The following is the opening ‘chapter’ to a piece of fiction I worked on back in December 2016 instead of a freelance gig. Sometimes you gotta beat writer’s block by writing about something completely different…
I should definitely be dead.
My memory of the event itself is fuzzy – a crackling sound, a strange wavelength of light in my peripheral vision, and a foreboding sense of doom. But only for a moment. Darkness enveloped me and I soon found myself floating. Floating and choking on nothing. The air my lungs could find offered nothing I needed, and fighting to stay conscious for more than half a minute took more effort than I had to give.
I don’t know how much time passed between my passing out and waking back up, but I do know something had to have happened to the atmosphere within the first couple of minutes – I’d be dead otherwise. It remains hard to breathe – the ratio of gases where I am clearly isn’t right, though it must be more accurate than when I arrived because I’m not blacking out again. Yet.
A luminous orb rests on a wall next to what I presume to be a door, though it evokes more of a memory of a submarine hatch. Round with some sort of spin-able dial inset in the middle. The orb emits a yellow shade of green, dimly illuminating the small room enclosing me.
I try to walk toward it, but find my feet aren’t on the ground. None of me is. I’m floating near the ceiling, my head awkwardly straining around my own body to get a better vantage point. My feet find a footing, and I push myself toward the door.
I pushed a little too hard. Pain rips through my arm – who knew the elbow was such a sensitive spot? [I had learned that long ago, but apparently needed reminding.] A rather loud “Fuck” leaves my lips and I sense a tear welling up in my left eye. Wiping it away, I orient myself directly in front of the orb. Inside the translucent casing are many small beads of light, slowly swirling around in some kind of fluid. Their movement is chaotic, but continuous. I reach my hand out to sense its temperature. Nothing. Either the casing is an excellent insulator or the light source inside isn’t generating much heat. Maybe it’s bioluminescence. My fingertips brush against the casing; this might be the smoothest thing I’ve ever felt.
I look around the room; there are no windows. No furniture. No shelves. Nothing but the occasional metal half-cylinder running along the walls suggesting there’s some sort of pipe buried beneath. There’s a sudden hiss of air; it slowly gets easier to breathe. My head turns to find the source of the newly-delivered oxygen. A small vent in the corner of the floor – or what I’ve arbitrarily decided to identify as the floor – looks promising. I push myself over, more carefully this time around. There’s nothing coming out of it, now, if anything had been in the first place.
Where the fuck am I? I whisper to myself. My lack of grounding implies one of two scenarios: in free fall, or in the void of space sufficiently far from any astronomical bodies. Well, that’s not true. There’s the third option that I’m dreaming, or that I’ve had a complete mental breakdown of some sort and am hallucinating. It feels real. But then again I’ve never had a proper hallucination before. If I had a window I’d be able to tell if I were in orbit somewhere. This certainly isn’t what the ISS looks like, but being there would explain the weightlessness. It doesn’t explain how I got here by any means, but I need to tackle one question at a time.
The light pulses briefly; I close my eyes and listen. There’s a sound I can’t identify – not the rumbling of an engine, but a whine. Very faint. Very high pitch. And it’s noticeably different than the tinnitus I get sometimes, so I know it’s not all in my head. I place my hand against the nearest wall – or maybe it’s the ceiling – to try and sense any vibrations.
There’s a sudden groan in the metal. I’m not sure how to explain it – a sound like it had been warped out of shape yet remained perfectly still. These senses aren’t getting me anywhere. I push myself back over to the door, attempt to brace myself against the reactionary force that’s about to come, and strongly knock.
In the silence of this chamber, the knock rings like a cathedral bell. I reposition myself and try again. Is anyone out there? I don’t know if I can hold the position long enough to perform the ‘shave and a haircut’ bit. Instead, I take a deep breath.
“Hello?” I call out. “Is someone there?”
I wait. No answer comes.
“Hello!?” I try louder.
