Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
Gonzalez deals with it better than I do, or rather she doesn’t. I always mistook her for simple, but every day shows me how wrong I was. She is the one who gets up every day and inspects one by one the oxygen production systems, generators and tanks, whistling, as if the task brought her some pleasure. When she has time, she brings me a cup of the same black tea that she recycles four or five times until it turns into dirty water and some stale biscuits from our dwindling reserves. Then she exercises on the bike until the air is heavy and wet from her sweat. She spends the rest of his time reading or looking through the hatch. Sometimes she even has the nerve to try to make conversation.
I hate her, as I hate her smell that permeates the walls, or her unbreakable optimism, because if she doesn't break I don't have permission to do it either. I wish I could shit on myself and paint the hatches with my shit, break one by one the screens, scream until I tear my throat. But I never had any initiative, even now, so we are both together at the end of the world, in a sea of hydrogen turned into a cobweb soup. At some point the dying life-support mechanisms will fail, or perhaps HeLa will adapt and find us first, corroding the few bolts and hull joints until the Jovian mixture of hydrogen, helium, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide enters and we die gasping like fish, and with us humanity will end and the glorious triespecies model will meet its well-deserved end.
"Nobody pays me for having a hard time," Gonzalez had told me once, in another life, chewing gum." I accepted her wisdom too late.
We had met three years ago at the Hestia station, which orbited in the vicinity of Ganymede. We were in one of the transient bars that opened in the gaps between levels, when someone mounted sheet metal walls in a dead space between two hydroponic tanks. They were humid and unhealthy spaces, with an infamous alcohol distilled in unused water tanks, but they were almost the only meeting points we had. Gonzalez and I were laboratory mates, but we had never exchanged more than two phrases about the rancid and recycled air of the station and about the almost perpetual darkness of the exterior.
In the laboratory there were fifteen of us, and our job was to feed the five hundred souls of the orbital complex. Ten of us, or seven of us, or five could have done it, but Hestia's director board cultivated a traditional, old-fashioned image that seemed irresistible to a certain type of nostalgic investor.
My relationship with Ighal had just ended and I had set out to celebrate by drinking alone until I spent the week's allowance. She had come to the bar with two other classmates but, when they left, she sat next to me.
“Don't you ever think of going back to Earth?” I asked her, desperately searching for common places of conversation.
“No. Maybe for Christmas to see my sisters. But between us, I don't miss the planet that much either. Apart from the sun, everything else can go to hell.”
“Do you like this?” It was hard for me to contain the skepticism in the last word. I gestured to the skylight that occupied the ceiling on the circular bar, where Jupiter looked at us like a bloodshot eye.
“Yes… No. I don't know. If I go back, it'll be to one of the bases on Mars after it's terraformed. I read that Carabela will have open-air gardens in a couple of decades. I'd like to grow old there.”
I nodded, not understanding what he was saying. She looked up, her face bathed in the yellow light of the lamps.
“I grew up in the agglomeration of Poitiers, on Earth," I said, without turning to her. I hated it there, but now... I kinda miss it.”
“It was the first city where they started cutting down trees, wasn't it? I remember seeing it on the news. All that talk about biomass and sustainability...”
“The fourteenth zone was the first zone on the planet to be cleared of non-humans," I replied, and realized that my voice had changed. “Not that there was much left... we had a park with some trees, a zoo... and rats. They lived in the sewers. When the gases came to the surface, I remember that my street could hardly be passed. They looked like stuffed animals at first. Then they started smelling.”
I looked at my hands, rested on the bar, and removed the dirt from my nails. I was much drunker than I had planned to be and I was rambling, but Gonzalez nodded, as if she understood what I was trying to say.
“You were the enlightened ones. In Leyte people lived off the sea. Now they're still living off it, but the ocean is dead. Only the algae farms are left. They shine at night. It's beautiful, but I miss the fish. And the crabs.”
I leaned over the bar to stop myself from wobbling. I asked for another glass. I was getting emotional, and I did not like it.
“What a pity," I said, quoting my grandmother.
“Absolutely. And there's no lack of life forms either. Fifty billion humans, algae, cell tissues for protein, how much more biomass could fit?”
She laughed, to my surprise. I think she was drunk, too.
“Speaking of crops, Helacyton Gartleri," she said. “Our lab partner. She’s in your fingernails.”
