The following is a story I wrote two years ago when we lived in beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia.
How familiarity with an object allows you to perceive finer and finer detail in that object while diminishing the attention you give to others is a fact of life that deeply fascinates me. That’s all I have to say. Enjoy!
Coming to Understand
They made a mistake, so the asteroid tore through the ship. Emergency doors shut as programmed to contain what savable atmosphere there was. Noa Moroz, flung across the gallery by the impact, lifted her head to see a colleague’s legs crushed under a door as he leapt to what he thought would be a safer room. But Noa thought this room unsafe, even as she tore her fellow officer out of the door, rather to save a few more lungfuls of air than to save him. Screams and shouts filled the lulls between twisting metal and shattering glass. She might have heard a crack expanding through the gallery window like sheet lightning across a cloud. The crew had used seventeen years in interstellar space to drill the emergency protocol into their bodies. Without thinking Noa dragged her colleague to the nearest escape pod, slammed the door shut, and launched.
By luck they’d both been off duty one last time before the final approach, both had been in one of the many viewing galleries towards the bow, both had been gazing at the new sun steadily nearing, larger, dimmer and perhaps more orange than the yellow-white sun they recalled. Looking at the star neither saw the asteroid. So many rocks float through this system and they missed one.
It hit squarely midships where the descent vehicles were lodged. What bulwarks they’d built against celestial bodies collapsed like sodden clay under the impact of the rock. The enormous ship, sent in haste to this first new earth, was lurching wildly off course, bodies and parts of bodies forming an expanding cloud with bits of metal, plastic and rock. No lights were visible astern, though many still illuminated the bow. Already the faces at the windows were anonymous and Noa could do nothing for them. She was facing a violent death in the manner of the main ship from all this flotsam. Still a day out from the planet, with a bleeding passenger who might already be dead, she had to guide this pod to ground, and that was that.
She knew, as everyone knew, where basecamp was to be set up. She now set her face to that plateau. And so, dodging debris which she quickly outpaced in the small vehicle, she pointed the escape pod toward a new earth.
Noa was one of those who made the mistake. As a midlevel navigations officer, she was responsible for parsing and collating the projected trajectories incessantly spat out by the Society of Logicians’ computers. Such a large ship could not be manoeuvred easily, and many hours each day were given over to discussions, debates, arguments over what was the best course of action. They had many, many data, but how to interpret them?
During the long years after launching, a group of scientists and engineers formed the Society of Logicians, grandly named and with playful rituals to lighten the mood in deep space, to remodel and reprogram the computers to better detect asteroids and predict the patterns of their orbits. In their haste to get to the first extraterrestrial body determined to contain complex lifeforms, the original builders put on board whatever technology the corporate and governmental divisions of earth could develop in short order, then filled the leftover space with any material that might prove valuable on the voyage. Good use was made of these extra materials, and with such a concentration of intellectual prowess, breakthroughs were made that might have won prestigious awards had contact with earth not become so untrustworthy that it was abandoned in anticipation of stabler communication systems built on solid soil. But all the models they developed on earth and between the stars, all the readings and projections, didn’t prepare them for that single rock.
The first astronomer to observe the planet noted that it was orbited by a single moon with a cloud of smaller bodies forming a thick ring around it. What was not known when they launched was the density of this ring. The asteroids gave the planet a blurred look, its outline made indistinct by the swirl of misshapen rocks constantly emerging from behind the planet and each other. Looking at it, one might imagine the whole planet was a bubbling mudpot spitting out clots of slurry.
It was in fact a relatively calm planet on the surface. Mostly aqueous, it contained large archipelagos both volcanic and tectonic in origin. A year ago, when they finally got close enough to scan the surface in detail, it was determined that one of a number of low plateaus that dotted a certain archipelago would be the optimal place to land. It lay roughly on the equator, was large enough for the descent team, and appeared to be clear of the thick, dark vegetation that covered nearly all dry land on this planet.
The biologists aboard could ascertain little of what life was like down there. Reconnaissance drones sent back what information they could but what could they have said of human life? Factions developed between those supporting colonization and those supporting research. The colonists won. How could you resist? There were no physical limitations posed by the planet.
The atmosphere contained a mixture of gases that a human could breathe without the need for apparatuses. It would be a less oxygenated mixture, akin to the Tibetan plateau although lacking the lightness of mountain air, due to the planet’s slightly larger size than earth. Over the past seventeen years, the crew adapted themselves to the precise mixture by gradually modifying the atmospheric conditions on the ship.
