By Matthew Allen Garcia
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"Et uso en Arkana," Moltos says, the glare from the Red Sun such that even he has to reach out a charred, club-like paw to blot it out from the pits of his eyes. Arkana comes.
It takes me a moment to realize that I understood him, although the understanding is delayed and vague, as if distorted by the heat. His words are still alien to me and yet somehow familiar, like I've heard them many times before. I am uncertain whether or not this is a symptom of isolation, if I am becoming more like Cyrus every day.
I stare at him for a moment, gaze up at the Sun, its sickly red-orange pallor like that of an infected burn, swirls of black and orange rising to the surface and then being consumed. Its flares flash white, nearly blinding me--it has been more violent as of late.
The dying Red Giant is so large now it blots out half the sky, and the world beneath is a shadow of what it wants was--I've read records, seen picture logs.
Even through the suit I feel a tinge of the Sun's warmth. It reminds me that every day could be the last. And it is that...that it doesn't scare me as much as it should that really scares me.
Crackling from my radio startles me.
"Samantha, Samantha!" It's Cyrus. Judging by the position of our shadows, it's time for our launch. Another fucking capsule, I think, another fucking day. "It's time! It's time!"
I ignore him.
"Arkana," I say back. That's the word Moltos used. I say it again, tasting it. It is the only word that doesn't come through in my language, which tells me it is foreign, something that does not exist on Earth.
Moltos just stands there, watching me. He's the only one of his kind who follows me, talking to me in his rumbling voice, like rocks rolling over a rough surface. His name, the name I've given him, is due to the molting pattern of his rock-like skin. Even as we stand there I can see a fresh layer shinning through, the old crumbling to the floor. The way his brow furls now, it looks something like concern. Or pity.
My imagination most likely.
From a distance I can see the Molten creatures standing in a cluster by one of the reflectors, tossing their arms upwards toward the sun, their black crusted bodies shaking, their skin the toughest material we've yet discovered, but once it molts it's just like everything else here: no use to us.
Even at night, which only lasts about two hours now, temperatures averaged around 3000 degrees--hot enough to melt my bones. Even our suits can only stand a few hours of it, before we have to retire back into our dome, and by noon we'd be crazy to even try it.
"We should harvest them," Cyrus suggested once. "See if their skin can be used somehow in our suits. Allow us to investigate farther than we'd been able to. Find their ship, maybe?"
Sometimes I think this is all a game to test my breaking point.
"Are you fucking stupid?" I blurted out. "There's two of us and who knows how many of them. You want to start a war?"
Cyrus remained quiet, a hand on his chin as if using this new data I've supplied and recalculating the scenario in his head until he came to the conclusion himself that I was right and abandoned the plan.
"All they'd need to do is take out the reflectors," he said, as if trying to convince me it was a bad idea.
You're right, I added for him in my head. You're always right, Samantha.
The reflectors have to be cleaned. Our lives, what's left of them, depend on it. Without them the temperatures would rise. Eventually we'd cook like everything else here. Cyrus never brought up that idea again.
"Et uso en Arkana, eila ulf," Moltos says now, then he runs off in with the rest of his brethren and I lose sight of him as the others swallow him into the fold. They all look so goddamn alike.
The radio crackles again, and I scream, "I'm coming!" into it before Cyrus can say a word. I turn it off. Click.
Our thermal bubble glows a bluish white on the horizon, giving it a ghostlike quality. As I make my way towards it I walk in line, counting my steps, my heart thrumming in my chest. The black-gray gravel crunches below my boots.
Counting makes the anxiety go away. Being outside feels better. Inside it feels tight, antiseptic, dead. Like bones that have been picked so clean it's hard to believe they once belonged to a living being, thrumming with blood and cognitive thoughts and ideas. Out here...well, I'm not sure. Somehow the Molten survive. Surviving is enough.
As I walk into the entrance chamber to our dome, the sudden gust of cool air rushes out, and I am inhaled inside. I can hear the Molten creatures chanting into the Sun before the doors shut behind me.
