Monday, July 25, 2011

FICTION: Forbidden Tundra By Joe Jablonski

Home is a habitation complex just along the equator of Glasus X, a planet spanning tundra free of all complex life where water flows in great oceans far below the surface and perpetual thoughts of isolation sooth the soul.

I step from the exploration rover into the early morning twilight feeling completely saturated by the emptiness of this place. Rays from a Blue Giant stretch far across the desolate landscape from the over the horizon bathing everything in a flood of blue light. I squint against the dull intensity. A quick adjustment to the lens filters on my glasses balances the spectrum into something a tad more tolerable and I take in the all too familiar sight with a deep yawn.

I’ve been living on this planet with Jonah coming on six months now. Our purpose for being here is to drill through the ice and drop probes beneath to the liquid oceans far below for signs of complex life. It’s our hope to one day set up a self-sustaining colony here. We got the water. All we need is the food supply. Through the magic of tidal pull, duel moons put enough stress on this planet to keep the core molten. This is how a planet on the far reaches of this systems habitable zone can retain liquid water. And where there is water, there is life…or so they tell us.

Sixty miles out from base camp we’re now crouched around a freshly drilled hole. The heated drill bit of our rover looms just above us, it tip still glowing white hot. Residual steam vapors cloud the air. Across from the hole, a small red flag we planted to mark this location flaps wildly in an unrelenting wind. I can’t stop shivering.

Jonah pulls out of the last of the days’ probes from a case sitting next to him and flips a switch on the side. The foot long, bullet shaped device hums to life as a hundred microscopic sensors and two duel-action cameras begin processing information.

“Ready?” says Jonah.

I hold a finger as I wait for my computer to boot. When it does, I place it on the ground next to me and say, “Alright, let’s do it.”

We each grab a handle with both hands. We have to do this quick before the holes’ opening freezes back over. When we have it stabilized tip down over the center of the hole, I count down from three.

At zero we let go simultaneously and watch as the probe quick cuts through the water, turning from object to speck to nothing in a matter of seconds. When it’s out of sight, I notice the water on the surface is already forming a thin layer of ice under the frigid temperature.

“I’ll finish up here, get the rover ready,” I say as I check a monitor now half buried in snow to make sure the connection to the probe is secure. So far, signal and readings all look good.

My stomach growls as my fingers quickly dance across the screen from display to display. With our work done, all I can think of is breakfast. Reprocess and freeze dried vacu-food, here I come. It’s funny the things you can get used to when you have no other options.

Besides me, Jonah struggles to stand. Wearing six inches of cold suppressing material, getting up is a near impossibility, but eventually he manages.

Once vertical he turns to make his way back to the rover. “Shit,” he yells, jumping back a foot.

I look up at the motion and my eyes go wide. Just feet behind where we were working, a life sized ice sculpture of Jonah, crouched down and holding the probe, sat motionless in perfect detail.

They are getting better.

The only form of life we know about on this planet are tiny microbes which live just below the surface. Collectively they have the ability to form and manipulate sections of the ice pack at will. When we first arrived it started with simple geometric shapes: square crates, collection cylinders, nuts and bolts, etc. Impressive as it was we quickly learned it’s only a form of imitation, without thought, without consciousness. They only replicate what’s around them, nothing of their own original design.

Over time, the objects they mimicked slowly became more and more complex, a new one sprouting every few days or so.

I look from the statue to Jonah and back again.

“Would you look at that,” says Jonah with wonder. “I’ve never seen one form that fast.”

“I can’t believe how much it looks like you. Have you ever seen them mimic a person before?”

“You know I would have said something if I had.” The microbes’ creations are a regular subject of conversation on a planet for two who were always together. “You know, he is a handsome fellow. Maybe, we could drag it back and place it in the living quarters,” says Jonah with a laugh. “Then you’ll have the pleasure of looking at me even when I’m not around.

“Oh joy,” I say sarcastically.

It does nothing to squelch his laughter.

Two more months and I’m off this rock, I have to remind myself as I make my way to the rover.


It’s Sunday.

We’re sitting back to back in the cramped control room of the habitation complex. Monitors, hard drives, speaker, headsets, sonar and tangled wires surround us on all sides. We’re supposed to be cataloging all information sent to us by the probes over the past week. In theory, this place should be a bustled of incoming information and activity where we work feverishly day and night just to keep up with the overabundant of data sent from the probes...

Instead, I simply type ‘no new discoveries’ into the log and the subterfuge of productivity is complete.

“I received a transmission from Linda this morning,” says Jonah from his position behind a desktop. Because of such long delay between here and the nearest habitable planet it’s his first in for months. News and information comes slow to these here parts.

“Oh yeah. How’s she doing?” I say as I swivel.

“Pregnancy is going well.” By the look on his face I can’t tell he’s holding something back.

“Ok, ok, what is it?”

“Well… It’s a girl,” he says quickly as if the words couldn’t come fast enough.

“That’s great, man. Just what you wanted. But…I fear I must confess something,” I say with mock concern. “I don’t know how to tell you this but, the baby, well…it’s not yours…it’s mine.”

