We always knew the end would come.
That we would have to take what we could and run.
”This is not a drill! Commence evacuation procedures immediately. This is not a drill…”
But even the expected may come as a shock.
Like a terminal patient awaiting the certain hour of his death, who—when mercifully it arrives—greets it not with confidence but with a gasp:
Is this it?
My life is quiet now. I am content in my solitude. I am seventy-two years old, in good health and the company has dutifully fulfilled its end of the bargain, so I do not want for anything. If I lack luxury it is by choice. I do not speak much. Instead I write and think, and if I have any ritual it is to take my tea just as night falls. Sometimes the evening light hits at a certain angle, and when I take my first sip, I close my eyes and think of Mendeleev-1. Instinctively my fingers slip onto my forearm where the wound will never heal, and I remember…
…mining colony. mineral-rich. cognosher-positive. cognosher-dormant. safe for temporary habitation. slated for eventual destruction…
On Earth my husband and I had nothing.
On Mendeleev-1 we had hope:
“Build a homestead. Mine. As long as the planet stays inactive, you remain Vectorien employees. The moment it awakens, you have forty-eight hours to get to the evacuation pods. When you do: Congratulations on your retirement. Enjoy your pension!”
No one knew for how long the planet would sleep.
Everyone knew about the cognoshers: interdimensional alien beasts that sensed and feasted upon human fear.
Under that shadow we lived.
It was a simple life, hard but predictable, the rhythms of the day magnified by the monotony of the weather and the changing of imagined seasons…
The cycles unfolded, one after the other in coldness and desolation.
I gave birth to Oan, then Erubi.
Then a mine shaft collapsed, killing my husband.
Vectorien paid out a small sum and paid for his burial, but their lawyers maintained that the contract we had signed was still binding. My husband and I had made separate agreements. As Mendeleev-1 had not yet awoken and I was still alive, I remained a Vectorien employee, with all the mining obligations that entailed.
I tried to endure alone, but I knew that with two young children and output requirements to meet, I could not succeed.
“Mendeleev-1 is not for the faint of heart or for single mothers,” a Vectorien representative told me. “Chemicals have always been available upon request.”
I put out a notice for help.
That is how I encountered Arkady.
He was a decade older than I, a tough man hardened by experiences he never shared. In fact, he shared almost nothing and could not speak at all, which perhaps is what bound us together. Although he was a bachelor, it was not like that between us. He built a cabin for himself next to the homestead, and we lived in harmony.
For months, we lived—
I was washing clothes when the time came.
The sound was deafening.
Erubi was crying—
I left the wash and ran to him with water dripping from the tips of my fingers. A single drop, like an atomic bomb. I tried to comfort him, to speak to him, but this life is never one of comfort, and he would not cease his wailing so I let him be. There was not much to pack, but time was of the essence. We had forty-eight hours to reach the evacuation pods—
”This is not a drill! Commence evacuation procedures immediately. This is not a drill…”
Oan was outside, hands over his ears—
Arkady had exited his cabin—leather boots polished, rifle slung over a shoulder, pistol stuck into his belt, coming toward me with a screen-map in his hands.
He unfurled it:
The familiar terrain of Mendeleev-1, a geography I was intimately familiar with, but now with areas lighting up red, like blotches on a sick man’s skin.
I knew immediately what they meant.
Arkady pointed at the two nearest evacuation points—
“Oan, get your brother! Now!”
—the only two we could reach in forty-eight hours, and between us and those points: the sickening red of the planet awakening: vengeance for years of exploitation: the cognosher fields.
Arkady looked at me.
Oan had disappeared into the homestead.
We had no clear path. Every route took us through the red.
Arkady slid his finger across the screen-map, tracing a route that I understood would lead us from here to there within forty-eight hours, but just barely. It was a path of least risk, which meant of some risk, and although the thin strip of evolving red may have looked small on the screen-map, I knew it was at least ten kilometres on the ground. Ten kilometres across cognosher terrain. There’s a saying about the cognosher fields: “Cross fearlessly—or not at all.”
I nodded my approval.
Arkady furled the screen-map.
