BY IRENE GRAZZINI
Translated into English from the original Italian by Joyce Myerson. Copyright rests with the author.
AT FIRST I am only aware of voices. I don’t know how long they have been buzzing around me, but gradually they become more distinct, more insistent, always closer. Something is touching me. A hand is tugging at my shoulder, and it is this in the end that wrenches me out of the limbo in which I have been swimming and allows me to rise to the surface. I open my eyes and instinctively struggle to breathe. Air plunges down my throat like a heavy gulp of liquid. My vision is obscured by a myriad of luminous stars, entire galaxies that are born and explode light years away.
“Stay calm,” the voice suggests. “Do not waste oxygen.”
Calm, I repeat to myself. It is not easy to stay calm if you’re feeling fenced in by sinister shadows, as you waken from a troubling dream you don’t exactly recall, in a place you don’t exactly recall.
When I gradually begin to focus on my surroundings, the voices take shape and become faces that peer at me from above.
Relief spreads through the confusion in my brain and warms my limbs. I have the strange and fleeting impression of having found what I was looking for.
“Are you wounded?” probes the closest voice.
It belongs to a man with dark curly hair, a hint of a beard on his masculine jaw. He is wearing a pressurized space suit. He is holding his helmet beneath an arm, while his other hand is still on my shoulder. I try to raise myself. I have been lying on the floor of what seems to be an enormous warehouse full of tanks and receptacles that store gas, with a wall that has a pair of niches for rescue pods. The place is empty except for me and these strangers: three of them, all sheathed in dazzling white suits, similar to the one I am also wearing.
“I don’t think so.” It is a strange sensation to articulate these words, as if I haven’t uttered anything in a long time — a child learning to speak.
“Who are you?” another voice asks. A woman — blonde, tall, slim, as far as I can tell, what with all the protective layers that cover her.
“I . . .” I open my mouth. I shut it. For a second, there is a void in my mind, an immeasurable abyss occasionally lit up by flashes of light. I lower my head and allow my eyes to slide towards the left side of my suit, at the height of my heart where the identification badge ought to be fastened. It has fallen to the ground. Broken.
Dora, I read on the largest fragment.
“Were you part of the Juno 224 mission?”
“Heavens above, Sheila! Let her catch her breath,” the man with the dark curls protests.
“The Heavens aren’t listening to us at the moment, so . . .”
He ignores her. “I’m Matthew,” he says, “Sorry about all this, but we’ve really been caught off guard by . . . you know . . .”
“— finding survivors,” the woman puts it bluntly. “So what’s your ID number?”
In a sudden flash, the numbers surface. “JU8564172bis.”
The other one present, a short olive-skinned man, rapidly keys in the numbers on his wrist and an array of holographic data appears before his eyes. “The code is a match,” he finally confirms.
“Thank you, Oliver.” Sheila nods. She seems almost disappointed.
In the meantime I try to stand. I falter, and Matthew supports me when my legs give way. “Survivors . . . and the others? What happened here?” and I realize that I don’t really know where this here is.
Sheila purses her lips. “I was hoping you could tell us.”
“The orbital station Metis was attacked,” explains Matthew. “We got your SOS, and a subsequent report from the homeland confirmed the enemy incursion. We were on the closest base.”
Shouts. Blasts. Explosions. More than this I cannot remember. “And so you came in search of survivors?” Matthew lowers his gaze, but it is too late. I have already seen what his face reveals: embarrassment.
“Actually they sent us to recover the gas,” Oliver intervenes, pointing his thumb at the tanks. Many of them have gaping holes, their edges blackened. The largest one is ripped apart as if it exploded internally. “Unfortunately we have only been able to fill a couple of cylinders. The bastards destroyed as much as they could.”
“And they could still be in the area,” Sheila remarks. Now that I’m paying attention, she is shouldering a huge rifle, and her companions are also armed. “There’s nothing else for us to do here. Let’s get going.”