“Get bent,” Jonah says throwing a mouse pad at me.

As I laugh a loud ping from the sonar goes off.

“Did you hear that?” I say.


Another ping.

We both hold our breaths as we hope/pray for another. The room is completely silent the way the vacuum of space in silent. Our eyes are glued to the sonar screen.

Five seconds go by.

Another ping. A large red form flashes on the sonar screen as the cursor makes its eternal rounds.

“Find which probe that’s coming from, bring online all sensors.” After so long with nothing, the anticipation of finding something is overwhelming.

Jonah quickly narrows the signal to probe 378.98, and directs all its sensors to our equipment with the press of a few buttons. It’s from one of the first we sent below in those early days.

Another ping.

The speakers come online playing a symphony of the deep. Then, over the static crackling, and low rump of depth, a call bellows to the point of being deafening. It sounds something like a dolphin having a seizure. More and more of the strange calls come in succession. The sonar screen becomes leprous.

“Good God, there’s an entire school of them down there,” I yell over the cacophony. I doubt Jonah can hear me.

I turn down the volume against the audio assault and we turn our attention to monitors. Hopefully, at least one of the two cameras on the probe is still transmitting.

On the screens, a thousand tiny organisms float calmly, oblivious to the illumination of the probes light source. They appear as white flecks against a sheet of darkness. Besides a little bubble here, a little bubble there, this is all we see.

It’s the only scene for a few agonizing hours. That flashing red cursor in the bottom left hand corner of the screen means the any second the power saver function built into the probe will cut off everything but sonar. We won’t be able to go back online for twenty four hours.

A shadowy form comes into the light. It’s too big make out as anything but a grey mass. As it leaves view of the camera, my head and eyes follow it off screen as if the angle of my head could somehow let me see past the range of the cameras feed. I realize how stupid I look even as I continue to squint in vein trying to accomplish the impossible.

Seconds later, the screen dies.

“Damn it,” Jonah says as he smacks the monitor.

A long silence hangs in the room.

“I got an idea. Let’s go catch one of those bastards,” I say jumping to my feet.

“We can’t, procedure dictates—”

“I don’t care what procedure dictate, I’ve be pent up here too. Come on, it’s time for a little fun.”

Jonah chuckles. “Alright, let’s do it.”


Jonah fishtail’s the exploration rover into position just feet from the small flag marking probe 378.98. The drive had been two and a half hours of giddy anticipation of the hunt to come. Finally we’re here and I don’t hesitate jumping from the vehicle and unloading dusty and previously unused equipment from the aft storage chamber.

Jonah jumps on the controls of the ice drill resting on top on the craft and begins plowing its heated tip deep into the ice pack.

In my eager concentration, my brain sees but fails to truly process what’s happening just below the surface of the ice. Colors flow across the tundra as if infused by the northern lights.

The drill completes its task in minutes. The moment it’s back out of the hole, I run over to its edge carrying a coiled length of pyro-cord.

“Move the rover back,” I call to Jonah as I lower the cord into the hole.

He complies without a word.

Twelve feet from the hole is the pyro-cords’ minimum safe distance. We move back to fifteen and, holding my breath, I hit the igniter switch on the remote detonator.

The cord ignites forming mile deep pillar of heat and flames. The ground quakes violently all around us yet we still can’t take our eyes of the sheer beauty of the sight. Below the ice, past the abnormal aurora, the inferno burns in a raging cyclone as it boils the water within causing the drilled hole to expand wider and wider. The heat of it on the exposed areas of our faces is overwhelming.

Still we watch.

The fire dissipates just as suddenly as it erupted. Left in its wake is a hole (if the pyro-cords instruction manual is correct) twenty-seven feet in diameter. A barrage of bubbles steadily rise to the surface.

“Badass,” is the only word I can manage. My heart beats rhythms on my ribcage and adrenaline floods my system.

Beside me, Jonah has been apparently amazed into paralysis, his gapping mouth frozen in time.

I snap my fingers inches from his face. He snaps out of it with a smiling and says, “We should have done that long ago.”

I nod in agreement.

Next, Jonah lowers a long line into the water, its end connected to a harpoon with a motion sensor on the tip and a propulsion system on the rear.

When it reaches the depths it takes mere minutes to get a strike. The 6,000 pound test fishing line goes taught and begins to stretch.

On impact, three prongs are quickly ejected from the harpoon sinking deep into the flesh of whatever it just hit. Nothing short of the removal of all tissue and bone surrounding those prongs will ever get it out now.

I know all this from the training class.

“Well, that was easier than expected,” says Jonah.

“We don’t have it yet.”

Under the strain of the creatures’ pull, our rover begins to slide forward very slowly. I run over and hit the switch for the stabilizer and a spike at each corner of the vehicle unfolds and lowers where they puncture deep into the ice.

Once steady, I grab the controls of a winch bolted to the side of the massive rover and begin pulling our epileptic prey to the surface.

The ice around us begins to ungulate. Crude shapes from the microbes are rapidly gaining and losing consistency in every direction.