Oan came to me, cradling Erubi in his arms, and in both their eyes I saw the very emotion I dreaded.
“It will be OK,” I said, taking Erubi from his older brother. “We talked about this. We prepared for it. We’ve been waiting for it. In two days we’ll be on our way to Earth.”
Earth: I said it to mean home, but it was my home.
To my sons it was nothing but a story.
Arkady had already turned away, and when he began walking we followed.
It would be a lie to say I did not look back at the homestead with some fondness—it had been our nest—but what I felt most was grief. What I felt most was the absence of my husband.
How we had planned!
It should have been us walking away: walking toward the evacuation pods after so much toil and expectation.
”This is not a drill! Commence evacuation procedures immediately. This is not a drill…”
I held Erubi closely, and when Oan offered his hand I took it and did not let go. Perhaps the future no longer held the same happiness I had dreamed about, but it held happiness still. Only a journey separated us.
After a time, the sirens turned off.
All on Mendeleev-1 were now evacuating—
All but the beasts.
The Cognosher Fields
We slept for four hours, drank water and walked again. We ate little. The way was dull and flat because the planet was dull and flat, sparsely spotted with tree-like plants like overgrown cauliflowers, and practised calmness. Be empty like the landscape. When Oan was little, my husband and I had done refocussing drills with him: substituting one thought for another, one emotion for another emotion. But Erubi was too young for that. In my arms he looked doe-eyed and calm, but who knew what was happening in that emergent mind of his.
When we neared the cognosher fields, Arkady unfurled the screen-map.
When we were at the boundary he bade us stop.
He showed me the map—
The red blotches were swollen and more numerous.
—and I knew the time had come.
Everything condensed to this: cross the fields and a good life on Earth awaits.
“Remember what we talked about,” I told Oan. “Focus on something. Imagine it and keep it in your mind. In three hours it should all be over.”
“They feast on fear,” he said, repeating words from a storybook my husband had read to him.
Arkady tapped his finger on his wrist.
We had to go.
Arkady entered first. After a brief hesitation, I followed, carrying Erubi with one arm, holding Oan’s hand with the other. In a single step we had changed the physical reality around us. What was once barren became—by the power of our minds—pregnant with danger. Although I had no doubt cognoshers were real, it was unreal to feel that they were somewhere out there, awoken and hungry…
The initial seconds fell softly away to nothingness.
My heart beat quicker and Oan gripped my hand more tightly, but everything persisted as before. Arkady’s broad back and long strides provided a familiar comfort. I would not have wanted to be in the lead, anticipating the future.
Seconds accumulated to minutes, which ticked away, footfall following footfall.
My focus was my grief.
I let it drape me, shielding all thoughts that could possibly evolve into fear.
Erubi fell in and out of sleep against my body.
Oan whispered stories to himself.
In the distance—
Arkady’s hands travelled to his rifle, which he unslung. I had seen it too: a kind of flitting of the air itself. “No matter what, we must not stop,” I said.
Arkady scanning the horizon, sweat developing between Oan’s hand and mine, Erubi opening his eyes, beginning slowly to whimper.
Another distant fluttering—
All of us had seen it.
The enveloping silence descended into a low hiss. “Is it…”
Arkady raised his rifle. Cognoshers could be shot and killed, but it was difficult and exceedingly rare, for they only truly existed—in our understanding of that term: engaged with our dimension of reality—when they were scenting or feasting. Only then were they vulnerable.
And a third—
Followed in quick succession by a fourth and fifth.
We were maybe halfway through the cognosher fields and they were all around us. I had to remind myself that brief twinges of fear were insufficient. They felt it but not for long enough to localise the source. I thought of a memory—any memory—and started recollecting it aloud. “Remember when your father…”
It was as if reality had torn open—its very substance—rushing at us!
What happened next happened so quickly I struggle to make sequential sense of it, but in the years that have passed I have arranged and rearranged the remembered parts so many times I have settled on the following:
Arkady fired two shots into the ether.
Oan let go of my hand.
Arkady spun to face us and loosed another shot.
Oan stared at me—at us:
—as I heard a horrible shriek that felt ripped out of my very being.
