A sci-fi short story by Jack Murphy
Antarctica. I couldn’t believe it. Soon, I’d see the Earth’s most unearthly side. Soon, I’d step foot onto the awesome, blood-freezing beauty of its infinite canvas of ice. This was the reason I joined the Argentinian navy. This was the reason I fought the British. This was the subject of so many of my dreams and fantasies; so many times on the journey I pinched myself before I realised that I really didn’t care if it was a dream or not–if it was, I didn’t want to wake myself up, anyway.
The boat ride down–the furthest down you can ever even go–took many days and nights. None of us had even a centimetre of skin exposed, when we finally arrived; we would’ve lost any centimetre we didn’t cover multiple times over to a turquoise death within mere instants. Of course, none of us minded the cold, though; you don’t travel to Antarctica looking for a tropical vacation.
We had received a grant to undergo the expedition on the grounds that some or another form of scientific research would be conducted while we were on it, but the majority of us were just giddy as schoolgirls that we were actually getting to go. Still, there were some who took a more serious approach to the work that our government expected us to do. Actually, I don’t think we could’ve struck a better balance between those two poles. We were all so excited to explore the unknown, in our own ways; that’s what brought us there, that’s what brought us together, and that there is the best motivation a crew can possibly have.
The first day went extraordinarily. Right after we all set up our campsite and our equipment, most of us–including me, obviously–just frolicked around on the huge white sheet, playing and laughing and singing and dancing. We didn’t care if we looked like the biggest fools on the face of the Earth, all costumed up in our Eskimo-suits; no one could see us but the penguins, anyway, and they all had funny enough suits of their own.
After we tired of frolicking–which took a lot longer than you might expect–we all agreed to sit down and take some samples and some measurements–in other words, do what we were actually supposed to be doing. I didn’t pay too much attention to what exactly we sampled and measured. The ice, I’m pretty sure, was one of the first things on that list, and then some atmospheric levels like temperature, atmospheric pressure, etc.
My first night was also extraordinary. For most, it was just difficult and uncomfortable, trying to sleep in such a strange place. But for me, it was not only that, but also perhaps the most interesting, incredible, absolutely absurd thing that’s ever happened to me.
At 00:00 sharp I heard a smooth, descending tone–not unlike a birdcall slowed down about a thousand per cent–coming from far off in the distance. Being careful not to make too much noise, I put on another layer of insulation, unzipped my tent, and went out into the Antarctic night, alone, in the name of both scientific and personal discovery.
The wind was persistent, but I was more so. I followed the sound for what must’ve been at least a good half mile before I found its source. At that point, I knew I must’ve been dreaming, and this time I definitely wanted to wake up. I tried to pinch myself, but I couldn’t through all my layers. What I saw took my imagination, kicked it around like a hacky sack, juggled it with two other imaginations with only one of its hands while yawning with the other, and then let it fall to the ground and just pointed and laughed at it.
At first, all I saw was a spectacle of light: dark, dim blue and blindingly bright yellow orbs silhouetted the object they spun around. But then, as they slowed–almost undetectably smoothly–to a stop and then faded–just as smoothly–off, it became clear. The sleek, white metal disc wobbled ever-so-slightly in a circle as it hovered a few metres over the ice. All along the centre of its circumference, black-tinted glass stared out into the very heavenly bodies it reflected. In short, I saw a goddamned spaceship.
A beam of light descended–as instantly as light does–from the ship, and then a humanoid figure descended just as instantly from the beacon of light. At first, once again, the figure was too silhouetted by the light to make out any significant details it might’ve had other than its humanoid shape. It began to approach me. Half of me wanted to run; the other half wanted to run in a different direction. Apparently, though, some third half that I was completely unaware of wanted to simply stay put, because that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
The figure stopped approaching me before I could begin to clearly see any of its features besides two black dot eyes set against a glowing gold face framed by what appeared to be a cubic helmet. The being looked more like a god than any depiction or description of an alien I’d ever seen or heard. It opened its arms to me like a parent to a child taking their first steps.