The gravitational conditions were likewise modified, and all the crew had surgery to reinforce their intervertebral discs. Even so, everyone shrunk by an inch or two. The heaviness put off people’s coordination, and still, years into the adjustment, certain actions hardwired by long usage on earth into the crew’s bodies remained awkward. The children born during interstellar flight needed no surgery, no special training of any kind. They were born of the new earth.
Now they had to get to that land.
“Rick, Rick, can you hear me? Can you see me?” It was, again, no use. The mangled body of Ricardo Quiroga, propulsion officer and member of the Society, lay in shock, the two stumps of his legs compressed and chemically cauterized by Noa. He was a distant acquaintance of hers. She knew he liked tennis and went by Rick. Rick breathed softly and painfully. He didn’t respond.
Noa passed the time by studying on her console the topographical maps of the area on and around the plateau and by reading old guides to homesteading.
Soon they would be facing the descent. Dozens of other pods flew next to them in loose formation, some containing up to nine passengers in a space meant for four. They all agreed they were lucky to live, and even amid the horrors their eyes lit up with the reality of experiencing a new earth for the first time.
This fact, the firstness of their situation, led to acrimony over the radio. For though the plateau was roughly three miles in diameter, it would be too dangerous for the pods to descend as one. Rather they would have to take turns and no one wanted to be anything but first. The drama of the shipwreck only heightened the desire for glory. Seven possible orders of descent had already been mooted but without agreement.
Noa, eager as anyone at first, removed herself from the conversation, accepting a later berth. Some accused her of leaving crewmates to their death, of being greedy for comfort, even though she repeated to them that there were no other people near the pair when she slammed the pod door shut and that she’d followed procedure. Already the striations of social hierarchy formed; before safety came supremacy. She couldn’t allow herself to become a liability on this new earth.
And now, as the first pods begin to descend, Noa is guiding her pod into line, taking her place, inching forward as the planet flies beneath her, responding to the first sunsets and sunrises she’s seen in so long, waiting alone with her unconscious companion, listening to the static filled outbursts of radio from those ahead of her. Several more ships with their passengers transmute to junk. Many seem to touch down on the heavy, new soil. Jubilation, ecstasy, wonder. Reports choke the airwaves. A signal is given. Rick moans more loudly. The pod shakes and jumps, rattles and hisses. Noa’s chest seizes, she doesn’t breathe. Over the radio, “What life! Here!”
She missed. The turbulence of the atmosphere and the fear of hitting another pod got her off course. It was not precisely a crash landing but the pod was now merely a metal and plastic shelter lying at the base of a tan cliff in the early morning sunlight. Spattered with fragrant, dark soil, it nestled in the gentle upheaval. Rick would surely die after that battering. As it was, he lay bruised and barely breathing in the broken vehicle. The radio on her standard-issue wristband poured forth static.
She must find basecamp alone.
A vinelike structure already lay on top of the pod, seemingly to investigate the strange object. Had it been tossed up by the impact and fallen back down over the pod? Had it wilfully reached out? The treelike bodies that bounded the plateau and from which the vine seemed to emerge proved difficult to focus on, like a school of silver fish flitting in incomprehensible harmony, but here without movement. Everything felt so weighted down. A dull stream of water slumped away down the slope and disappeared in the shifting heaviness without a trickle.
This heaviness and indistinctness of shape contrasted with the vibrant euphony that pulsed all around. It was sound of piercing physicality, yet uplifting rather than overwhelming. Seventeen years of constant mechanical hum and repetitive conversation were washed away in the plenitude of natural sound. Enraptured, Noa sat dumbly down on something and closed her eyes, surrendering herself to pure experience.
A mellifluous whistle flowed about her in unbroken stream, suspending her in timeless, golden music. A lightly phrased buzz rose from low down, sent out to the sky. She could feel pulsing vibrations below the threshold of human comprehension. Infrequently, a swirling, thrushlike harmony of dozens of voices would begin abruptly then slowly rise before disappearing into the ethereal frequencies. Raucous burbling passed underneath her, nudging her this way and that. Birdlike melodies of every kind signaled a vast number of species. Her armhairs stood at attention for a soothing coo that sounded nearly human. A dry, staccato clacking reminded her of a village semantron, summoning her to ritual attention. She opened her eyes and blinked heavily.
Isolating a single thread of song, plucking it out of the tapestry, confused Noa, as if the phrases made no sense outside of the whole. The vinelike structure had advanced over the pod, she thought, though it was difficult to remember precisely where it had been before. All life exists by distinction. Her whole life had been spent parsing the information presented to her as a being from earth would. Here, she realized, the boundaries, the distinctions that provide meaning for the human mind, were radically different. She felt both misled and seduced by this new world.