I grimaced and hid my hands in shame. Ighal had broken up with me in the lab and I had thrown a Petri dish at him. Afterwards, I was horrified and apologized immediately. I had tried to clean his robe, without success.
“Sorry, I didn't mean to bother you," she said, seeing my expression.
“No, no, you're right to scold me. It's unprofessional.”
“Don't you think it's weird? Henrietta Lacks was born two hundred and thirty years ago, but she is still alive in every laboratory and every protein processing plant. Imagine how many tons of it there are. So much biomass.”
“They're cells from an ovarian tumor, Gonzalez. I wouldn't call that living. I don't even know if I'd call that human.”
“Maybe not, Yvonne.” Until then I hadn't been sure if he knew my name. Maybe you right and there's little human left of her. But it's still odd to feed algae with the cells of a dead woman. It's a far-fetched cannibalism”
-"My boyfriend left me today," I said, almost vomiting the words. “That's why I'm here.”
She turned to me and looked at me with a carefully contained expression, as if looking at a wounded animal. It was so transparent, I almost laughed.
“I missed seeing you around. I'll have one more with you, then" she gestured to order two more drinks, which the waiter (a young man with level four acne) brought us in a glass he had wiped with the same cloth with which he wiped the bar. We drank quietly.
“My girlfriend was murdered back home.” This time it was my turn to look at her cautiously, but her expression remained neutral, relaxed, and she looked forward. “Before she met me, she was with a boy. He didn't like being dumped for a woman. Her body was found in one of protein tanks. I left the planet on the first shuttle.”
"Crap of a world.” I managed to say. She took a piece of gum and started chewing it with pleasure.
“Well, I don't get paid for having a hard time." she replied.
She gave me a drunken, bright-eyed smile, and something changed between us. Maybe it was just the texture of the air.
That night we ended up in my room, on my own initiative. We started an intermittent affair, which lasted the next two years. Our relationship was full of nooks and crannies, logical loops, meaningless speeches. It didn't have a definite end, just as it didn't have a beginning. It was just time spent.
Most of the blame was mine. I was aware of my silences, my inappropriate comments and my distance, but I have always preferred to be a spectator in my life than anything else. In addition, the monotony at the station led all of us to look for unnecessary drama. We fed on conflict almost as much as we fed on seaweed porridge (seaweed biscuits, seaweed teas, seaweed cubes) of every day, if the sixteen-hour periods of lights on could be called days.
She was bored too, otherwise I don't understand how she put up with me for so long. My worst behaviors seemed to leave her unaffected. A couple of times she suggested that we go together to one of the bases of the Oort cloud, but I rejected her proposal.
She did not play along when I tried to argue. At first she seemed to absorb the conflict, just like lead lining absorbs radiation, but little by little I began to notice her putting up a wall, a distance I didn't strive to bridge. Her visits were almost imperceptibly spaced out, until one morning she ate her breakfast porridge in my apartment, left for work, and never returned. I remember her sitting on the counter, eating from a cup because I only had one bowl, with her long dark hair, that she had let grow in the last two years, falling onto her face. The room smelled of her, of us. I remember a vague pain in my chest I felt as I watched her carefully avoid my gaze. I also remember my silence when she left without a goodbye. Since then she politely rejected my attempts to approach her in the laboratory. I was promoted to plant manager, she was still a technician. Despite her professional stagnation, she seemed happier, calmer. I immersed myself in my responsibilities and the management of the level two laboratory. Saturated by the progressive arrival of people from Earth, our days became longer and longer, our work suddenly pressing, necessary.
I had a couple of lovers, Yael, five years younger and smelling like clandestine cigarettes, and Buba, the head of the level six laboratory. I liked them both, and they did not dislike each other. Sometimes we would get together to drink in one of our apartments and end up in bed, a knot of meat that would fall apart hours later in three sweaty bodies. “They're beautiful," said Yael one night, lying on the bed and looking through the hatch, which was facing the outside. From there the sun was a faded star in the velvety blackness of space. Only the ember of a cigarette illuminated his features. He was beautiful as an angel.
“The what?” Buba asked, half asleep. They liked the chatter after fucking.
We were in Buba’s apartment, which was considerably bigger than mine despite being cheaper. He had it because he had been in the station ten years longer than any of us and because of its orientation to the outside made the apartment always cold. Because of this, we always slept under thick blankets.