Nothing happens for hours, which I only know because I managed to have my phone on me when I was deposited here. The battery’s run low – endlessly searching for a signal it couldn’t find – but I’ve still got about 40% left. Whatever that equates to in actual runtime I don’t know – I try not to ever let my phone get below 50. I’ve grown thirsty and hungry; I’ve grown frustrated. I’ve really got to pee. I tried fidgeting with the door to see if I could spin it open, but got nowhere. Staring at the inset spoked disk, attempting to invoke the Force, does nothing either.
I’ve really got to pee.
I mean really.
There’s nothing else I can do. I strip my pants and underwear off – tumbling head over feet in the attempt but luckily not bashing into anything – and use my pants to absorb the urine as it streams out. The last thing I need is a sphere of piss floating around and ending up in my face, so I choose the less disgusting of the two awful options. If I weren’t weightless this would be less of an issue – I’d just go in a corner and never venture back there for any other purpose. The only silver lining is I’m still a couple weeks away from having my period. Why is Bear Grylls the only human who addresses human waste in media? I mean, I know the answer – it’s gross and no one wants to watch someone trapped in a cell for days shit and piss in a corner because there’s no toilet, unless you’re Tom Hanks peeing into the ocean off a deserted island. Well, I have no ocean. No bucket. I’m stuck living with my own filth.
I slip my underwear back on and push the jeans toward a corner opposite the door. Hopefully they won’t float into me while I’m sleeping. Because that’s going to have to happen soon, too.
I’ve been alone with my own thoughts long enough to think about how long I have to live if I don’t get out of here. Assuming the air is being cycled so I don’t die of CO2 poisoning, or oxygen deprivation after that, it’ll be the lack of water that does me in. How long can the human body go without access to new water? A couple weeks? Max? Whatever it is, food’s the least of my problems at the moment.
I spend two hours looking at every nook and cranny in the room, trying to find some sort of escape route. There’s a panel by the light source that my fingers can’t pry off, because I’m a nail biter and what short nails I have aren’t strong enough to provide the necessary leverage. The air went slightly bad again at some point – bad in a way I couldn’t exactly tell. Maybe there was too much oxygen, but it’s settled back down to something my body likes.
When I wake from a ‘nap’ my phone is dead – it does that when it hits 27%, for reasons I never figured out. I don’t know how many hours have passed. My body must know it’s being starved of liquid because I haven’t had to revisit the pants quite yet. I need to get out. I return to knocking on the door and calling for help. No one comes to save me.
I lose all track of time. My body is too weak to do much other than push myself around; at least I don’t have to worry about pressure ulcers. I’ve slept a handful of times but can’t know for how long, other than the fact that I’m still alive.
I’m curled in a ball, crying dry tears as I think of the life I have beyond these walls. The words “why me” get mumbled through my cracking lips over and over. I beg; I plead; I pray. But no one comes to save me.
A loud grinding sound startles me. The dial on the door is gone, replaced with some sort of bulbous, mechanical insert. There’s a noise. Static – pulses of static. Pixels of light dance on a screen, nonsense, then grow to form some sort of hologram projected towards me. An amorphous blob full of different bioluminescent lights appears. The static pulses match a pulsing of its red lights.
This is an alien, I tell myself. I’m aboard an alien spaceship.
My mind is dulled, so I fight to sense a pattern in the data. I count pulses. 13. 17. 19. 23. They’re prime numbers. I push myself over to the hologram. The pulses pause; the red lights dim. Why have they kept me here? I ask myself, strangely lucid, Why haven’t they been able to figure out how to help me survive? They somehow figured the air out. I wonder if they determined the initial composition based on the air in my lungs – that would explain why it was hard to breathe in the beginning. Shouldn’t they also know that I’m two-thirds water? That I need that to live, too?
I need to tell them about water. They can count – can they understand pictures? I notice a sharp end of the metal inset; scraping my forearm against it, I draw blood. Very carefully – and regularly wincing – I paint. First, one large dot enclosed in a ring – a smaller dot on that ring. Next, a cluster of eight dots and eight open circles of similar size, enclosed in two rings – two small dots on the inner, four on the outer. I repeat the first set, then draw lines connecting them. A water molecule.