I felt my body stiffen and the hissing of the silence melded with the sound of blood pulsing through my veins. I felt gazed upon and vulnerable, as the beasts of irreality were swooping down on us and as I tried to understand what was happening I understood that the shrieking was Erubi—that it was all Erubi—and I shall never forget the wonder and terror and love in his beautiful brown eyes as Arkady ripped him from his cradle in my arms, held him in one outstretched hand and shot him in the head with his pistol: his tiny body falling to that hideous ground, folding so unnaturally—
But the rushing had subsided.
It was not fear I was feeling but rage—and all at once I leapt at Arkady and for what remained of my son.
I fell face first on the ground, tasting the alien sands, and crawled forward, crawling desperately toward—
Arkady rolled the corpse away with his boot.
He grabbed me by the clothes on my back, lifted me to my feet, then pushed me toward the evacuation pods.
“I’ll kill you,” I growled.
When I looked at Oan, tears were rolling down his face. His eyes were pink. He wanted to pick Erubi up, but Arkady shook his head.
I hated him, but I knew he was right. They would not allow us to bring a corpse onto the evacuation pods, and we did not have the time for a burial. Erubi’s body would lie here, on the only home planet he had ever known, until he and the planet were together obliterated. “Leave him,” I croaked.
I cannot describe how much my body shook.
How hard it was to leave.
Arkady walked with the same strides as always, the same wide back, the rifle slung again over his shoulder and the pistol tucked into his belt. I was glad, because I could not have borne the sight of his face.
I walked in wordless contemplation, with hatred having replaced grief as my protector, though the two could have coexisted.
Oan walked beside me, no longer holding my hand or reciting his stories. He had stopped crying, and his eyes had acquired the quality of numbness. Every few minutes he would look up at me with an expression I could not read, then down at his feet, which shuffled obediently along.
Suddenly Arkady stopped.
He glanced back at me, looking me in the eyes as always, looking at me as if nothing had happened, and motioned for me to stay.
He took the pistol from behind his belt and handed it to me.
I did not want to take it.
I did not want to touch its cold steel.
Arkady placed it on the ground before me, then turned and walked away from us. For what reason I did not know. What I knew was that if I didn’t have such revulsion at the existence of that pistol, I would have picked it up and shot him in the back. How could he walk away so calmly—how he could trust me? But he was right. I left the pistol undisturbed upon the ground and watched him disappear.
“Where’s he going?” Oan asked.
“I don’t know.”
We sat and remembered Erubi without speaking.
Before Arkady returned, we saw again flickering on the horizon and a chill passed through us both. The cognoshers were near. Oan rocked back and forth, trying to keep calm, and I watched him, wondering how it was possible to feel a contradiction: to want never to see Arkady again, and to need his presence. I craved the protective comfort of Earthfire.
“I don’t think I can make it,” Oan said.
“It feels like… inside—”
“—like I’m cracking, like it’s all breaking apart.”
He rocked more and more quickly, his eyes twitching from point to point, until finally I grabbed his hand and pulled him up. “We’re going,” I said.
“No,” he said.
I pulled him by the arm but he stayed in place. Anchored.
We both saw the fluttering sky.
“You go,” he said. “I’ll stay. I—I don’t think I can… Maybe I’ll see Erubi. Maybe we’ll—”
I tugged harder but he didn’t budge. “Come on!”
A blur passed across the horizon. There were so many of them now, waiting, unfolding. I wanted Arkady to be back. I wanted Oan to move.
“I’m scared,” he said.
And for a moment the numbness in his eyes was gone, replaced by the brightness I had always associated with my son. But then that brightness too diminished, darkened by a kind of fear I have never seen again.
They came for him.
I backed away—back to where the pistol lay—picked it up and waved it madly at the nothingness rippling and hissing around us: the liquid distortions in the congealing mists of abnormality, but I didn’t know at what to pull the trigger.
I stumbled through a haze of fear: afraid for him, trying to be more afraid than him, to lure the beasts away, to offer them myself in exchange. I didn’t want to live anyway. I was already dead. But I could not will myself into a more frenzied state of phobia.
