lodestar contest part 2 & 4 entry
|Part One Entry: Spaceman by J.B. Ezar ▼
John ate his processed protein slurry like he had every day. He had lost count of how long. Before that, he had eaten dehydrated meals meant to be at least a little appetizing. He had long since run out of things like Tabasco sauce that made things marginally edible. He grew his own nutrient slurries from the cultures the base had in stock. They were nutritionally complete and all they required was sunlight and water. They tasted like, well, nothing. Their texture wouldn't be a selling point either.
John finished his breakfast and suited up. The pressure suit was patched, repatched, and cobbled together from the suits he had on hand. There used to be four men on base. One by one they had gone mad and left the habitat without their pressure suits. They had wandered off into the desolate landscape of this world, dying as the poisonous atmosphere slowly killed them. He hadn't found their bodies, but he was grateful for the spare parts.
"You know you could just leave," a very convincing hallucination of Tom Roberts, the mission commander, stated. He wore street clothes and had entered through the airlock during John's breakfast.
The hallucinations had begun a few months ago, or at least that was how long John thought it had been. The first few hallucinations had been of the dead crewmembers. But not that long ago, John had begun seeing family and friends he had left behind on earth. It was really beginning to wear him down. Was this what had happened with the others? Had they begun seeing things before madness drove them from the habitat to their certain deaths? He knew they had talked wildly about this stupid mission being the death of them.
"John, come on man! You've proved you were the toughest! You swore you would hang in the longest but this is getting ridiculous!" Tom argued.
That was when the airlock cycled through and James Jameson, the mission medic entered, "Tom, any luck getting through to him?"
"Maybe we should fix the radio, maybe he'd pull out of this if he heard it from the base."
James frowned. Why did their emotions seem so real? "It didn't work before he busted the damn thing!"
"He can't really think he'll die out there?"
John finished suiting up by latching on the gloves. Then he entered the airlock, Tom and James joined him in the airlock and passed pitying looks between them. The airlock cycled out and John opened the outer door. There wasn't really a pressure differential between the habitat and the desolate outer landscape. The reason for the separation was the high levels of cyanide in the atmosphere.
John followed the path through the sand and dust that he had made over the days, months, or years he had been alone on this planet. He had paced out a route of one mile out around and back to the habitat. James and Tom followed him muttering between them about how stupid he was to be taking this all so seriously. John wished they would just dry up and blow away.
Somewhere along the hike James and Tom left him. He was alone when he returned to the habitat. John entered the airlock. He was shocked when he entered the main habitat and saw his mother sitting at the dining table. "John, son, I am really proud of you! But it is time to leave the habitat. You're taking this too far. Come with mama."
John felt tears coming. He had promised himself not to engage with the images. He didn't even want to let them know he saw them. Somehow that was his way of denying they existed at all. John walked past his mother and began stripping out of the pressure suit. She pleaded with him the whole time. By the time he had gotten down to his jumpsuit, she was in tears. John walked around her to the lab where he grew his nutrient slurry. Everything checked out. Next, he went into the greenhouse. This season he had managed to grow a nice crop of lettuce and tomatoes. Too bad the cyanide content of the native soil meant he couldn't eat a bite of them. He watered the lettuce with moisture he had collected and filtered from outside.
He reentered the main living space, his mother was gone. Just as well, if she had still been there, he would have broken down. This way he was able to maintain his practice of not engaging the hallucinations. It was getting late, he went to the computer terminal and began typing up his report of the last twenty-four hours. He left out the parts about the increasing incidence of hallucinations. It wasn't like he could transmit the report, but his paranoia was such that he didn't want future missions to think he had gone crazy. Denying the hallucinations in this way helped him clutch on to the illusion of sanity.
The airlock cycled open and a group of complete strangers entered the habitat. "Remember, stay at least six feet away from Mr. Garret here. He hasn't been exposed to Covid or vaccinated so he is very susceptible. Don't bother attempting to interact with him. He believes we are hallucinations. Nothing you say could convince him otherwise." The first woman out stated. She wore what looked like a tour guide's uniform. "This habitat was built as four modules assembled on-site by the four-person team assigned to occupy it. It has been in this position for seventeen years. The exploration outfit responsible for the habitat has since gone belly up and the land has reverted to a national park. Please do not tamper with the equipment as this is Mr. Garret's home."
The tour group followed the guide through the habitat and then left, cycling out of the airlock. It left John wondering about the tour. He didn't recognize a single one of them, and what about the statement that he believed they were hallucinations? Maybe they weren't. No, a hallucination would say that. John poured himself another bowl of slurry. He carried his supper to the table and contemplated his reality. These hallucinations were starting to get to him. Why had his psyche come up with the tour group?
John sat down to eat. He stirred the slurry like his mind stirred his thoughts on the hallucinations. What was he hanging on for? No one was going to rescue him, the distance was prohibitive. They had been in suspended animation for months and even at sunlight speeds, it would take a century for help to come. Even if he were rescued, so much time would have passed on earth that no one he knew would still be alive. He just might as well step out there and let the cyanide rock him into the big nap. John dropped his spoon into the bowl and stood up. He walked to the airlock in nothing but his jumpsuit.
John stepped into the airlock and began cycling it to the outside atmosphere. He wondered what cyanide poisoning would feel like. The outer door opened. He started to walk the same path he usually did. No, this was his last walk, he headed off to the right of the habitat. John kept putting one foot in front of another expecting each step to be his last, but he had yet to feel the effects of the atmosphere poisoning him.
The walk became a hike. John wondered just how far he would go. Up ahead he saw an area that looked a great deal like a parking lot. The poisoning must have begun to eat at his brain. John made this new hallucination his destination. A new looking structure stood on the far side of the parking lot. He crossed the pavement. There was a glass front door like what John remembered a convenience store to have. Inside was a snack bar and a counter filled with brochures. One of the prominent brochures showed his habitat. "The oldest continuously occupied space simulation on earth," The brochure read.
John picked it up. He opened it and saw his picture that was taken the day he left earth. He began reading. What he read left him shocked. This couldn't be a hallucination. He could feel the paper. He could smell the hot dogs on the grill. How long had it been... John walked up to the counter of the snack bar. The woman behind the counter looked real. "I would like a chili dog.
"Sure, that'll be four-fifty."
John patted his jumpsuit, he didn't have any money. It had been seventeen years, according to the pamphlet, since he had needed money. "I, uh," John held up the pamphlet with his picture out. The woman looked at him and then the pamphlet.
"Holy...cow. That's you. You're John Garret! I have to call somebody!" The woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a thin rectangular object. She tapped at it and then put it to her ear. "Yeah, uh John Garret has left the habitat!" She paused, "Well, he asked for a chili dog... Yes, sir."
The woman removed the object from her ear and put it back in her pocket, "Do you want onions on that?"
One hundred years later, when the rescue mission arrived they found the bodies of the first four colonists within twenty feet of their habitat.