Cyrus looks disheveled when I walk in from the cooling station, which chills the outside of my suit to a temperature that won't burn. It's still warm to the touch, the outside coated with a black film of ash.
"You're late," he says, an edge in his voice. His black hair is wet, strands in his eyes like he'd been pulling it. His lip's bleeding. He's carrying the capsule with both arms like a baby, the shiny silver orb popped open, a line of buttons on the outside. Inside, Cyrus has already begun filling it with old news clippings recorded in glass, rock and roll memorabilia, etc. "We'll have to hurry now."
We work with the oldest artifacts first. Right now we're focusing on the 20th century.
He looks at me disapprovingly as he places a GlassDrive full of old pictures from the 1920s into the capsule, but I don't care. We only have about a half hour window when the position of the Sun is favorable for launching objects that have the potential of averting being sucked into it. But if we miss this window, there's another just like it tomorrow.
"Do you ever ask yourself why we still do it, Cyrus?" I ask him. I can feel my cheeks flush red. My stomach knots, trying to fight back how much I want to hurt him. I realize I'm still clenching the scraper in my hand, and I rest it against the wall, a strange hot energy radiating from it.
"Do what?" He says. He clanks the capsule down on the table, shuffling things inside in an order he likes. His eyes dart from item to item, as he nibbles on his lip. As if he can hardly bare to part with any of the items in there. From his pocket he removes a Glass Drive, slides it in the capsule. Smiles up at me, expectantly.
It's his message. The one we're supposed to include in case one of our people find it, or in case some other life form came across it--to leave our mark, humanity's mark, in some form or another. Like they'd want to know what happened here on Earth. Like any of our people survived.
Looking at Cyrus, it's hard to believe we've been able to stand each other as long as we have. It's been something like twenty years since the others left, taking the last ship to try to find a hospitable planet. Suicide, I thought at the time, but is this any better? We have water to last us a few more years, and the bioengineered meats we eat keep us going, salty shit that it is.
We only have the Molten to keep us company now, though we don't know more about them now than when they first came here, which was before my time. No ship was ever found. They didn't gradually begin arriving--they were just here one day.
There were three of us here at one time, in our colony. There was a colony in each country at one point, too, but they've all gone silent. Japan was the last. The radio tech was a woman named Liu. A woman that, in the last days of her life, would just cry into the radio as I tried to console her. Tried to keep her going, selfishly. We talked for hours. Mundane things like what we looked like, what our colonies looked like. Liu had short-cropped hair, a pointy nose, black eyes and a birthmark in the shape of a spade on her left wrist. I told her I had long brown hair that I tied into a bun, a thin crooked nose, pasty skin, and a small slit of a mouth. Only one of those was true.
Cyrus pretends not to remember our third colony member. Or maybe he really doesn't. It's hard to tell. The third person's name was David. David ran outside without his suit a couple of years ago, mad and naked and screaming. We watched him burn, Cyrus and I, unable to do anything really.. He only made it about a foot out, which is more than we guessed. You could see the muscles under his skin begin to bubble, like boiling water. The soles of his feet stuck to the Tungsten floor of the platform. His throat burned before he could utter a single, pained scream. It took months to fully get the stench out. It permeated into our suits. Lived there, like a reminder. Like a ghost.
It took much longer to get the expression on his face out of my head. Like he was unsure why it was all happening.
Since then, Cyrus refuses to leave the dome, so I have to clean the reflectors by myself. We've lost three of them, the reflectors, all on the East end of the compound. They've turned so black I cannot scrape the char off of them before I have to go back in, only to have a fresh layer replace the one I've removed. I estimate that if we lose two more, we'll be done for.
Which is why it irritates me now when Cyrus taps the capsule, looks at me expectantly and says, "And yours?"
"I'll sit this one out," I say and reach out a trembling hand and close the lid. "Capsule's full."