She wanted to close her eyes again. A sudden smell of death and rot passed down from off the plateau behind her. Her stomach ached. That was her destination.
She had to reach the summit and rejoin the settlers, no matter her inchoate desire to give in and disappear into this new earth. The unanimous dedication that organized her life for two decades wavered before the seductive alterity here. The orange sun looked down at her from right above, allowing no privacy. She seemed to have shifted positions on the ground. She swore she’d been much closer to that cliff face, much farther from the impossible forest that pullulated with indistinct forms.
This cliff face couldn’t be surmounted, not just here. The vegetation ended abruptly before its base, as if forbidden from even touching the sheer rock. The emergency supplies in the pod did contain a certain length of rope but too little for this project. She was a novice climber, in any case. When choosing between the many exercise rooms on the ship, she’d always passed by the climbing gym in favour of the primal pains and pleasures found in the virtual trail running simulator. She’d run the Rockies, the Andes, the Himalayas. But now she, alone, had to find a path up the unknown cliffs of a plateau on a new earth.
In this instant of contemplation, she knew that Rick must be left behind. He should be safe for the moment. She still hadn’t distinguished so much as a bug-sized creature of any sort. The vegetation seemed to have no trails stamped into it by local life, which would hinder her movement but which also, she hoped, implied safety from predators.
As she stared at the cliff she saw an odd thing.
It appeared that some of the vegetation actually grew into and underneath the cliff as if subducted, for all the stalks or stems curled into the soil at that point. The vegetation, already where she sat a dark blue, became jet black near the tawny cliffs, then passed below the rock. A mass of dry reeds, segmented like horsetails, bent over and entered the soil, and it was their segments that finally gave to Noa a structure that she could comprehend.
The reeds, yes, were moving into the earth.
It was indisputably so. Three times she spat on a reed and watched as the saliva was slowly carried toward the cliff and sucked into the soil. Digging into the ground on the other end, she found no beginning to the reeds. Threads like fungal hyphae connected the reeds with the soil and with each other, then broke off upon breaching the topmost layers of soil. A brief arc into the air, no more than the length of Noa, then the reeds plunged back into the black, whose colour they’d acquired.
She tried to pull one reed up but it snapped at a segment joint, extruding a liquid the colour and texture of blood. It smelled foul. She vomited. She was spent. She stumped back to the pod, ate a tasteless ration, drank a liter of water, lay down on the soft humus downslope from the metal structure, and closed her eyes.
It must’ve been high noon. She wanted so badly to sleep but the sun was examining every inch of her. The full-spectrum lamps aboard the ship had tried to provide good light to the crew but it was the difference between a cheap plastic flower and a mature magnolia in full bloom. She could feel her body responding to the sunlight. Her skin delighted in its touch. Yet it also felt invasive, as if, having been hidden between stars for so long, her body now belonged to flat, artificial shiplight and fought against sunlight. Her head swam, and she didn’t fall asleep but fell unconscious.
Noa dreamt of colours she couldn’t understand and woke to the same. It was now night.
The world pulsed with reverential sound, as if night were the proper expression of this earth. She heard life in its simplicity though she didn’t understand it. She could barely recall any previous experience. She felt disembodied, now stripped of what identified her, now connected with life as a frog might be, with porous body breathing. The sun, while examining her, must have reached its fingers deep below her skin, since she felt an energetic heat inside that lifted her up and propelled her to begin, this instant, the search.
More than that: she felt she would find the path to the top. And it terrified her.
She knew herself, or thought she did, knew her strengths and inclinations. Two decades ago, they chose her due to a precocious capacity to see aesthetic patterns in the language of mathematics. This ability became, in her case, a deep appreciation for the complexities of the movement of physical bodies and the interactions between bodies in movement. The ascetic nature of spaceflight had encouraged her to think of the world in less aesthetic, more abstract terms, as it did with all the crew, despite a general atmosphere of collegiality. Though she had a tendency, when taking on a new project, to extended periods of seeming inactivity, these times of reflection usually meant a richer conclusion. She thought in the language of relativity.
Hence, she became a trusted navigational officer. Hence also, perhaps more than other people, she found it difficult to adjust to a world of stronger gravity than the one in which her intuitive sense of the relation of things was developed. Noa doubted her intuition.
So this release of doubt, which arose in her body without conscious will, brought forth a new fear of losing herself, her essential identity, to this pulsating, incomprehensible world. Even in the new strength of body and surety of direction, her mind whispered caution to her.