“My work. My plasmodiums.” Buba let out a growl and passed the ashtray. I nodded. Yael got mystical sometimes with his creatures. We allowed him to do so; he had managed to get a permission to breed a species that would not be exploitable by humans, occupying a few kilos of precious biomass allocation. It wasn't a negligible achievement. He took his holograph from the bedside table, which lit up in his hand. A yellow phosphorescence filled the room, casting a grid of shadows on the walls.
“They are beautiful.” I said, to my surprise.
“This is what they have done in the last few weeks” The images spun slowly and gave the room the appearance of an aquarium. Buba stood between the sheets and rubbed his eyes. “I gave them a map of the station and they have generated a better piping system than the algorithm.” Buba and I turned to look at him. “Not much better, of course. And it took weeks, while the algorithm took seconds. But there it is.”
He turned off the holograph and the darkness swallowed us again. Yael put out his cigarette.
“It's impressive." said Buba, waking up. “Will you discuss the results with the board?”
“I send them a report every week.” This time it was Yael's turn to sound asleep. “They always send me a terse thank-you letter. That's too bad.”
I shrugged, but I realized he wouldn't see it. He couldn't tell his expression in the shadows.
“They are the future," said Buba. “A colony of unicellular organisms manages better than any of us, anywhere. I wish they'd just listen.”
“A brain is a monstrosity." said Yael, his voice veiled by sleep. “Specialization was a mistake.”
They continued talking during what seemed like hours of amoebas, molds and algorithms, other creatures that had been extinguished by our hand. At some point I drifted into the darkness, tucked away by their voices. I had strange dreams, in which I stood barefoot on the shore of an obsidian ocean.
We met other times, pushed by the Brownian movement of the rest of the growing population of Hestia. The weekly ferry, which used to reach a quarter of its capacity in the past, began to appear half full, two-thirds, until we started receiving twenty new people each week.
We had to reopen levels seven and eight, abandoned years ago, hastily insulate them again from the cold of space with epoxy and install new electrical wiring. The ruling algorithms reconfigured resource and work allocations. Everyone's days got longer and the rations got smaller.
We welcomed the newcomers as best we could, but also with a certain disinterest. They told stories of an unprecedented food crisis. HeLa, our main source of crop fertilizer had mutated into a pest, feeding on the polymers that covered the containment tanks, on the cleaning agents themselves destined to purge it. It grew everywhere, in red filaments that spread through the gaps between machines, between tiles, forming thin films on the walls. One day, one of the strains reached the algae farms and prospered there.
Any attempt to contain it seemed futile. The new mutation was so aggressive, so persuasive, that it seemed to anticipate our measures of containment, as if it was animated by a will with almost human knowledge.
The Earth was dying, haunted by the specter of a woman who died centuries ago. It hurt, but it wasn't much worse than the throbbing pain I felt when a mine in Ganymede collapsed, or when a space station succumbed to a shower of asteroids or burst from within because of a civil war. My brothers lived in Io, and for a century Earth had not been the most important human enclave. Mars and Jupiter had that honor, and our species was also present in countless colonies on moons and comets. We'd live, or so I’d always told myself. A few months later, Yael moved into Buba's apartment. They kept inviting me occasionally. A couple of times we even ended up back in the huge bedroom bed. However, gently, they ended up putting up their own barrier. The last night we met, I saw them as if they were fish moving through an aquarium, speaking in their own language of silence and bubbles. At the end of the evening I said goodbye and left with my heart lighter.
They had been a good influence on me. Maybe that was what I had needed from the beginning, the presence of someone who did not require too much of my attention, people for whom I was a secondary character in their lives. The work absorbed us all equally. The task of keeping alive the station's population, which had quadrupled in a matter of months, became an endless task. The tanks, not accustomed to the load, broke down sometimes, flooding the laboratory with a marine odor.
It was worse outside. Gray-faced families crowded the previously empty corridors. To get to the lab, I had to walk over their sleeping bodies. The common areas were filled with hustle and bustle, noises, smells. A wretched barter market flourished between newcomers and old inhabitants.
I moved to the lab and gave my apartment to two families with four children. The newcomers called my action a generous sacrifice, but I just hated the sight of my four walls. I dragged my mattress under the sample-processing machine, where every night, wrapped in the rumor of the agitators, I managed to steal some precious hours of sleep. I became a hermit, although I had never been the most sociable woman. My lab mates also seemed absent, sleepwalkers with dark circles under their eyes. Among the newcomers there were some qualified ones, who joined immediately, but even with them we barely managed to reach the production targets. Those were days of walking through the fog.