The next day Cyrus includes an non-functioning VHS tape of The Wizard Of Oz, music files of an old rock group, a couple of news clippings of the great depression, and a GlassDrive with his message.
I include a GlassDrive of myself giving the middle finger, a pair of ripped socks, and David's ashes, which I've kept for far too long already.
"You know The Wizard Of Oz was symbolic for the rings of hell, Cyrus?" I ask him, not really asking. I continue before he can respond: "There's even a munchkin hanging in the scene in the woods, as Dorothy and company skip through the yellow brick road. The talking trees were people who committed suicide."
Cyrus doesn't respond.
"Which ring would you say we're in, Cyrus?" I ask him.
"Eila ulf es uso," Moltos says, as I push hard on the scraper, almost launching myself into the dirt as the char gives way, revealing the shiny metal underneath.
Inside my suit, the sweat pools between my breasts and forms a stream down my belly. At the soles of my feet I feel the suck as the vacuum hums on and collects it to cool me a little before the process repeats itself.
"What?" I say, bitterly. "What is it you're saying? What is it you want? I don't understand you."
That's not true. And he knows it.
Moltos' brow furrows again. The words become clearer in my mind, as if he has willed me to see them--to acknowledge them.
Sleep, Eidolon. Soon the Sun comes. The message becomes dizzyingly clear, and I get light headed, dropping my tool and saving myself from falling by holding on to the reflector. My shoulder clangs on metal, and for a moment I think it's passed. Then the ground rushes towards me, and the lights go out.
When I awaken, I'm inside the dome. My head throbs, my heart beating in my ears. I'm still in my suit. I hear something beside me, metal clanging, cursing, things falling on the floor and scattering.
"Shit," he says.
I open my eyes and a sharp pain erupts on my eyelids. Something thick and warm slides into my eyes and I blink them away, a weak moan escaping my lips. My skin feels as though it's on fire, tingling on the tips of my fingers.
"What," I manage to say. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, like it's melted. "What are you doing?"
"You passed out outside," he gasps, clearly trying to prepare the capsule. "That thing managed to turn on your radio and click it until I noticed."
"You...went outside?" I ask.
"I had to," he says this grudgingly, and I see a sideways glance that's meant to admonish me--the only time he could spare for it, anyway. "That monster carried you around to the entrance. You should really keep your radio on, you know."
"He...called...calls us something. Eidolons." I begin getting up, propping myself up against the wall. It hisses as I touch it, my fingers making indentations on the metal.
"What the fuck?" I say. The throb in my head dull thunder, making the backs of my eyes hurt. "Did you pass me through the cooling station?"
"Couldn't," Cyrus says, as calm as can be. "Launch time."
"You little shit," I hiss. "You little shit! You little fucking shit!" My head roils, throbbing like someone has placed it between two vice grips and is twisting them together, squeezing my brain to mush. He wanted me close, so he didn't have to watch me in the cooling station. So he could prepare the capsule, not get behind.
"You're irrational from the--" He starts, but I rise up and, almost fainting from the sudden rush to my head, I slap the artifacts Cyrus has collected off the table. Cyrus stumbles back, startled. He begins picking up the items almost immediately, sparing not a moment, not another word for me.
I've taken all the time he has.
When I recover, I look through our file of books. Limited now, since we send one each day in the capsule. We used to take hours to pick the perfect one, one that would fit in with the rest of the stuff we sent along with it, but now we just toss one in without even looking.
I was relieved to find that we still had a dictionary. I thumbed it open to the E section, finding the word:
[ahy-doh-luh n] Spell
noun, plural eidola [ahy-doh-luh], eidolons.
1. an unsubstantial image; a phantom; apparition.
2. an ideal.
"Do you ever wonder what happens when we die?" I ask Cyrus, as we're stuffing trinkets into the time capsule. I know it bothers him when I ask, or even talk while we're preparing the launch.
"What do you mean? We just die." He says, deciding in which order they should go. He's stuffed a hologram poster of the first automobile blue print. A blank CD stupidly labeled Mix Tape *****20.