Oan’s lips curved into a smile.
“Go,” he whispered.
Then his smile became a terrible grin as his body stiffened and his neck bent backwards, and materializing behind him was a human-sized caterpillar—a unfathomable string of succulent translucent spheres braided into interconnectedness by oscillatory worms, all lined with a million undulating tentacles—topped with a glowing sphere-head of a mirrored eyes and one swollen ring of lips, which attached itself with ravenous intentions to Oan’s face, devouring it and starting to suck his essence from within him and into itself.
I pointed the pistol at the cognosher and pulled the trigger—
The bullet slid through it.
Those wretched sucking sounds, like bloody gargled marbles, like wind rushing across a plain in reverse…
I knew what I had to do but could not do it.
I could not kill my son.
Even for this: out of mercy for him—for humanity itself.
Oan slumping to the ground—
The cognosher atomizing back into its own unknowable dimension—
The pistol still in my shaking outstretched hand, cold and dead, and silhouetted in the distance against the unforgiving sky: Arkady, lowering his rifle.
Those long strides.
The world rotated and Arkady stood on the wall of it, looking down at me. I wanted to stay; he wanted me to go. It took me several moments to realize I had collapsed, perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds. Perhaps that even saved me. When Arkady yanked my arm and made the world upright, I knew that what I felt was neither fear nor rage but agony. I tried to look at my son, but Arkady caught my face in his hand. He shook his head. He tried to pull me forward, away from the agony and toward the evacuation pods, but now it was my time to stay anchored. He held out his hand and with two fingers showed we had not far to go: only an insignificant space. I wailed. He would not let go of my face. He pressed so hard my jaw bones hurt.
Through bleary eyes I perceived him.
I bit my tongue until I tasted blood and spat at him.
He backed away and wiped his face with the back of his hand. The same hand with which he’d just caused me so much pain—
And smacked me with it.
I fell back, gathered my strength and threw myself at him with everything I had.
Our bodies collided.
Again I ended up on the ground, but this time on my back.
He picked up his pistol, checked the bullets and motioned for me to follow. Again he made the gesture with his two fingers (only an insignificant space) and followed up by pointing to his wrist.
“Fuck you! I don’t care anymore,” I said.
He stepped toward me, grabbed me by the throat and lifted me off the ground. Held me like an hour ago he had held Erubi—except I fought. I swung my arms and pounded his body with my fists. I kicked out at his shins. Eventually he tossed me aside, and started walking away. I ran after him and grabbed him from behind.
He spun, throwing me down with a thud that made my brain rattle in my skull.
“That’s right. You leave,” I yelled after him. “You leave me, you motherfucker!”
Then I got up and charged at him.
This time I attached myself to his back, locking my arms under his armpits like a human backpack, trying furiously to force the both of us to overturn: to wind up like a beetle, belly-up and dying…
He pressed forward, stride after gargantuan stride until we had travelled that way for maybe a hundred paces and I saw—lying like discarded refuse, two deflated people: skins still fresh but their entire beings flattened into sheets maybe an inch thick. They looked like humanoid rubber. Victims of the cognosher.
I let go of Arkady’s back and felt ground under my boots again.
I forced down the bile rising into my throat.
“It’s horrible,” I said.
Arkady nodded. His eyes sparkled. I smiled at him—
And in that moment of manufactured vulnerability, when for the first time in my life I saw his hardness soften, I aimed a tackle into his mid-section that sent him sprawling. The pistol spilled from his hand and tumbled into the sand. Before he could react, I pounced on it. Then with him in its sights I backed away until I felt far enough away to kneel and put the pistol into my own mouth. This is the way it must end.
He approached me anyway.
I took the pistol out of my mouth and pointed it at him. “One more step,” I warned.
He didn’t stop.
“I fucking swear it!” I screamed at him.
He took one more step.
The bullet whizzed by his head.
“I’ll fucking kill you.”
This time the bullet tore into his shoulder, twisting his body.
He held up a single finger.