“Hello!” a tinny, distinctly male voice called out over the hum of the spaceship, whose tone had stopped descending and was now modulating in time with the craft’s wobbling. “What are you? Who are you? How are you?” the way it spoke reminded me of the Spanish One students I’d taught during my time in America. It continued in a more sophisticated manner, annunciating each word with particular precision without sacrificing the overall flow of its speech, “I come in peace! …is that a cliché? I’m sorry! I’m conducting some research. May I interview you, as a part of said research?”
I looked left, and then right, carefully considering the alien’s request. Then, I shrugged. After a good many seconds had gone by, the voice spoke again. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. My communications device registered that gesture as neither affirmative nor negative. Please, can you clarify?”
I licked my lips and furrowed my brow, thinking some more. Finally, I started to nod. Then, continuing the nodding assuredly, I gave a thumbs-up.
“Great!” it shouted. I was only just starting to notice, but the voice had genuine emotion to it. Just then, the humanoid figure disappeared, as quickly as it had come, and the beam of light abruptly bent to end in a vertical cylinder around me. A blink later, I was aboard the spaceship.
Artificial sunlight–I could feel its warmth and immediately had to start taking off some of my layers–poured down from the ceiling. The ship’s interior consisted mainly of the same sleek white metal as its exterior, with various-coloured lights flashing on and off or shining steadily on its console, which encircled a pillar in the centre of the cabin. The outer wall was one crystal-clear window from top to bottom. The panoramic view of the black Antarctic night sky and its beaming stars, fully unaffected by any kind of light pollution, provided an awe-inspiring backdrop for the scene.
The humanoid figure stepped out from behind the console. It was made of a dull grey metal. Its torso was a rectangular prism with a flat door for its front face. Its limbs appeared to be stripped their bare essentials. Its extremities were infinitely intricate and complex. And before I could get a good look at its cubic head, it opened up at the top and a glowing gold ball with two black dot eyes and five pointed limbs evenly spread out in a circle around it like a star shot out and stood on top of it. It was no bigger than a football, but still somehow it commanded a serious level of respect.
“What… what are you?” I asked, then realised how rude that question might’ve been.
“It’s a long story;” a less tinny version of the voice responded, “I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially my species accidentally invented a device that turned us all into… well, symbols, if that makes any sense. It’s not all that bad, actually. There’ve been advancements made, since, and now we can at least choose which symbol we want to be at any given moment. As you can probably tell, I’m a star. Because I’m a captain. Of space. Space captain. Oh yeah.”
“That… must be interesting.” I replied. The idea didn’t make much sense, to me–I knew what it meant, but I couldn’t understand it for the life of me.
“Well, isn’t everything–at least sometimes? I mean, every experience has its own ups and downs, you know? Anyway, I’m really more interested in you. You see, about… how old is life on this planet, now?”
“What, you mean life on Earth?”
“No, I mean life on the other planet we’re in the atmosphere of. …wow, your language has sarcasm. Cool!” The star-man nodded at me in admiration. “Anyway,” he went on, “I can’t remember the exact number of years off the top of my head, but for the sake of my explanation I’ll round it off at, let’s say… two billion five hundred million? Yeah, whatever, that sounds about right. So, you see, about two billion five hundred million years ago, life began on this planet. Then, about four hundred fifty million years ago, we–my species–started to… well, we noticed it–life–and, naturally, we started to interact with it. Mostly to help it eventually reach the utopian level of civilization life on our planet eventually reached, but also just to… well, to experiment.
We made a few mistakes–had to flip the ol’ ice age switch more than a few times–but then, after almost four hundred fifty million years, we finally got something to walk on two legs–that’s really the first step, you see. Once they’ve got two limbs that aren’t really doing anything, anymore, they start to think of things they could be using them for instead of just… keeping themselves upright. So anyway, we figured we’d succeeded, at that point, so we–well, actually, we never really left you all alone; we kept watch, but… we also kept our distance, you know? We wanted to see what would happen, I guess, but we also wanted to make sure you guys didn’t do anything too horrifically wrong. So, basically, I’m just here to check on how things are going. I really don’t know that much about this planet–I do a lot more with your neighbour–I think you call it “Mars”?–so I figured I’d just… start with the top and kind of… work my way down, you know?”
