By Zoë Nightingale
A mouse squeezing through a sandpaper tube, my knuckles raw and on fire, I force, tear-stung eyes apart to drink in the next horror; the next whiplash to my raw nerve-ends.
It watches dispassionately as I gasp with each lung-scorching breath. “You earthlings are so fragile,” the huge moth, or mantis says in its peculiar, whistling voice. Of course, it isn’t really a moth, mantis, or any kind of insect. Insects do not breathe or speak with their mouths. Nor do they grow as big as a horse, except in Renaissance Biblical art . No, this is something else. “Your companions did not last half as long as you,” it continues. Maybe this is the horror I have been dreading. “Go on. Ask the question all you humans ask at this point,” it says.
“What, you mean, why do you torture us? Why don’t you end it fast?”
“Perhaps for the same reason you prefer your food cooked? But that is not quite the question I have in mind. Try again.”
I must be careful. Maybe fear makes us more palatable. Could it be that the answer to my question would cause me to exude some pheromone that increases its ecstasy as it bites off my head? When it devoured Lance, the lurid mandibles crunched down on his skull, and its petrol-swirling-in-rainwater eyes rolled back in its head in a way no insect’s ever did. Then the nightmare face turned to me and said, “’Ello, Alice.” Peter went mad in that instant. I just covered my eyes and vomited.
We came to Ceres on a mineral survey. “Straight in, straight out,” Colonel Dickinson had said. “Don’t try to explore. Your capsule is fully equipped to sink the test shaft. There are a few experiments we’d like you to do. But they won’t take more than five minutes.”
I was excited at the prospect and thrilled by the anticipation of returning to teaching in the autumn. I imagined standing in front of enthralled children, describing the journey out, the landing, the return to earth. And then there would be the book deals, speaking engagements, television appearances; ‘The Sky at Night’, voice overs for ‘Horizon’. Perhaps I wouldn’t go back to teaching after all. But those were not the reasons I applied.
There are few things more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis when seen through the eyes of your lover as well as your own. That is just a statement of fact, and these days, for most, an easily verified one. Phelan and I had seen sunsets on every hill and every tide, from the russet heat and dust charged glow of the desert, to the scintillating ice caves of the Icelandic Jokul sound. We had seen nothing to equal those trembling electric green curtains that seem to be alive.
But what that sight did not prepare me for was Phelan being unfaithful. “For God’s sake, Alice,” he said. “Can’t we put it behind us? It was an on the spur of the moment thing. It didn’t mean anything. And it’s not as if we’re married.”
“No. And we never will be,” I said, putting him behind me.
To make matters worse, Mum had never liked him, and she was right. That was the bloody worst thing about it. She’s always fucking right! Sometimes I think mothers work like the CIA, exchanging information without passing it on to their daughters. You’ve got to be a mother yourself to tap into their database.
When I walked out on Phelan, I kept on walking. I saw the advertisement in ‘The New Scientist’ and applied. I never really expected to pass the selection procedure. I suppose they were sifting for people of a certain size and weight; elfin little balls of fluff like me. But my starred-first in physics and my second-subject teaching diploma in gymnastics probably helped.
There were many times when I nearly chickened out. I am not brave. And, I am not a stayer. I didn’t fancy anyone else on the course, either. As Mum would have said, they were all nudnicks and schlemiels located somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Even Peter and Lance were geeks, and not the chic kind. They were strictly ‘old school’ and always playing ‘CPU Top Trumps’.
If Cathy hadn’t broken her knee, I wouldn’t have ‘passed out’, I’m sure of that. But Cathy went into hospital, and NASA knew which side their very expensive brioche was buttered, so they sent me; the only European, as well as the only remaining girl. So, with Pete and Lance, I blasted off to Ceres — with a whimper that the cameras never saw.
But once in space, Pete and Lance came into their own.
“I really did not want to come on this trip,” I confessed to them both on the very first day of the journey.
“Well, you could have stood down any time,” said Pete, and surprised me by putting a comforting arm around my shoulder.
And then the tears came — in floods.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lance. “Is it being cooped up in here for weeks with people you hardly know? I mean, neither of us is a barrel of laughs.”
“After three weeks with no exercise and no gravity, we’ll all be barrels,” said Pete. “We won’t be laughing about it either.”
“Just point me at the choccy ice cream,” I said. But I knew the onboard icebox didn’t run to comfort food. “No, it’s not that. It’s just I can’t help thinking we won’t be coming back. This isn’t just like going to the moon.”
“That’s just pissing in a bucket,” said Lance. “Ceres is pissing in a blender.”
Peter drew himself up and recited:
“There was a young astro called Alice
Whose life seemed to be full of malice.
Her knees knocked and shook
At each step she took,
Especially in Buckingham Palace!”
Peter had a limerick for every occasion, and a Clerihew for anything really bad, (so he couldn’t have thought my worries were severe). I tried getting back at him with a ‘Balliol Rhyme’. But he wasn’t impressed.
“We’re off in a gigantic rocket
We’re going to that asteroid Ceres.
It rattles thus: ‘pocketa-pocket,’
Don’t suppose that it’s anything serious.”
He clearly thought it was doggerel. What’s worse, I tried to explain the reference to him and made myself sound like a schlepper.
