lights. He saw the strange shapes, the vertical tendencies of objects formed in extreme light gravity. The metallic sharpness of everything, the strangely clear stars far ahead which did not shimmer or twinkle with the distortion of atmosphere – yes, yes, this was an alien place. He did not belong here. And now he might die here. Lewis and the others, Okimbe and Tabata, Johnson and Sven, His parents on Earth. His friends. Julia. Would Julia miss him? Would she think of him now, that a year had passed? He’d missed opportunities with her. With his parents even. He was a loner. He had to admit it. He’d chosen solitude many times at home, when he’d had the choice. He didn’t have the choice now.
“Control, Marino. Control, Marino, come on! Control, Marino, fucking Control, goddammit! Goddammit Lewis! I’m RIGHT here! Right beneath the Cube! The fucking big hole right there, where the Cube came down! Fuck!”
The anger, the frustration was a physical thing to him now, a felt thing centered in the right side of his chest. It boiled up from below and there it stuck, there it was held – by years of mental tendency to deny expression to anything not mission-compatible. He was a space man. Fuck. Fucking get it together. You knew what you were getting yourself into. Fucking ridiculous mortality rate. Here, now, you’re going to die. But you fucking chose this, Jason. Choice, man. Done. You choose!
He’d been looking around with his lights at the loose rubble walls of the slopes around him, at the floor of the fissure a few meters beneath. He sat for a moment, for two, shaking his head, watching the lights move across the floor of the rift. Now he turned the lights off. The interior of his helmet display glowed orange and green. He turned this off too. And there he was in pitch, primordial darkness. Only the stars far above he could see, and he chose now not to look at these. He turned off the audio to his status displays, and there in the darkness he knew silence. And he knew fear. It crept up his spine cold-electric. It filled his guts. It replaced the anger and the frustration in his core, in his liver and he wanted to cry out, he wanted to run, to be free. But something inside told him no. Lights on, audio on; and then off again. Darkness, silence; again. He played with both again and again, watching his own reaction from a deeper place and finally he chose to leave both deactivated. In the unimaginable cold, the vacuum, the darkness of the sub-surface of a comet out near Mars, he surrendered to this that fate had dealt him, and he leaned back on a bed of coal exhausted and quickly fell asleep.
He awoke. Another six hours had passed, and he was still there at the bottom of the fissure. But he knew this would be. His oxygen level was where he thought it would be also, with a few hours reserve. He managed to detach his wrist light laying it next to the Cube, and acknowledging the usefulness of the design which contained a backup, internal power source, he positioned the beam pointing upward, toward any potential rescuer. He set the light on a standard S.O.S. repeat, and moved down the rubble pile toward the slot canyon.
It was just wide enough to squeeze through and he could see that it opened up in a few meters. The walls were smooth and highly reflective, his helmet lights blinding him in the rock’s reply. It was beautiful. A thousand shades of onyx, shining, glistening with his reflected light – the walls were as of polished coal, flowing as if honed by some dark, powerful liquid, flowing as if carved by millennia. It was a black Narrows, and he remembered a trip to the southwest United States when he was a child – and the canyons and rifts cut through sedimentary rock by water, wind and sand. It was a vent, he thought. It vented pressurized gases resulting from the comet’s varying proximity to a heat source – the sun. He slid a few more meters and exited into a wide, open gallery with shear, smooth walls rising on all sides a thousand meters or more to the comet’s surface. This would be the end of his path.