“Are you able to walk?” Matthew asks.
Do I have a choice?
We start moving. Oliver and Matthew each carry on their shoulders a tank of the precious gas, which represents my purpose here, millions of kilometres from Earth. After my initial disorientation, my steps are becoming more stable, quicker. I, too, feel the urgency to vacate this place. This tomb.
“What exactly attacked you?” Matthew asks. He’s curious, and seems to be the only one of the three inclined to make conversation.
I shake my head. “I don’t remember . . . Everything’s confused . . .”
Sheila kicks a hunk of metal, a metal never seen on the Earth’s crust, fused with some soft and rubbery organic material. “Hunters, I’d say, judging from the remains scattered all over the place.”
“They also attacked the outposts of Amalthea, and Thebe, as well as the entire interior ring,” Matthew confirms. He looks at me. I notice that he often looks at me. “You were lucky that the ventilation system of your base remained intact.”
“Well, we’ll win those outposts back.” Sheila shrugs her shoulders, “Anyway, in a little while we won’t need them. We didn’t come all the way out here to be stopped by some stupid alien. The Earth’s security hangs in the balance!”
“Silence!” Oliver gives the signal to stop. We all freeze in the middle of this hallway, weakly illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a broken neon light. Then I also hear it — the whirring sound. It comes from behind and is quickly getting closer.
“Let’s move!” Matthew orders.
We start to run. Our boots pound the metal grate beneath, strewn with the remains of battles and bodies. I avoid lowering my gaze to the faces of those who were my colleagues and stare straight ahead.
Sheila, having opened the way, is the first to arrive. She quickly keys in the codes on the panel and the door slides sideways with a release of air. Beyond the threshold, in the devastated hangar, the small rescue shuttle awaits us, its cabin door open. I have to reach it.
But our pursuer has also reached us. His burst of bullets passes above our heads, shattering the ceiling cables in a sizzle of electricity. I turn around and the Hunter is there with his squat and bulbous body, clad in a metal exoskeleton, floating in midair and moving, thanks to five helium propellers. His seven eyes — or sensors, who knows? — are trained on us.
I have no weapons. The next strike could explode all my internal organs or hit one of the canisters on the backs of my comrades, and blow us up like fish on a seabed of mines. And yet, the Hunter hesitates. His limbs make a clicking sound, and, when he once again takes aim, Matthew has already dragged me away and we have climbed into the hold of the shuttle. The door shuts behind me with a smack.
Oliver throws himself at the controls. The motors are already ignited and warm. I feel a wrenching in my stomach and I end up squashed against a seat, as the shuttle streaks away from the hangar and dives into space. For an instant I feel myself floating without weight. Then the onboard system activates, compensating the G-forces and restoring gravity to the cabin.
Before us the gas giant takes up our entire field of vision. It is enveloped in bands of orangey-brown clouds in which lightning bolts crackle at an intensity tens of thousands of times stronger than the ones on Earth. Almost at the centre, slightly beneath its equator, there is a large red swirling spot, with brick-red, white, and pastel-salmon coloured concentric strata — an eye focussed on us, and intent on scanning, scrutinizing, and following us, as the shuttle executes a sharp change in direction, and departs the station orbiting the Metis moon, heading for open space.
“Jupiter,” murmurs Matthew. He is seated at my side, while Sheila has taken the place of second pilot next to Oliver. “It’s impressive, is it not? To think that its mass is more than double that of all the other planets in the Solar System put together, so similar to the sun, almost a failed star.”
“We already have an almost failed star to worry about,” retorts Sheila. She seems permanently angry, as if she feels betrayed by someone or something that she once trusted. “As far as I’m concerned, Jupiter is only an enormous reservoir of hydrogen which we need to save the Sun. And we would have already got it if it weren’t for those damned aliens!”