I had a shy reconciliation with Gonzalez, who was the only person still humming and smiling at work. I left some gum on her table and she seemed to accept my pyrrhic and cowardly apology, as she stayed to talk to me that night. She sat on my table and played with her hair. Her face reflected the green light from the culture tanks and seemed to be underwater. “I told you I did my thesis on this, remember? Vulnerabilities of the scarcity of genetic variations. What happened to Earth was because they refused to grow more than one species.”
I let out a bitter laugh.
“I don't think there was a single biologist in my class who didn't write about it. But the three species model was too simple, too pretty not to adopt.”
“What do you think will happen?” She asked me, not having much interest in my answer.
“You haven't heard this from me, but Jupiter will stop issuing visas. Buba had told me after a few glasses of wine.”
She turned to me, her expression unreadable.
“There are at least three ships on the way to Hestia. Their arrival is scheduled in one hundred and fifty hours.” Her tone was not interrogative, but the question was there.
“I don't know what the position of the board is in Hestia, but I don't expect the best.”
There was a moment of silence. The two of us had come to Hestia on our way to Jupiter and had decided to stay, years ago. I remembered my passage in that dark and crowded ship. I thought of the three ships that, like mine, sailed through space full of people on their way to a better life, only that they would not have a planet to welcome them, perhaps not even a station. I thought of the stories I had heard of ships drifting in space.
I looked at Gonzalez.
“We don't have room for everyone, Gonzalez. At least those who have already arrived at the station will be able to stay.”
“My sisters were in Leyte." She replied dryly. “They told me how the plague had escaped from the tanks and was spreading across the Indian Ocean. I haven't heard from them in days.” Again, her silence contained a message. We had heard rumors that HeLa, after consuming all the resources of an area, jumped to humans, who were the last resource of organic matter. There was no news on that areas, not even clandestine recordings.
“I won't miss them," she said, keeping her voice calm. We never understood each other. But I don't know what happened to them and that's driving me crazy. How about yours?” “I spoke to Jamal and Thessa in Io and it seems that they have the plague under control. But food is scarce, even though the tanks are safe." I paused. I hope your sisters are all right.
“Hestia is one of the best monitored stations, Gonzalez. It won't get here.”
“You once said that HeLa was not human," She said, and in his voice there was a bitterness that almost made me flinch. “I think she's better at being human than all of us.” She left without a word. I tried to follow her, but she gestured to me that she'd rather be alone.
Two hundred hours later, one of the ventilation ducts in the common rooms was blocked. The cleaners found there a colony of Hela that had been thriving in the warm, humid air and low gravity of the pipe. They immediately incinerated it, so we didn't get to inspect it, but the technicians said it showed signs of cellular specialization, with tendrils spreading like nets to capture floating organic particles.
The quarantine protocol was activated immediately. The station closed its doors, condemned access between levels, and launched six teams that combed levels one by one. In the laboratory we hardly noticed the difference; for weeks, we had only remembered the outside world to send the processed batches of algae and protein through the supply ducts. Only a few steps were added to the protocol for sterilizing human waste and cleaning tanks. Like a heart, the station was still beating in a controlled flow. We kept working increasingly long, infinite cycles. My hands looked gray in the light of the forced photosynthesis tanks. I don't remember feeling good or bad. I was never good at assessing the scale of disasters, either in my personal life or in the world around me. Maybe because I had always been happier when he worked, more than when talking to people, more than when I was idle.
Levels one and two were the first to collapse. I only found out through the screens and the holographs, because I refused to leave the lab. HeLa had colonized the lungs of one of the station's original inhabitants, who collapsed in a corridor coughing up blood. The robots they sent to do the autopsy found that the infection had broken through his abdominal cavity, replacing adipose tissue and colonizing the spaces between organs, as if it did not want to kill its host.
Mandatory health inspections found ten more inpiduals infected. The board reported that the subjects would be quarantined in a former warehouse. When I spoke to Buba through the communicator he told me that there were no operational warehouses in that area of the station. They'd been thrown into space.
But it was too late. Two days later, his hospital was collapsed. After a brief internal debate, the board ruled that the two infected levels should be decoupled from the rest of the season. In a matter of hours, the two disks that made up the station cylinder had loosened and floated adrift, with life support systems set to fail in a matter of days.