The visible world, here at night, had begun to take on form. The vast and shapeless day had been replaced by the luminescent night. Darkness revealed colours glowing like the tendrils of deep sea jellyfish.
There was no connection between sound and sight. The flickering red lights that crowned one patch of darkness didn’t produce the electric snaps that gilded the soundscape. The soft aqua pillows that cascaded downslope before her, the only things lighting the slope, didn’t produce the muted, wavelike drones that gave the world a sense of basso continuo. The cliff walls now contained deep ochres arranged in organic lines like spalting in wood, yet they stood silent, unless that distant, buried gurgling originated within them, but what does ochre have to do with gurgling?
As she looked about, she came upon the reflective harshness of the metal pod. Rick, she now remembered, was lying in there. Fighting the desire to run off and clamber up the plateau, she recalled her duty and, with shame, recalled how she’d intended to abandon him.
She ran to the pod, each footstep an aural wound in the perfection of sound. The vinelike structure glowed a light cream, and reached into the hatch. She knew for certain that it moved by itself, whatever it was.
“Rick!” she screamed, and her voice pushed back against all that surrounded her. She stepped inside. The body of Ricardo Quiroga sat up and turned to face her. His eyes glowed a light cream.
When is a body no longer a person? Rick crossed the threshold of life without witness. His mutilated form was now held up by a rigour alien to our dead. His hands and arms extended fully. His mouth gaped open and a trickle of leftover saliva dripped down in the pastel glow. Percussive thuds emanated from inside him like the pounding of an inmate behind an unyielding door. Shaking, his body turned this way and that as if uncertain of how to face Noa.
Noa crouched in the doorway, transfixed by the sight. She trembled with horror. Her hand slipped on a substance smeared on the pod walls. Falling into a puddle beneath Rick’s body, her nostrils filled with the common stench of death that everyone knows by instinct.
Rick kept turning, his body kept pounding. Noa’s presence had no effect on the scene. When his glowing eyes passed over her for the first time, she felt the universal thrill of being watched, but as he continued to rotate, as they passed over her again and again, this feeling dwindled. There was something harmless in the incompetent humanity on display.
Though she didn’t know why, it was patent that Rick’s body had been taken over by something from this world. It was possible that this something had killed him, though it was just as possible, she reasoned, that he died while she lay unconscious, and like any decomposing agent on earth this vine merely sought out an exploitable resource.
She took solace in abstraction.
Perhaps she’d already passed beyond care, here on this new earth.
After she tore Rick loose, after she dragged him out, after she dug with a scrap of metal a shallow grave for the companion she’d never known, Noa sat without sorrow on the dark earth and stared at the brilliant lights of the wilderness. They beckoned to her. She seemed to find patterns. Her body, full of the sun, spoke to her of a path that led down, through, across, up, then out onto the plateau. The corporeal vision ended with fulfillment.
Now, to accomplish the task, she needed understanding. She looked. The strength of gravity, she thought, must have influenced life on this planet to grow more horizontally than on earth. At least it seemed that there were more distinct strata to the world than back there. The quiet blues of groundlevel gave way to harsh yellows, than a variety of greens. The topmost layer of bright red light appeared closer than the one beneath, which had a deeper orange complexion. Such ideas only worked if one didn’t look too closely, she knew, for in fact the landscape was fantastically varied.
But tendencies could be observed. Soft pillows of aqua did still lead down from her to the impossible forest. Over the course of the night, they’d acquired a distinct pulse, as they brightened or dimmed in a gentle wave. Noa began to link in her mind the aqua light she saw and the sound of a creek she remembered. What’s more, she decided, this light bore some causal relation to her. Her body felt connected with it and it was good to follow.
It’s because of me, she thought, that this light is now flickering.
She stood up with ease and walked downslope into the illuminated darkness. The ground was growing softer and wetter with every step. By the time she reached the bottom, it was a swamp. Her sodden regulation boots weighed her down and were discarded. Her bare feet were reminded of the muck and pebbles of earth, which familiarity increased her desire to follow this route. When the aqua pillows stopped guiding her, she chose another colour to replace them and onwards into the night, so confident was she becoming. The path up could not be too far away.
The test of physical reality often let her down.
So she got along for the most part by touch. By bumping into things again and again, by feeling her way around them, by failing to understand yet struggling forward, she slowly began to grasp the logic of how these creatures were structured and how she could move through them. The textures were familiar as flesh, those sensations beyond words. Yet the forms seemed always to be in motion, never to be where she expected them to be, as if the world were continually conspiring to pull her chair from underneath her. The ripples caused by her walking were casting up reflections of all the lights, mutating their form and multiplying their number.