"I mean, do we just...stop thinking?"
"I don't know what you're asking. Yeah, we stop thinking." He swaps two items. Inserts his message last.
"Can you even imagine that?"
He actually considers it for a moment. "I guess not."
Inside the capsule, I insert my GlassDrive full of archived videos of riots, wars, hangings, violence, gore.
"Do you think it's worse than this?" I say.
I can see Moltos break away from his group and walk towards me, as I scrape the surface of reflector 0002.
"Eila ulf es, Arkana et," He says. Sleep well, Eidolon--Arkana ends.
Arkana is the only word that I don't understand.
"What," I say, and then pause. I lay my tool against the reflector. "What is Arkana? What are you telling me?"
And he responds, as though completely understanding me: "Arkana, ool imaf."
The In-Between. Arkana.
He points to the ground, "Ut."
Arkana is here.
"They think we're all ghosts. That this is some kind of Limbo," I tell Cyrus, still wearing my suit. My skin tingles with the chill from the cooling station. "That they're atoning for something. The Sun will die soon, Cyrus."
Launch time seems to have become the best time to get his attention. Any other time he's preparing for the launch, and he hardly sees or hears me. It's like I don't exist except to perform my duty and send my message. Like we only exist to send this fucking capsule.
"This is stupid, Sam," he says. "The Sun has been dying forever. We have to send our--"
"Did you ever consider that maybe we don't deserve to keep going? That humanity doesn't deserve to continue? Did you ever think that?"
Cyrus ignores me, as expected. Inside the capsule he includes a map of the United States with all five hundred and twenty six presidents listed along the side margins, a CD of The Kinks, and a dictionary earmarked on page two hundred and fifty seven with a thumbprint marking the word Eidolon. His GlassDrive goes in last.
"Yours?" He says, an eyebrow cocked, the disapproving stare on his face. And this time...this time something breaks.
I swing the scraper at his head before I can stop myself. He ducks, so I only take off a layer of his scalp and he falls to his knees, the blood flowing down his face, pooling in his eyes. My heart thuds in my chest but when I see him reaching for the capsule I grab him by his hair, what's left of it, and drag him, screaming, through the cooling station, past the entrance platform.
He burns as the doors slide open, the hot air dehydrating his lungs like raisins, drying the screams right out of him. His skin leaves a streak on the platform. His hand forms a black claw on my wrist.
By the time we touch soil, he's a crisp.
I think Cyrus would be happy to know that I continued sending the time capsule that day. Inside, along with the map of the United States, the Kinks' album, and the dictionary I include a photo file of my naked body, pale, my ribs poking through my skin. My hair isn't brown like I'd told Liu all those years ago, it is gray.
I haven't looked at myself in so long I don't recognize me.
Somehow that makes me feel better.
At night I run out and destroy every last one of those fucking reflectors. I take the launch explosives and burn each one to the ground, the metal crackling, burning embers flying. I wonder if this is how Liu ended it all on her side of the world.
I lay out on the dirt, spread eagle, watching the Red Sun slowly poke out from the horizon. My heart thuds in my throat and the sweat pools on my back. I cup its shape in both my hands.
Moltos lumbers through the wreckage, picking apart sheets of metal and studying them. He stops, turns the pits of his eyes to look at me, stoic, an empty sort of sadness about his stare. He moves his hand, beckons me.
Standing, I breathe in the antiseptic air filling my lungs and I want to smell the outside world. Maybe this is what Moltos wanted me to understand, to feel. To let go of the world as it crumbles around me. That my time--our time--has passed, and that it is ok.
I walk to him, my cheeks flushing red with the strain, every pore of my body awake, alive. He rubs a leathery hand against my helmet, scratching the glass--every groove bringing me closer to the outside, to feel the world pushing in around me. The words rumble out to me through the pit of his chest, the sound of rocks rolling against one another. The words I've been waiting to hear all my life:
Sleep now, Eidolon. Tomorrow the Sun comes.