He allowed his light to play along the walls of the gallery, transforming darkness into something else. He walked along the walls, put his hand upon their surface. Smooth and flowing, without blemish; hard and unyielding, eyes drifting down to a pile of rubble and ice. He bent and grasped, palmed a mass the size of a baseball and held it for a moment, absorbing its simple mass and as a child thrills with the base pleasure of exerting an observable physical force he threw the stone upward as powerfully as he could. He watched it disappear into the distance. And his eyes moved with his body downward once again to pick up another and there he saw it, protruding gently from the ice. His eyes focused and then his mind froze, processing. He then jumped back in instinctive recoil. It was white; an amazingly clean shade of white, brilliant in this dirty, black and grey place. It gleamed as if covered in some plastic or lacquer. It was bent at an angle not quite right, not quite correct – and the hand lacked the individual appendages a human mind would recognize as fingers, and instead appeared stunted, mittened even.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered. He stared motionless for a moment. The forward lights of his helmet array illuminated the object brilliantly. It was obviously artificial. But it couldn’t be. Could it be? Here? It couldn’t be natural. His mind, his mind was playing tricks. He quickly checked his oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, his other status indicators, and everything was fine. The suit said that he, too, was stressed but functioning. “Jesus Christ,” he repeated. It was a full meter long and hinged in three different places. It was obviously suited. Or could it have been a robot’s? The appendage of an earlier probe? What was the most likely explanation for this? Nothing like this was ever built by the Empire, or the Americans or Europeans in the previous century. It protruded from the ice unnaturally – and what – his mind recoiled once again with instincts never designed by nature to contend with such a thing – what, what was it attached to?
His oxygen indicator went off inside his helmet and warned him that two hours of air remained. He ignored for a few seconds, eyes fixed on the ice, before turning it off. He took a step closer. He took a step to the side, circling it slowly, half expecting it to move.
“Control, Marino, Copy?” He couldn’t resist the impulse. He could not be discovering this alone. He wanted to share, and he cringed when static only greeted him in reply.
Making a complete circle he saw that it was attached to a larger white mass buried beneath a thin layer of ice and dust. It looked frozen. And dead. It was not a machine. He stared in disbelief, heart pounding, mouth dry and he held the piss in until he could release it consciously. “Holy fucking shit. Jesus Christ,” he whispered. He wanted to shout out instinctively, to shout a greeting, and then instantly rebuked the stupidity of this. He wanted to talk to it. Instead he crept closer, slowly. The surface, he saw, was impossibly clean and had either been there on the floor of this rift for a very short time, or had some coating with some kind of electro-repulsive property. He imagined that if he touched it, grabbed it even it would feel slippery. He could see that beneath the shallow covering of dust and ice that blanketed the rest of it there were more – more appendages, all equally as white. And these were attached to a larger mass; a thorax?
“Jesus Christ,” he repeated in halting exhales. He took a step back, paused, breathing, then forward again, closer. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
He reached out slowly a meter away now, bending over, arm and finger extended and touched it. Nothing happened. He saw that the blanket of debris covering the body was the same that littered the floor of the fissure and of the other parts of the comet uniformly. The science team had been using the depth of the debris to date formations on the comet and had come up with a rough formula.
“Millenia. Longer. Jesus Christ. It could be in the millions. This thing could have been here for millions of years. Before primates existed on Earth.” And he stood motionless with the gravity of what he beheld.
And after a few moments, here and now, he realized a thing – that he had absolutely nothing to lose and he needed to know. What it was. Maybe who it was. He grasped the appendage, and pulled. With minimal effort the rest of the body began to emerge and he shuddered in terror and excitement. In a second it was free of its shroud and before him uncovered lay the unmistakable yet alien body of another once-living thing. And it was in a suit.
Marino took a step back and beheld the form lying in front of him on the ice. The body of an ancient alien, obviously sentient, obviously advanced was at his feet. The thing was like him. A space man. It had fallen into the fissure as he had. It had died as he would. For a moment he had the urge to cut the suit open to see the body inside but this he quickly dismissed – he did not want to violate the body inside. The discovery as it stood, was enough. Yes, he told himself in wonder, this, this was enough.
He returned to the location of the Cube and saw that both it and his light were where he’d left them, undisturbed. He checked his comm status and attempted once more to make contact with Control. Silence. Silence and darkness. He was alone. And noting that less than twenty minutes of oxygen remained in his suit he collected rocks, ice and debris and laid these out in a large, simple pattern on the open floor of the fissure – an arrow pointing in the direction of the short canyon leading to the open gallery and the alien. He then returned to it. Approaching it once more he was overcome and activating his comm so that his expression might be broadcast to whomever, whatever might be able to hear him he stated simply with honest joy, “Thank you.”
Jason Marino then sat down next to the body of the alien. And as he deactivated his status alarms, his internal displays and his exterior helmet lights, in the silence and the darkness his gloved hand reached out and made contact with that of his equal.