It was now her second dawn and she estimated that she’d walked roughly a mile, straight into the swamp. Her reason chided her about the idiocy of straying so far from the cliffs that were her goal, but in the continued absence of understanding this intuited route seemed justified. The night sounds died in the early morning. As she went crashing through the shifting forest and as the sun grew brighter, the lights dimmed. During this transition, the connections between phenomena became more certain.
A bobbing series of green lights revealed themselves to be the tips of bare, twitching branches on smooth, mobile treelike organisms with enormous openings, several to an individual. At the back of these mouths, if that’s what they were, a variety of iridescent yellows shimmered. A sound she’d taken as part of the breeze was actually these creatures slowly inhaling. The golden whistle was also associated with these beings, though precisely where or how the sound was produced she couldn’t tell. Their movement was slow, fluid, and individual. Though clustered in a large group, they didn’t seem to react to one another’s presence, much less Noa’s. In the daylight, they were a flat midnight blue.
It makes sense, she thought, that the impression of flickering I saw earlier was the result of parallax. Many other forms likewise took on shape.
The swamp was getting deeper and deeper. Soon she was up to her waist, then up to her chest. The occasional pit plunged her into the fragrant water. Still she trusted in this route.
Enormous, twisted shapes loomed over her like the fantastic buildings of a city of giants. On a whim, she clambered through one organic tube whose sides were dusted with phosphorescent powder and which contracted and relaxed in a sort of weak peristaltic motion that allowed her more than enough room. It was a brief respite, a moment of childish fun, and for the first time since the asteroid collision she smiled. Such moments give us perspective.
Noa, for the first time here, began to record voice notes on her wristband about what she’d experienced and observed to this point. But the mundanity of procedure galled her; the technological advances that led to such a wristband seemed like so many steps away from life. In reducing this planet to notes, she felt that she was lying.
Smiling, wishing to wash away the last remnant of the abstraction of spaceflight, she jumped back into the swamp and swam forward with eyes closed, her hands feeling her way ahead. She still moved by touch but now her bare feet floated in aqueous limbo, neither supported nor its opposite.
When at length she grew exhausted and had to put her feet down, it was noticeably shallower. Boulders began to be more common, many covered in a blood-red, oily slime, and the stench brought her back to her situation.
Finding one mostly bare rock, she climbed out of the water to check for parasites, but nothing on this world seemed to take any interest in her at all. Even the water, with the increased gravity, fell off more quickly than she felt it should. This slight uncanniness disturbed her deeply.
The absolute isolation of her situation struck Noa like the clapper of a bell. She hugged her knees and sat rocking. It was a long time before she got up.
Noa lifted her weary head to see a clearing in the dense swamp. The boulders were a causeway leading to the base of the plateau. What’s more, they were part of a rock field that led to the top. It would be treacherous but doable. Travelling away without care, she’d arrived at her goal.
The dark, shapeless groundcover where she’d landed the pod avoided these boulders as before. She perceived more than ever how perfectly the vegetation was subducted below the rock. The blood-red slime covering some of the rocks oozed from between the boulders, in parts forming deep puddles that Noa, with animal disgust, knew she must avoid. It was more prevalent on the causeway than in the swamp. The blushing air hung heavily over the boulders.
Across and up, she thought, across and up. Had she been honest with herself, she might have heard a quiet voice of disappointment that she must rejoin human society. The complexities of movement: she could choose to walk away. No one at basecamp suspected she was alive, most likely, so many others had crashed in the panicked descent.
On the balance lay loneliness against rapture. She thought of the vacuity she saw in the movement of the gasping, glowing, wandering trees, and chose to finish her quest, to clamber to basecamp.
The boulders lied to her vision. She was slipping and almost plunging into the oozing puddles of rancid blood. Resting didn’t help, for the miasma afforded her no comfort. So onwards she crawled like a pilgrim before her god. The rock, as she gained elevation, became softer; gurgling vibrations grew stronger.
White objects appeared in the puddles. Her breath caught. Noa fought against acknowledging to herself what these objects were, even as she felt the soft boulders begin to suck her into themselves.
When at last she crested the field, sinking all the while, she beheld no basecamp, but a vast and barren plain. She understood at once that every person who landed, everyone she knew, had been digested by a titanic being whose life made a desert of other lives. The giant absorbed Noa without haste.