My only thought is on my prey.

Jonah takes three steps back from his position next to me. “Uh, Selkirk, I think you need to see this.”

“Not now.”

“Selkirk, just fucking look,” he yells at me.

His finger points and my eyes follow.

Next to him, two figures lay on the ground, the only two sculptures to remain static among all the others.

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Don’t you see it, it’s us. Look closer.”

And look closer I do. A cold chill runs down my spine at the sight. The feeling of dread is overwhelming. It’s us alright, in full, graphic detail. We’re staring up and the sky with lifeless eyes. Jonah’s is missing a couple of limbs. Mine is completely eviscerated with the jaw tore open. Even faux blood splatter has been formed.

The line with our hooked prey begins screeching and I quickly push it away all other concerns. After so long out here with nothing to show for it I need to catch this thing, if only to lull my own sense of uselessness. “Just ignore it, it’s nothing,” I tell him.

“Don’t blow this off, Selkirk. Look around you, they’re getting agitated. I think this is a warning. Just drop the line and let’s gets out of here, ok.”

I stare at him incredulously, “You yourself said they have no intelligence, that they only mimic what’s around them.”

“Do you fucking see our mangled dead bodies around them?”

“I don’t care,” I yell back at him. “I’m doing this.” Short only a ship, I am Ahab.

“I’m releasing the line, Selkirk,” say Jonah, his voice all business.

I get up to stop him as he runs for the winch controls but a series of loud popping sounds halts any forward progress.

The stabilizers of the rover are ripped free, sending the large vehicle on its side and sliding towards the hole. Jonah barely dodges free from its path. The ice where the stabilizers were buried wasn’t ripped free, it was simply not there.

The rover comes to a stop just inches from the edge of the hole. I watch with amazement as the ice forms a sharp blade, cutting the line free with ease.

All the sifting shapes in the ice melt away to nothing, and with them go the colors within.

Jonah is still lying on the ground. “I told you to let it go. Look at the rover, how the hell are we supposed to get back. I can’t believe—”

Whatever Jonah can’t believe is never meant to be voice. A spider-web of cracks form beneath the rover and extend to his position. He looks at them with the fear of a man who knows his fate.

Too quickly a hole opens up beneath him and he falls in up his chest. His arms are outstretched across the ice grasping for a hold that wasn’t there, his face a mask of panic as water rushes into the crack.

Our eyes meet. “Selkirk, help me,” he yells.

More cracks begin to surround him spanning twenty feet out in all directions. They look like they could go any second. I want to help by fear keeps me immobile.

Did I mention I’m a complete coward?

“Please, Selkirk, help me. It’s so cold. I don’t want to die.”

Still, I don’t move. Tears are pouring down my face.

“Please, I just want to see Linda and my daughter, I just want to get of this planet.”

Mention of his daughter is enough for me. I grew up without a father, and it’s a loss I’ve felt my entire life.

The ice plate begins to tilt as I run for him. I dive for his hands just as he loses his grip, but I’m too late. His eyes go wide the moment he realizes he’s passed the point of no return. I watch as he turns from object to speck to nothing in seconds.

My blind obsession and cowardice caused his death. For a moment it doesn’t even seem real.

The ice plate I’m lying on soon levels out and stabilizes as the cracks around me refreeze. The microbes below reform the icepack and, completely ignoring me, smooth it out to perfection. You couldn’t ever tell that only moments ago I lost my best friend to the deep abyss in this exact spot.

I find no comfort in my own reprieve, only shame.


I can’t tell you how long I sat in that spot with a single thought going through my mind. I should have reacted sooner.

Finally, I will myself back up and take a look around at my surroundings: the rovers gone, the hole is gone, the flag is gone, Jonah’s gone; my sanity’s gone. Nothing will ever be normal again.

I check the compass attached to my sleeve and find the direction to base camp. Only one purpose drives me now; I have to stop the colony from being built here. I can’t let something like this happen to anyone else.

Maybe that’s the reason the microbes spared me—a tragedy to prevent a tragedy. They could have killed us both, but they didn’t. Jonah was wrong about their lack of intelligence. They have a full grasp of the situation. They were content to let be us as long as we remained harmless.

But try and kill one of theirs…I’ve lived the consequences.


I walk for hours, my eyes downturned with every step.

Then, something gleaming to my left catches my attention. I look over to see an ice sculpture of Jonah in his last seconds before going under. It’s little more than arms and a head, his face accurately portrays the sheer terror of those last moments.

I quickly look away, but where I do, there’s another one.

Then another.

Panic and regret begin eating me up inside.

Then another.

I’m on the verge of a breakdown. There’s nowhere else to look, the same statue of Jonah is everywhere. There must be hundreds of them scattered across the plane. It seems they won’t let me forget my new purpose.

Breaking down to tears, I take off running with arms aflailin’. Even at full stride, it takes the longest and loneliest hours of my life to reach the habitation complex.

I make a connection off planet to my superiors the second I get inside, starting my report with the words: “Jonah’s been killed. It should have been me.”

It will be another month and a half until I hear anything back.

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