“Let us recap,” the giant moth says. “You came here to devour us, or to devour our world. So you cannot have a moral objection if I devour you.”
“We didn’t know your world was inhabited. Had we known, we’d have tried to make contact.” But it was probably futile trying to tell the moth it was an accident when the drill penetrated their pressurised chamber. They must have been watching our television programmes all this time; analysing them, decoding and translating them. They must have seen the way we fought wars, with bombs and rockets and what not. “We didn’t realise the damage we were doing,” I say, lamely.
“That is the excuse of the murdering bully,” says the moth. “‘I did not know his skull was so thin, your honour.’”
Don’t rise to the bait. It’s toying with you; trying to provoke you to display the emotion that would titillate its taste buds.
And now it recites,
“There was a young lady of Riga
Who went for a ride on a tiger,
They finished the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.”
How extraordinary, how very extraordinary. Peter was always reciting Limericks. I had already suspected that the creature might be telepathic. But no. Far more plausible that it got that from the BBC rather than Peter’s brain. Coincidence, that’s all. Be careful. You nearly fell for it, then. It’s trying to trap you into asking the question. The Question. The ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. And its answer will shatter your reason to the winds and drain your courage away, leaving you no more than the smile on the face of the tiger.
I lick my palms and rub the spit onto my bleeding elbows, then I lick my grazed knees. The burning pain in my side tells me that at least one rib is broken. And it called me a bully! I can feel the rib moving; knife stabbing pain shoots up my side. I think my kidneys might be damaged too.
At least the pain is something I can fight against. At least I feel alive as a mouse or snail, crawling along the edge of Occam’s razor. Ask no questions and it will tell no lies. You can work it all out for yourself. For example: why does it need those delicate insectile wings when it lives on an asteroid that has no air? It must need air because this cavern is full of it, under pressure. Either the wings are not for flying, or it evolved elsewhere. Perhaps they are for breathing, or for temperature regulation? See, plenty of riddles to keep your brain active. You don’t have to ask questions. The answers could be lies, or misunderstandings. Evidence is best. Carl Popper and David Hume are your friends, now. Or Omar, my old phenomenology lecturer who asked, “Ask yourself: ‘What is the question to which the answer is “Yes”?’” The truth is I’m tired. I just want to sleep forever. But it won’t stop tormenting me.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” It says, and its mocking laugh sounds strangely like Colonel Dickinson. Why is that?
I hug my burning knees and rock a little on my throbbing heels. My limbs are painfully thin, but my body is still whole. Why did I volunteer for this? Was it just to be the first female astronaut in my city? I enjoyed teaching. I had a full life and a decent income. I was engaged to be married, and my parents were proud of me.
“Very well,” it says. “I’ll let you work it out for yourself. The effect will be the same.”
Work out what for myself? How come this totally alien being knows so much about us? That’s the thing we never expected about alien species. The very definition of alien. But it knows everything…
It must have heard Peter call me by my name.
Its wings do not even look like a moth’s, now. They are throbbing, they even seem larger. They are not scaled like a moth’s. They are covered in short, trembling hairs; no, they do not remind me of hairs, they look more like synapses and nerve ends.
Oh my God! The horror! Here comes the candle…
Is that all?
No, it hurts.
There’s someone next to me where no one should be.
Peter, is that you? Is it over? Are we back on earth? Lance?
Worst of all, here comes the certainty, I will be seeing the world through ITS eyes, not mine.
And these wings are not for flying.
“Go away, fiend!”
“Well, that’s the first time I’ve been called that,” says Lance; pseudo Lance.
“There once was a patient named Alice,
Who drank deep from life’s bittersweet chalice.
A decayed macular
And a retinal scar
Made her sight Aurora Borealis.”
“You’re not Peter,” I said.
“Who am I, then?”
“You’re a giant moth on an asteroid; Ceres.”
“You can’t be — serious,” he says, laughing at his own joke.
“Do you ever stop joking?” says pseudo Lance to pseudo Peter. Then he speaks seriously, to me — to pseudo Me? “Do you know where you really are, Alice? You’re in hospital. Yeah?”
“You’re not Lance. You ate Lance, and Peter. And then you ate me!”
“Listen, Alice. It’s going to take a while before the anaesthetic wears off, but in the meantime, you need a little help. I’m Peter Laithwaite, I’m your surgeon. This is Doctor Lance Michaelson, he’s the registrar. I’ve just done a very tricky operation using a laser to repair your retina and regenerate your macula. Ring any bells?”
“One of the symptoms of your condition,” says Lance, “is what we call ‘new variant Charles Bonnet Syndrome’ when you get hallucinations. We had to move fast, because you were developing a psychosis where you imagined all kinds of weird and wonderful things were happening to you.”
“Sometimes called ‘Walter Mitty Syndrome’,” said Peter. “James Thurber had it after he went blind in one eye. It’s usually old people who develop it. But the form you have is extremely rare and very traumatic. We had to work fast. Looks like we were only just in time.”
He goes on to explain how the bonding matrix they injected into my eyes was made out of the scales on the wings of certain moths. Clever.
But they’re not fooling me — it’s not fooling me. That’s not what its wings are for.
Ⓒ Zoe Joyce Nightingale Butler 2016