“Floaters and Hunters,” intervenes Oliver. “That’s what we call them, since we’ve been inspired by the age-old theories of the 1970s. Actually we don’t even know if these half robotic, half organic beings are native, or if they’re aliens who have come from who knows what other galaxy, in search of what we are also seeking.”
“Energy,” I say. “We’re thieves.”
“We’re like Robin Hood: we steal from the rich to give to the poor,” Matthew corrects me with a hint of a smile. “Otherwise the Earth will be swept away.”
No one comments. We remain silent, while the motors struggle within the magnetosphere, straining against the gravitational forces, as we set our sights on the outer satellites. I glimpse, beyond the ice cap, the surface of Io, pummelled by eruptions. Then Oliver aims the nose of the shuttle towards Europa, around which the largest of the Earth orbital stations revolves. At present it is the main outpost for the conquest of Jupiter.
Looking at it, I experience a sense of rising urgency. I would like to be there already, far from that red eye I have left behind, but which I feel is still pursuing me. The enormous station attracts me, like a moth to light, as if it, too, is equipped with a gravitational field. When the shuttle finally lands on its platform inside the hangar, I feel a sense of triumph.
Matthew helps Oliver and Sheila to unload the tanks. Then he leaves them together with the other operators who have shown up, and offers to take me to the infirmary. The onboard doctor is busy suturing the wounds of a group of commandoes who have had a close confrontation with Hunters on another station. Listening to their conversations, I learn that all the inner satellite bases have been destroyed.
I am aware of their anger, their disappointment. I should feel it, too — the rage of a wolf, who as much as he strives, snarling and biting, can’t win new territory to feed his brood. And yet, I don’t seem to be able to fully share in their feeling. Earth is in trouble. And so Jupiter is under attack.
All I want is to put an end to the conflict.
I sense that is why I am here.
When it’s my turn, I claim that I’m fine and, after a cursory glance, because he has more pressing matters to attend to, the doctor only gives me some pills in order to relax.
And to dream . . .
Everything is red, that orange red that envelops the huge planet like a shroud. The hissing echoes in my head, where something is moving, carving, inseminating. My brain is pulsing. It feels as if it is swelling. My eyelids are clenched tight, and yet I see. Surrounded by that orange vapour, in this room — or forge — the shadow floats in front of me. Vast, throbbing, alien, a bubble without face or eyes, but looking at me, staring at me, and even if it has no mouth, it is whispering something, etching it deeply into my mind . . .
I awaken in the bunk assigned to me. The sheets are white with an antiseptic smell to them. Folded in a corner are the spacesuit and the clothing that I was wearing on my arrival. There is nothing else in this little room that you could traverse with four small steps.
And that floating figure in my dreams . . .
I shake my head. The doctor said that this confusion is due to the shock I suffered. “It will soon pass.” I hope so.
Impatience continues to gnaw at me, the impression of having little time at my disposal for . . . for what? I don’t know, but I’ll never find it out by staying here inside. I throw on a new uniform and get ready to leave. I hesitate. I kneel down beside the old pressurized suit. The broken nameplate is still where I left it. Dora. I stick it in my pocket and leave the room.
I bump into Matthew in the corridor. I’m pretty sure he was hanging around on purpose. He walks with me to the cafeteria. At this hour (late morning, although the day-night earth cycle has been artificially recreated here), there are few people at the tables, and the other team members confine themselves to giving me bored looks. The arrival of new personnel is not a novelty, Matthew tells me, now that the probe is almost completed.
“Are you feeling better?” he finally asks me, when we are seated with our plates full of small freeze-dried bio-cubes.
“I’m still a little dazed.”
“The doctor said it’s normal. You shouldn’t force yourself to remember. The memories will return. The important thing is that you’re safe now.”
I nod. Yes, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. And yet the sense of urgency persists. I allow my gaze to flow over the metal tables and the window panels that take up an entire wall. From here one enjoys a breathtaking vision of Jupiter, an enormous bubble suspended in space like a Christmas ornament.