The blob moves toward my blood painting – the colors shift in brightness and density for a moment. The static returns, but in a pattern I can’t discern. It just sounds like white noise, now. Suddenly, the hologram disappears. The metal insert retracts from the door, and the dial returns.
Understand, I beg silently as I drift back off to sleep, unsure if I’ll awake.
I do, but the aliens have not returned. The room is dark – the orb at the wall dimmer than usual. Or maybe my eyesight’s failing; I don’t know the body’s responses to death by dehydration. High school bio doesn’t really get into that. I huddle by the orb pretending it has warmth, a chill running through my veins as I feel my body falling to pieces.
I spend an eternity there before the dial opens again. The insert looks different this time – there’s a round case, metallic. I grab it, but it’s far weaker than I thought it’d be – like aluminum foil. The case pierced, a clear liquid shoots out.
I hold the container against my mouth and squeeze. I almost don’t remember how to swallow. After every last drop of that is gone I hunt for the stray globules of water floating in the room. I need more.
More water comes, periodically. I can’t know if it’s every hour, but alone with my own thoughts that’s how long it feels. Eleven times it comes before the hologram returns. The blob pulses at me, but I can’t understand. While both our species can understand the fundamental building blocks of matter, and the fundamental rules of mathematics, that’s where it ends. And I’m not enough of a linguist to be able to communicate with them. I need to tell them I need food, but those chemical compounds are too complex. I don’t remember the exact structure for glucose, let alone any but the simplest amino acid. They deposited a case of a thick navy liquid prior to inserting the hologram – an ink so I don’t need to bleed again. I didn’t think before touching it – it could have been toxic – but luckily my finger suffered no ill consequences.
Binary, I think to myself. It’s the only math base I can assume they’re familiar with. Zero and One. On and Off. I write out a series of prime numbers with dots and vertical dashes. 1: |, 2: |•, 3: ||, 5: |•|, 7: |||, 11: |•||. When I reach 17 the hologram flashes a brighter light, and I stop, assuming that means they understand. I push myself over to the water molecule and write | |••• |. Several moments later, another bright red flash. My stomach grumbles audibly; why can’t I remember glucose? C6H12O6, cyclic, but I don’t remember where the oxygens go relative to one another.
If I had been a chemist – an organic chemist – this would have gone much easier. Instead I studied space. I studied physics. I know about CHNOPS but not enough to help me get nutrients.
I write |•|| |•••|. That’s a chemical compound I know my body can use, but it won’t do too much good if I can’t tell them anything else I need. The hologram deactivates, and several hours later I’m delivered a fist-sized crystal of sodium chloride. Great. Now I have a salt lick.
I’ve had enough time to realize they’ve locked me in here for my own safety; their air is deadly, though I don’t know the gases or their ratios. It must also be why they never enter. That, and the possibility I’ve got some sort of bug that’ll wipe them all out. Or something in my body could harm them. While I wait for further communication, I wish I could remember the pulsar map from Voyager’s golden record, displaying the location of Earth’s solar system. Then I’d at least have a chance of getting back home. All this information I’ve come across that turns out to be vital to my survival, never properly stored…
I’ve started marking when I sleep, as if it’s going to help me better register the passage of time. Small ticks on a wall slowly accumulate. The hologram doesn’t visit often; when it does, it gives me pulses in binary using colors – red and green – and I write them down, but they mean nothing. If they correspond to elements, I don’t know if they’re saying that’s what they need to survive, like I’ve been trying to do. They don’t appear to be formulas I recognize – the molecules are too complex. They might be carbon-based life forms, given the number of 6’s they report in their strings, but their shape isn’t reminiscent of anything we’ve got on Earth. Not even those alien-acting octopodes.
