Saturday, 9 April 2011

THE RAIN By Harris Tobias

The Rain

     The rain never stops on Fender 4, except it isn’t really rain. At least it’s not like any rain on Earth. Here rain is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons and amino acids that has exo-biologists puzzled. It falls like rain but it’s a slimy, warm soupy substance that’s probably alive.

     This nutrient stream feeds a remarkable biota; plants that resemble enormous lichen, or perhaps fungus more accurately describe them. Thin towering fronds a mile high in some places and as long as the Great Wall of China. Whatever they are, they’re colorful, and they cover every inch of Fender’s surface like slimy paint. In some places the paint is knee deep. In others it’s only a few inches. Then there’s the black stuff. You had better avoid the black places as they can easily swallow a man.

     My name’s Winslow, Alan Winslow, I’m the communications tech for our 3 man survey team. We’re one of a dozen teams scattered around this dreary rock. Fender 4 was only recently discovered. It’s one of the rare planets that have a breathable atmosphere and a hospitable climate. The big wigs think it’s a valuable piece of real estate and have a lot of money on the line. They envision farms and colonies, cities and spaceports. Personally I don’t like the place, it creeps me out. I especially don’t like the rain. It sticks to your skin like it wanted to colonize you. It takes a lot of scrubbing to wash it off. The rain adheres to every surface with a tenacity I find disturbing. I don’t see humans living here anytime soon. After being outside for even a few minutes you’d understand.

     Teams like mine are the first to spend any real time on Fender 4. We’re supposed to do the initial recon, make rough maps, catalog the dominant life forms and assess the planet’s live-ability. Our team consists of a surveyor/map maker, an exo-biologist and an all around techie— that’s me. Lieutenant Lupo is our mapper and the person in command; Sergeant Pine is our exob, she’s number two, then there’s little old me, I take care of the gear, the rations, our shelter, power, water, radio, etc. etc. Low man on the totem pole gets all the shit jobs.

     Actually, it’s not so bad. Lupo and Pine are good people. I’ve bunked with a lot worse. It’s the rain that has us all spooked. It beats down on our shelter and slimes down the windows like mucus, like phlegm. It’s like the whole planet had a runny nose. The walls of our shelter are coated with slime. You could scrape it off with a shovel if you wanted to go out there. Of course no one does. Sometimes I worry the extra weight will bring the whole structure down on our heads.

     It’s a fight keeping us warm and dry. Our life support module is strained to the max. As for communications, forget it, they’re sketchy at the best of times. The slime covers the antenna making it hard to contact the other stations or the mother ship. We have an emergency beacon if all else fails, but so far it hasn’t come to that.

     Today we were outside most of the day. Everything was going fine until Sgt. Pine stepped in a patch of green, a color that none of had seen before, and was swallowed up. She must have slid down a hundred feet before coming to a halt. I stayed over the spot while the lieutenant went back to the shelter for more rope. I could hear her whimpering and calling for help. “Stay calm, Didi,” I called “We won’t leave you. We’re getting more rope. Stay calm.”

      When we finally pulled her out, she was so freaked out that she was screaming hysterically. Lt. Lupo had to slap her hard to bring her around. She swore the fungus was trying to ingest her. “Dark, so dark,” was all she could manage to say before another round of shudders and screams overtook her. We got her back to the shelter and let her soak under the shower until she was herself again, but she was traumatized, I could tell, and she never quite regained her footing. She had nightmares and a vacant stare as though what she saw down there was too hard to process.
      There are many mysteries on Fender 4. The rain is at the heart of them all. How does it pick up all those nutrients? Maybe the clouds are alive with bacteria no one has been able to study them yet.
      Another mystery is the drainage. No one understands how Fender drains. Somehow the snotty rain gets absorbed by the fungus, it extracts the nutrients and excretes the water. Where does all that water go? There don’t seem to be any rivers or streams?  There’s an ocean and the teams on the coast report the ocean is 99% water. The drainage thing vexes Lt. Lupo no end. As a map maker he is supposed to map rivers and mountains it frustrates him no end that he can’t see them.