“The windows are the weak points of the whole structure, but we need them,” Matthew comments. He has a deep voice, pleasing to listen to. “And it’s better to look at Jupiter, our target, rather than the danger at our backs. Yesterday’s latest update has confirmed that the Sun is expanding towards Mercury’s orbit. From that point it will soon become a Red Giant.”
I finish his thought for him. “And the Earth will burn.”
“Precisely why we’re here. We need an incredible quantity of hydrogen to maintain nuclear fusion inside the Sun and delay its death.”
“Everything in the universe dies.”
“I know. But without the Sun, Earth will also die. It is our home planet, and even if we have colonized other systems and galaxies, we have a duty to protect it,” he pronounces with a bitter laugh. “In ancient times, there were peoples that venerated the Sun and offered up sacrifices to placate it. Millennia of evolution and it’s as if we have returned to our starting point.”
I don’t answer. I stare at Jupiter. It stares back. I shiver. “You spoke of a probe?”
Matthew leans against the back of his chair, his hands clasped behind his head. “Our scientists have just completed it. It will be launched into Jupiter’s atmosphere and, thanks to its modules for anchoring it to the surface, it will be able to work unobstructed to extract hydrogen, despite the lightning storms in the lower strata of the atmosphere.
“When?” I ask.
“Tomorrow.” Then Matthew starts to recount how he came to the Jupiter system only a few weeks ago from his old house along the coast near the city of Montreal, an area that had become too hot as the Sun began to expand.
“Where do you come from?”
“Rome.” Memories return to me in a fragmented, disconnected way, wrapped in a kind of film, as if I am watching the life of another before my eyes. “I graduated in aerospace engineering and, after a mission on the Moon, they transferred me to Metis.”
“Do you have a family?”
A child running through a field. The echo of laughter that I do not recognize. “A daughter.”
“And a husband?” Matthew clears his throat. “Sorry, but I noticed that you aren’t wearing a wedding ring.”
It is something I know, and yet I have difficulty visualizing in my mind the face of the man with whom I must have lived for years.
“It’s not that I want to pry into your life. It’s only . . .” Matthew hesitates, then rises. “I have to go now. We’ll see each other later, okay? Maybe we’ll have a drink.”
He bends over me and his lips lightly touch my forehead. I think that I should feel something, something pleasurable. I want to feel it, but instead his touch leaves me as empty and cold as the space surrounding us.
I want to dream about Matthew tonight, but instead it is the alien creature that returns to populate my nightmares. Huge, it occupies my entire visual field. It floats in front of me and observes me, studies me, checks me over, satisfied like a sculptor before his best work. The smell of ammonia is everywhere. A part of me is afraid. The other part listens with a mixture of attention and horror to its words without sound, beautiful and terrible, like seeds of damnation, before beginning to fall, shattering into shards as cold as ice and blindingly white . . .
My eyes snap open and for a little while I lie still and stare at the ceiling. The covers, drenched in my sweat, weigh on my skin. I throw them off, sit up, and place my head in my hands. It throbs, It seems about to explode.
Tomorrow, Matthew’s voice whispers to me, but at the same time it belongs to someone else. And, after a night of terrifying dreams, I know that that tomorrow has already arrived.
I stand up and trudge towards the door. I need air, which is strange because I have never felt claustrophobic at home . . . what home would that be? That perfect apartment on the outskirts of Rome? Why can’t I recall it like I should? I mean I do remember all of its particulars, even the most insignificant ones, but no emotion associated with them. Why do I feel so full and, at the same time, sense this empty space inside of me, one that I cannot seem to fill?
I am in the hallway before I even realize what I am doing. It isn’t difficult to get around here. Matthew showed me a holographic map of the place, but I could move about with my eyes closed. I feel like a ball of yarn, unwinding gradually, with someone pulling at a single strand of wool.
