This is the eighth in a series of posts featuring speculative flash fiction in translation. The series highlights both new and established spec fic writers from around the world.
Alessandra Cristallini is the mind behind the blog Fragments of a Hologram Dystopia (bilingual page / English only page), a sci-fi blog where she collects pictures and posts short stories and reviews. She is a translator and has published two short stories for the charity event Penny Steampunk. The short story I Piloti Non Sanguinano (“Pilots don’t bleed“) which she co-wrote with Andrea Pomes has been included in the “special mention” list at the reveal of the shortlist for the Urania Short Award. She loves cats, tea and untranslatable grammar jokes.
“The Rivers of Deneb – 763” by Alessandra Cristallini, translated by the author
My name is Juan Cortazar, and I am a geologist. I graduated at the university of New Berkeley on Earth 5 or, as we used to call it, Arcadia. There was something hopeful in all those names…. Springtime, Arcadia, Lilyflower… if only we knew. Ah, but I digress.
It’s not easy for me to write this letter, especially knowing it might be my very last message. I don’t know if anyone will ever find it, and deep in my heart I hope nobody will, because it would mean that humanity has wisely decided to forget about this small planet. But I don’t dare hope that much.
I arrived on Deneb – 763 three months ago as a member of a research team. According to the Chang-Oak terraforming standards, Deneb is classified as a G-2A planet, a bureaucratic way to describe small, volcanic planets, unstable but rich in mining resources.
Teams like mine were supposed to find out what else could be found that was valuable and worth exploiting, besides the ellerio veins. The first mining stations, fully automated, had already been built and had started to generate a profit, which was why we had no lack of good equipment and suits.
The landscape of Deneb could have been described as the most unimaginative hell: lava rivers, high temperatures and unbreathable air. Mining stations clinged on a mountain range in the northern hemisphere, where temperatures were low enough not to interfere with the machinery. You could stick your head out of the mining buildings and gaze at the plains with their lava bogs, and stare at the flow of the wonderful ribbon-like red and yellow rivers. Wonderful as long as we could look at them from a distance, and there wasn’t much enthusiasm in the group when we were ordered to pass next to them. Our goal was to reach a second mountain range, with its sharp peaks upon which no one of our vehicles could possibly land. So we coasted the plains, and so the problems started.
The first one to disappear was Johannes. And when I say disappear, I really mean it. On the morning of the fourth day, we woke up and realized he had vanished. We slept in two thermal tents, and his tentmates were as surprised as we were. No one had heard him get up, and there were no signs of a fight. Only his helmet remained, which was why we had to assume he was dead. Everyone thought about suicide, but no one said anything. On the following days we stared at the lava rivers as if we were waiting for Johannes to resurface from one of them like a swimmer. I know it sounds absurd, but try to walk in a place like this for days…
When we lost Yong we all thought about a malfunction in his suit, a damage or a tear that had forced him to breathe the planet’s air, resulting in some kind of poisoning. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that he decided, all out of a sudden, to remove his helmet and dive into the next lava river before anyone could stop him? I remember the unreal silence that followed his action very well. We looked at each other as if we were expecting any of the others to just follow him. Yong and Johannes were good friends, but no one expected such a thing. We decided to start keeping watch at night, which didn’t stop Chandrasekra from disappearing during her turn, like Johannes. You can imagine how nervous and scared we were. So we decided to go back, it was just the three of us now, and even if we had reached the mountain range as planned, we still would have needed to pass next to the plains to come back. We walked for three days, and now I am alone. By observing my teammates I noticed a real obsession for the lava rivers in their eyes. The night before her crazy gesture, Martinez talked in her sleep, and she kept saying “I must reach them, they’re over there”. I came to the conclusion that there was a gas that could slowly corrode the suit, thus allowing some other fumes to pass. No suit had ever signaled a malfunction during the last two weeks. I refused to come up with another theory until I saw them. I know it feels absurd, I do, but there’s something in the lava. Someone. They look like those optical illusions you can notice only if you look at them closely, and then you can see a 3D image sprouting out of what looks like random lines. And if I look at the lava, they’re there to watch me back. It seems they’re taking to me, but I don’t want to take off my helmet. It’s obvious by now that I am looking at some unique life form, capable not only of living but also of thriving in similar conditions. I am starting to understand my teammates’ madness, because it really feels like they’re trying to communicate, they’re calling us. I don’t know their intentions, I don’t know if they’re like mermaids who lure us to kill us, but I doubt they need us to eat or they would have faced extinction a long time ago, considering we haven’t seen any other life forms yet. I am a geologist, and I can’t tell much about these creatures. I don’t know what they eat, how they reproduce, if they have natural predators. I only know they’re there. And sometimes I think I see human faces among the aliens’, the only faces that have human features, together with the lava creatures. Could it be that Johannes, Yong and the others aren’t really dead, but… could they be guests of these creatures? Could they have changed state, like water going from solid to liquid? Humanity has met strange creatures on other planets, but we have never seem sentient species like this one. I couldn’t care less about the glory of the discovery, I just want to leave as soon as I can. I have three days’ worth of travel before I can reach the mines, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to resist the creatures’ call, so I am sending this message hoping it reaches the mines’ archives. Considering the distance it should work. It should.
geologist, Ephestus VII mission