There was one bullet left, and if I wanted to—
As I scrambled to put the pistol back into my mouth, he covered the space between us and grabbed me by the arm. I pressed the trigger. The pistol fired, but instead of shutting off my brain, the bullet lodged itself into my forearm. He had bent my arm back at the last instant. I felt an immensity of pain, followed by a flow of warmth and the sound of ripping cloth. I felt a tightness surround my wounded limb, and my sight returned just as Arkady was tying the torn material below my elbow. His own shoulder was patchy with blood.
He picked me up like I was but a piece of lumber and carried me forward. I had no strength left. The only thing I felt was pain.
After a while he set me down and sat down himself.
He pulled out the screen-map and pointed at it, showing me what I already knew:
We had crossed the cognosher fields.
The pods lifted off, leaving dissipating lines upon the sky and carrying their human cargo toward the fleet of Vectorien transporters waiting in orbit around Mendeleev-1.
In all, Vectorien estimated that 81% of its employees successfully reached the evacuation points.
The return journey by transporter lasted forty-one Earth years, most of which we spent in cryosleep. They did, however, allow us to remain awake for the destruction of Mendeleev-1 itself, and so we huddled in the galleries watching through small windows as a single ship launched a single bomb toward its surface. It fell like a water drop, after which there was a delay—and the planet was no more: first condensed, then dispersed as a cosmic rain of star stuff.
We disembarked in Florida.
At least that’s what the signs said, because to me it was unrecognizable.
I saw Arkady on the lower deck of the starport.
There was no one waiting for him, just as there was no one waiting for me. The press had focussed on other arrivals. We walked one after the other down the tunnel, just as we had walked from the homestead to the evacuation pods forty-one years ago, in silence. When we got close to the doors leading outside, I stopped—needing to gather myself before greeting the new world awaiting me. He walked on. When he reached them, the doors slid open and he walked through without glancing back, and disappeared into the bustle outside.
I lived for thirty years without seeing Arkady.
We did not keep in touch.
I moved on. I grieved, then found a house beyond the city, bought it outright and made a new life. I never remarried and I did not have a third child, but I learned not to dwell on the past. When I was ready, I bought a cemetery plot near where my husband and I had lived before Mendeleev-1 and buried three empty caskets, leaving space for one more. The cemetery gave me a discount on account of my “background.”
The people on Earth were like that: treating us kindly but with a certain distance. They referred to us as the Vectoriens.
One day, a young woman arrived at my house.
She asked my name, and when I gave it said she had come on behalf of someone asking for my presence. “An elderly man,” she said, “who doesn’t speak.”
I knew at once.
Arkady was a patient in a decrepit hospital in Costa Rica, located on the outskirts of San Jose. The staff were kind, but it was clear the institution lacked funding, and provided care mainly for the poor. When I entered his room I barely knew him: still a large man, but now bloated and flaccid, bald, with glassy skin and languid motions, even of the face, he did not appear to acknowledge my presence. It was only when I bent forward over him that a brightness came over his eyes!—but briefly, like the final flicker of a dying flame, followed by a diminishment to darkness.
I don’t know what I felt toward him.
“He’s a Vectorien,” a nurse told me outside his room. “It’s a miracle he’s lasted this long. We used to see a lot of them after they came back, the ones who couldn’t adjust to the world. Crime, drugs, any form of self-destruction. But that was in the months and years after. Here we have decades. I can’t imagine what he’s been doing all this time.” She put her hand on my arm. “But all of a sudden he remembered you, I guess. It’s good for him to have a visitor.”
I stepped away from her. “Do you know where I can find a grocery store. Maybe something with household goods?”
“There’s a plaza nearby. What is it that—”
I was already outside.
In the heat.
I bought what I needed and returned, as I had promised him.
I asked the nurse for a kettle.
When the water boiled, I steeped a tea and poured one cup. Then I asked the nurse for privacy. When she had gone, I added the other ingredient, and gave the tea to Arkady.
He took it in his large, calloused hands and tried to drink.
I helped him.
When he had finished, I sat beside him and held his hand, watching the remnants of his life evaporate, peacefully, like summer rain from asphalt.
He died without a gasp.