The construction site is in the heart of the station. From the raised metal walkway that travels the entire perimeter of the enormous hangar, I observe the workers who swarm around the extractor-probe like an army of ants. It’s even bigger than I thought, with numerous reactors, insulated suction tubes, and dozens of immense storage tanks.
I am short of breath. In my chest I feel a throbbing weight. The sensation of having little time at my disposal is becoming almost a torment, like the ticking of a clock in my head — a countdown — and it has compelled me to wander through the station until I’ve arrived precisely in this place in time.
“Hey! You shouldn’t be here!”
I turn around. Sheila is a few steps away. She glares at me with an expression of pure hate on her face.
“I don’t wish to disturb your work,” I say, on the defensive. “Matthew spoke to me yesterday about the probe and I came to see it in person before it gets activated. I will not take a step closer.”
“First things first, Matthew is private property,” she blurts out. She is a tiger who discovers her hunting ground being invaded. “Second, I checked the databases of the Metis outpost. I could not find any Doctor Dora in the crew.”
I look at her confused. What does she want me to say? I am about to mechanically repeat my identification code to her, but she comes towards me menacingly. Her dilated pupils are dark tunnels within an alien mind.
“I don’t give a damn about the code being correct. You don’t convince me one bit, with your delicate little face and your big doe-like eyes! You may have charmed Matthew and the others, but don’t think for a moment you can fool me!”
I recoil from her fury. I trip over a pipe and topple to the floor, scraping my hands on the grate.
“So now you stay put while I call security, and if they confirm that you aren’t part of the crew, you better tell us who the hell you are… and hope the hell you have a good answer, because otherwise I’ll make you feel sorry you were ever born. Many kinds of pain exist in the universe, and rest assured, you will feel them all during the interrogation . . .” Her voice spews more virulent words at me, but I have stopped listening. Still face down on the floor, I stare at the fingers I have injured. From the deep cut not a drop of blood escapes, and beneath the skin, I detect a metallic glint.
Fascinated, I stretch out my other hand and grasp a strip of skin. I pull. The flesh peels away like dried wax. The strange thing is that I feel no pain whatsoever. No physical pain. But Sheila is right in saying there are many kinds of pain. In fact I am feeling a searing one now, something I have never experienced before — but have I ever truly felt pain before this moment? — as I observe the skin that ultimately detaches itself completely and reveals beneath it a crisscross of wires and metal, a metal so different from Earth metals, and so similar to the exoskeletons of the Hunters.
I feel a desire to cry, but I don’t have the tears to do it. They didn’t equip me with tear ducts, because I didn’t need them.
Who am I?
The name plate weighs heavily in my pocket.
Now, with sudden and shocking clarity, I remember. I remember the place where I was created, not born, but moulded in the image of our enemies in order that I might mix with them. I remember how all the memories I carry, forcibly extracted from the dead brains of the human invaders, were implanted deep inside my tissues. And at last I remember my full name: Pan Dora.
Only it isn’t a name.
It’s a mission.
It’s a gift from Jupiter to humans.
And the gods only give gifts when they wish to punish you.
I would like to say to Sheila that yes, I regret being born, or created, or whatever it is. I would like it if Matthew felt no pain. I am not supposed to be sensitive to pain or sorrow, and yet in this very moment I sense nothing else.
But before I can howl my horror and desperation at the universe, the timer of the bomb I have been carrying nestled inside me boots up, and I explode in one single destructive flash of light together with the tanks, the great probe, and the entire space station including all its occupants.
Irene Grazzini is a novelist, short story writer, and doctor living in Arezzo Italy. She has published in Italian the YA science fiction trilogy Dominant with Fanucci (Rome) as well as countless speculative stories in literary journals like Wizards & Blackholes. Her prize-winning novella The Big Score was published in English (in collaboration with the translator Joyce Myerson) in the Spark Anthology and another story The Smile, also translated by Joyce was published by Luna Station Quarterly.