I think they’re as frustrated with me as I am with myself. They continue to deliver the water at what seem to be regular intervals while I’m awake, and they’ve given me receptacles to remove my waste, but they haven’t figured out my dietary needs. My body aches as it consumes itself. The effects of this weightless environment are taking their toll. If I ever return to Earth I’d probably be incapable of standing, bones breaking with relative ease, not to mention my heart failing to pump if I do anything but lay down.
There are 38 ticks on the wall. It doesn’t necessarily mean 38 days have passed, but I assume I’ve been stuck in this alien chamber for a month. A month slowly creeping toward death. The holograms have stopped coming. They know I can’t understand them. Between ticks 14 and 15 they sent a probe that punched a small chunk of my flesh out – a biopsy of sorts, I assume – but that never yielded anything.
I don’t remember the last time I spoke aloud. In this silence, my own thoughts appear no different than verbal speech. I remember trying to give them my name. They never did attempt to mimic sounds – just pulses in static. I spelt out my name in chemical elements, well aware that they wouldn’t have the same symbols, let alone names for them. |••••• |•••• |||• |•|••, 32 16 14 20, Ge S Si Ca. It’s as close as I can get; much to my eternal annoyance, there’s no J on the Periodic Table. I can’t spell my last name, either. What were my parents thinking? I stare at those numbers every once in a while, in an attempt to remind myself of who I was before I became this pathetic creature. On another wall I used the rest of my ink to doodle. An attempt to keep sane. Geometric patterns, including a Fibonacci spiral in a small attempt to show the aliens I grasped that simple mathematic relationship. Plants, all the while wondering what life on their home planet looked like. What their home planet looked like. I painted Earth, with continents only vaguely accurate. And I tried my hand at the usual fandom symbols. The Stargate symbol for Earth, the Star Trek delta, a TARDIS. I ran out of paint while trying to write my signature; the “a” is there only through force of will.
I think I’m sleeping for even longer now – my body’s trying to conserve energy. It’s difficult to register the world around me. Every once in a while that whining returns.
It’s tick 41 when I feel a noticeable rumble; the entire room shakes ever so slightly and I find myself drifting toward the door without any input on my part. A few seconds later I hit the door, then find myself colliding with the wall near the corner and bouncing back to the opposite wall.
The room is turning.
I’m pushed against the wall opposite the door, or should I say slammed. Those old soiled pants of mine – though long dried, horribly smelling – barely miss me as they, too, crash into the metal. We’re accelerating in a way I haven’t felt before. I’m not pinned, but I’m too tired, too weak to try and move.
The room crashes against something outside; my only source of light falls from its resting place and falls dark. I hit the door, both hearing and feeling several cracks. How many bones are broken, I can’t tell. It feels like all of them.
There’s a grinding sound from beyond the wall. Metal creaking. I’ve clearly crashed into something. Did my alien keepers deposit me into the void of space, tired of taking care of me? Am I sitting in some sort of interstellar junkyard?
Floating and broken, my mind flashes back to my arrival in this room. I yet again conclude it’s a miracle I survived this long. I fell through some sort of rip in space and landed inside a craft – not in the vast nothingness of the universe. I should have appeared in the vast nothingness of the universe, and died within a couple of minutes of hypoxia. The odds of my appearing inside this room – any room – are so barely above zero that, to get my result, it would take more tries than there is time for in the age of the universe. Billions of universes, probably. Space is so big.
I don’t have any longer to think, as I find myself blinded and falling. The door that had never opened finally did, and I fell through as if gravity had suddenly turned on. I hit a floor – I can actually call this a floor – and learn I had more bones to break, after all.
With my eyes barely open I can see more flashing red lights. I thought I left those behind when the alien ship abandoned me. But there’s a siren, too. A klaxon that pulses with the light, instead of static.
I hear screaming voices, but my mind won’t find any words amongst them. There’s only one I can hear. A repeating series of numbers in a lifeless voice, barely louder than the pulses and shouting.
“Thirty-two, sixteen, fourteen, twenty.”