      That’s another strange thing about Fender, no mountains. This place has a very strange topography. The fungi fill in all the irregularities you’d expect a rocky world to have. On Fender, hills and valleys are smoothed over with an even layer of plant matter, leaving the surface a vast featureless plain. Radar images show an uneven surface beneath the fungus, but the plants grow to precisely the same height. No one can explain it.

      Sgt. Pine has been behaving strangely ever since falling into the deep fungus. I tried to radio HQ about her condition but I’m not sure the urgency was understood. They said that everyone was having problems, they would only respond to serious emergencies and we should soldier on for another three weeks. Typical head quarter’s bullshit. They can’t be bothered to understand what we were going through, only their schedules are important.

      The emergency beacon is beginning to look better and better. Lt. Lupo has been going out on his own while I stay inside with Sgt. Pine and struggle to keep our life support systems operational. I worry about him out there but I worry about our shelter too. It needs constant maintenance.

      Didi Pine spends most of her day in the bathroom compartment either showering or doing god only knows what. I noticed she was clogging the filters more and more. I hear her crying in there. I try to respect her privacy, but today I heard a scream and then a thump. I called, “Didi, are you all right?”

      There was no answer so I busted the lock and found her on the floor of the shower stall, her body covered with large lumps. I carried her to her bunk and gave her a sedative. She wept like a child and called for her mother. I resolved to wait for Lt. Lupo to come back; I’ll press him to use the emergency recall device. Only he didn’t come back. I tried all day to raise him on his suit radio to no avail. I fear he’s been swallowed. There’s nothing for it but to go out and look for him. I suit up and tell Sgt. Pine I’ll be right back. I show her where the emergency call button is but I don’t think anything I say registers. She feels feverish. I give her some more sedative and go outside.

      The rain reaches for me with slimy fingers. I feel it trying to work its way up my sleeve and down my back. It’s a cold, clammy feeling. I head west where I know Lt. Lupo was working. It was foolish of him to go out alone. I stay on the light colors, as I know from experience they are the shallowest. Dark colors are deep and must be avoided. Suddenly it dawns on me that the colors are the key to the topography. An arial photograph would be an accurate map of Fender’s peaks and valleys. The different colors are like a relief map. It’s so obvious I don’t see how we didn’t see it before.

      By some miracle I come upon Lt. Lupo’s pack and close by I see his surveyor’s transit. I call out but the gooey rain muffles all sound. I try the radio and I think I hear something. Frantic, I look around but everything is flat and featureless. I get the idea to check his transit and see where he was looking. I squint through the eyepiece and see his surveyor’s marker a couple of hundred yards away. I trudge off in that direction. I can hear his cries over my suit radio, I must be close.

      When I reach his marker I understand what must have happened. There is a ribbon of gold running through the pale yellow. The darker color indicating a greater depth but the change is subtle and easily overlooked. I can hear him clearly now. He sounds frightened. He’s overjoyed to hear my voice. I see where he slipped off the shallow fungus into the deep. He isn’t that far down. I lower the rope to him and pull him up. You never saw anyone more grateful. He was down in the depths far longer than Sgt. Pine. His suit is covered with growing material. I help him back to the shelter. It’s quite a ways and I have to stop and rest several times. I suspect the fungus growing on his suit has penetrated his body but I won’t know for sure until I get him back and can strip off his suit. He is feverish and babbling. We should be getting close to the shelter but I don’t see it. Usually it’s the only thing you can see on the level plain of Fender’s even surface.

      Then I see it. It has collapsed in on itself from the weight of the rain. I drop Lt. Lupo and run to the squashed shelter. I can barely lift up a wall to call inside. I hear no reply but I see a pale leg covered with growths in my flashlight’s beam. Sgt. Pine is dead. I search for the emergency extraction button but do not find it. Already the shelter is covered with the same yellow fungus that surrounds us.

      I look back to Lt. Lupo. He is half covered with yellow growths. He twitches feebly but I can see there is no saving him. It dawns on me that I am alone. I choke back my urge to scream. There’s no sense in wasting energy. My only hope for salvation is a ten-day march to the nearest survey station. I doubt if I can last that long without food or water but what choice do I have? I head south but soon see it is impossible. A wide ribbon of black fungus stops me in my tracks. I turn west and follow the black line. The fungus sucks at my legs. I’d give anything for a long hot shower, anything.
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