September 27, 2020

The Strand

posted on: Friday March 6, 2020

An astronaut with a digital clock reading "0:05" reflected in his helmet

Photos courtesy of flickr.com and pexels.com.

by Jay Willett ’20

When they sent me here, they didn’t expect me to survive. The atmosphere is too heavy to breathe, the water’s too thick to drink, the vegetation too poisonous. A mist of emerald encompasses the air between the canyon and the ship—I had to wait for the cloud to pass before venturing back outside. Vibrations reverberated throughout, clanging the metal against the limestone it was leaning on. I was surprised that the S.S. Oblivia held up upon crash landing. It did nothing but scuff the red and blue paint of the NASA logo. Gas was sizzling by, shrouding my view through the only circular window in the ship. The dashboard had an analog counter on it, which detailed how many hours the ship’s oxygen would last. The number had dropped into the single digits last night. 

Pushing the red labeled “Emergency Exit” open led me into the ravine. Today I would make the annoying trek across to the lake. Most of the filtering technology was damaged in the crash, but Memphis worked his magic and scraped together a couple of working canisters. He explained to the group that the natural water here is drinkable if we remove the Arsenic and diluted the density of the liquid. I suggested we just boil it instead. Everyone snickered at that. This would probably be my last run for water. Even if it’s just me, the fresh water could only last maybe a day or two, but at least I wouldn’t die of dehydration. Although I’m not sure suffocation is much better. It’s times like this where I missed Memphis. He’d come up with a solution.

Strapping the empty canister on my back, I watched my step as I descended from where the Oblivia was lodged. My suit had about 34% battery left, enough to make a round trip without any breaks. I tapped the wrist nav, and the screen blipped on, illuminating my tired face with the orange arrows, pointing towards my destination. I’ve made this trip plenty of times, but the terrain kept changing, so it was hard to remember by memory. Yesterday there was a river of acid that stretched at the basin, but a landslide filled the gap overnight. Now the acid had pooled into mini lakes that I had to jump over. It wasn’t difficult considering the gravity was lighter than Earth’s—something like -4m/s^2? Memphis always loved to explain this stuff to us, but none of it really stuck with me. A habitual creature at heart, as long as I was told what to do, I’d do it. 

Finally, at the end of the canyon was the entrance to the forest, the Shimogaki forest. Trevor named it after Sakura’s last name after she fell tripping over a root. Her helmet cracked and the gas flooded in. It was tough to watch. Lifting my legs to dodge the overgrowth was the least of my problems though—the clearing ahead would be my final obstacle before arriving at the lake. We called it the den, where our one and only predator lived. In terms of food, we had managed to ration the freeze-dried packets we found on Oblivia. It wasn’t tasty, but it’s not like there was any other life here to hunt, or vegetables to pick, let alone eat. The only thing that dwelled her besides us— 

“HHHHERRRRRRR,” it growled from across the clearing. The flash of the scales blinded me; I activated the UV shade on my helmet. Humans couldn’t look at it, not with the naked eye at least. One claw scratch from it was all it would take; the radiation emitting from under its skin was enough to do it in an instant. We called it a predator, but honestly, I don’t think it eats meat, or anything for that matter. It doesn’t move unless provoked or threatened of its territory, and it just lays in the sun soaking up the rays. Approximately 20 feet long and 10 feet tall, the creature loomed over me like I was a pebble in its path. I fired the flare, the one that Memphis invented after it tore apart the others. The projectile flew meters above the lizard’s head. It steamed heat at the familiar object. Instantly the sky grew dark. I switched from UV to night-vision and made a break for it under its legs. All light was sucked in, it wailed in torment as it was robbed of its comfort. I didn’t have a void flare for the way back, though. I’d have to get crafty.

The Lake of Shadows laid in front of me. I named this one. The arsenic tinted the water a foreboding gray. After the Oblivia’s supply ran dry, I thought we were done for, but Memphis was convinced that this muck could be drinkable under the right circumstances. I lowered the canister under the surface, letting the solution leak into the filtering chamber. 

“Still using that thing, huh?” Trevor said from behind me. I turned my head without lifting the cylinder. 

“Oh?” I cooed, “you’re still alive? Thought the gas would’ve done you in by now.” Trevor chuckled, sitting in the shallows and dipping his feet in the poison. He left a couple of days ago, officially putting me on my own. He said he’d rather die out in the wilderness than in a prison. 

“Me too,” he said. I pulled the filled canister up onto the shore, resting it between the two of us. It would take an hour or so for it to finish filtering. We both were staring at the setting sun, distinct from the sun we knew from home with its blue blaze. Trevor tapped the top of his helmet.

“You ever think about it?”

“Hm?” I looked over to him. “think ‘bout what?”

“You know—how it’ll end?” I guess I never thought about the end. I just kind of figured it would happen. I guess dehydration’s out of the picture, but everything else was still on the table. We weren’t expected to live this long. NASA sent us here, us prisoners of five, to test the living elements of the Strand. We weren’t human to them anymore, just monkeys they could send into space. The government called it a “more ethical capital punishment,” but I couldn’t really see how. 

“I don’t know,” I responded, “but this is nice, isn’t it?” I pointed to the sunset; the cerulean beams were refracting off the bleak surface. The green clouds were pierced by the light, like heaven had split apart to let us in. Trevor chuckled again. 

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

 

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