“Right…” I tried to let all that he’d said sink in, but one thing stuck out: “the… top…”
“Yeah, the top. Not too much going on up here, so far, though… actually, you’re my first human interviewee. So–“
“Uh–um… excuse me,” I had to interrupt him, there, “did you just say your first human interviewee?”
“Well…” He looked me up and down, puzzled. “you are human, aren’t you? That’s what my sensors said… do I need to update my databank?”
“Wh–no, no, it’s fine. I–I am human, yes. Please, continue.”
“Uh…” The star-man thought about that brief period of mutual confusion for a moment, then shook his head and continued, “Well, okay… so, could you just provide me with a bit of background information on yourself?–I just need a basic understanding of what your perspective’s like, what kind of experiences you’ve had, that sort of thing, then we’ll… kind of let it flow from there, how about?”
So I told him a summary of my life story. “I was born in Argentina–oh, you don’t know what that is, do you? I was born in… a beautiful country–you know what a country is, right? Well, anyway, I was raised by my two parents–that’s normal for humans–well, most of them, anyway. A mother and father is standard… more or less. In school–which is a… well, you have schools, where you come from, don’t you?” …and so it went.
After some time spent establishing what he did and didn’t know about human life, I was able to go into more depth about my personal history. I told him how I studied literature, especially interested in poetry, how I joined the Argentinian navy, hoping to one day go to Antarctica, how I fought for the Falklands against the British, how I moved to America after the war, how I got certified to teach Spanish, how I taught at a private, specialised boarding school and how the children were so disrespectful and even hostile at times, how I eventually decided to leave, to return to my home country to pursue my dream once more, and how I had just now achieved it.
When I finished, the star-man looked well-past confused and far beyond concerned. “Wait, so… the children… were mean to you? Most people… didn’t believe in your goals? I… wh–I don’t understand!! Wh–we–I thought we sent a patch for that! And I–I mean I know there was a period where it was mostly rejected, but I heard it was really starting to get popular, again, not too long ago… what happened?!”
“…what do you mean?” He’d stopped making sense to me at around the word “patch”.
“I mean… have you ever heard of a chemical called–god, hang on, I have to look it up…” He bounced hurriedly over to the console as if he were much less affected by gravity than it seemed like he should’ve been and started to type frantically on a keyboard, staring intensely at a holographic screen I couldn’t quite see clearly. After no more than a few seconds of this, he seemed satisfied, and turned to me. “”Psilocybin”;” he said, “sound familiar, at all?”
I rubbed my neck, but nodded all the same.
“So whatever happened to it?” he looked sincerely worried.
“It… uh… you know, I’ve had… experiences, with that chemical. And… I… learned a lot, from those experiences. But… I think what happened is that… is that that chemical was made out to be a kind of a… uh… what’s the best way to say this? A “good time” chemical, a chemical you’d take to… to party, I guess? And then, people took that chemical, expecting that, and then… they didn’t get what they expected, exactly, of course, because it’s not always a “good time” all the time, and… well, it’s a very powerful experience, and if you don’t go into it knowing that, and… being very open about it, well, you’re… you’re not going to have a very good time, now, are you?” I shrugged.
“Well… I guess not.” The star-man shrugged, too. “Well, sucks to be you!” But his two black dot eyes smiled at me. “Ha, no, I’m just kidding… that’s all I needed to hear from you, though. You have a good time living your dream, now, okay? And thank you. It’s been helpful.”
“Oh… really?” I bent down and started to put all the layers I’d taken off back on. “Well… fantastic. Goodbye, then, I guess. It’s been a pleasure. And… good luck with the rest of us humans–we aren’t all so nice, you know.”
The star-man laughed. “I think I’ll be fine. See you later, earthling!” And in a blink, I was back down on Antarctica, at the bottom of the planet, feeling on top of the world–or, in other words, a little bit uneasy.