I refused to see the images of the ensuing chaos in the abandoned sections, but they made their way into my dreams, in which a mass of men, women and children, blind with terror, with blood in their eyes and mouths, knocked in vain the access doors between levels, shielded by three steel walls, until they felt the gigantic crack of the station decoupling and their artificial gravity systems ceased to function and the whole crowd rose in a single scream, in a tangle of sick limbs and bodies and pain.
I negotiated with one of the newcomers the price of a box of sleeping pills in exchange for my rations for three days. At the end of the third, a gray veil covered my eyes. But I could sleep without dreams.
I talked to Buba a week later. His face appeared discolored on the screen, consumed with worry and grief. He'd already been on level two, he said. I didn't know what to say. “They didn't disconnect the cameras, so…” His voice broke. “From time to time I access the surveillance system and look for him, or what's left of him.” “I'm so sorry.” I managed to answer.
“The face recognition system couldn't find Yael, so I decided to look for him on my own, access the video stream, and... and...” He sighed, and for a moment it seemed that this man, who had always been muscle and laughter, was going to crumble. “It's different from what I expected”.
“What do you mean?” I forced myself to ask.
“I thought the lighting would fail after the first day, it's... one of the first systems to go out. But it still works. So I saw everything is... Yvonne, is...” He gestured with his hands, as if trying to define something without form. “It's beautiful.”
“What?” I couldn't hide the indignation in my voice.
“The HeLa... covers the walls and the floor, and all surfaces. No sign of Homo sapiens. No sign of us. It has devoured us. From levels one and two, there's only one single forest of meat. I don't know how it managed to vascularize, digest, or process air, but it does. The station looks so soft… like a bed. Everybody's asleep. Yael sleeps.”
He said those last words with a dreamy expression. Tears came to my eyes, and I shook my head to drive them away.
“The plague has probably already spread to other levels. We didn’t screen the newcomers properly. Yvonne... I used to be afraid, Yvonne, but now... now I know I'll sleep.”
I turned off the screen and put my head between my hands. Buba had been my lover. We had never been in love, I had never fallen in love with anyone, but I was still one of the few people who had been able to get a little closer to my heart. The tears that I had been holding for a long time without knowing made their way into my chest and I began to cry in ugly sobs, hidden in my cubicle. I knew my peers could hear me, but for once, I didn't care. Everyone cried every day.
When I raised my head, Gonzalez had sat at my table. She did not touch me, but she stood there looking at me, and then she left.
Buba was right. Level three went on alert for infection a few hours later. This time I could hear the decoupling mechanisms that went into effect immediately. The board was probably waiting for the event. Level four was exposed to the cold of space.
We all knew we had barely any time left. The radio was still working, or so said the representatives of the board, but both Jupiter and the nearest stations only emitted silence. There had been no panic communications, no distress calls, just one day their stations went dark.
We preventatively swept the lab. It was a good idea. Shortly after we separated from level three, we began to hear knocks on the door. The cameras showed a group of people who had improvised a battering ram made of rolled sheet metal and were trying to break down the door. We watched in silence as they began to drown when the board opened the hatches and the space vacuum suctioned the air from the corridor.
We kept working. As long as people lived, we could not stop. The screens showed us images of panic and depravity. We turned them off. We knew that the food would reach the common rooms intact; whatever happened there with it was none of our business. That isolation did not allow us to see how the plague was revealed among the population at our level. Maybe it was for the best.
All I remember is that one morning (late? night?) a colleague's cough woke me up. He was one of the newcomers, barely a kid, whose name I don't remember. We all knew right away what it meant. We gathered around him and accompanied him as he convulsed, until he stopped moving, hours later. Red tendrils came out of his eyes.
We still did not say anything. Maybe we'd forgotten how to talk, temporarily. Gonzalez got up and opened the corridor door, where the corpses of the previous invaders were still lying, desiccated by the days they spent without air. We slowly made our way through the chaos of level four, trying not to miss anything that happened.
There wasn't much to describe, or at least not much that I wouldn't have imagined. The five members of the board were hanged in the common room. Judging by the smell, they'd been dead for a few days. However, there were hardly any bodies. There were fewer people than I expected. I figured the suicides would have jumped into space.
Those who remained watched us advance in our white lab robes, but said nothing. A crowd had gathered in front of the hatch that looked at Jupiter. Many seemed wounded, healed with improvised bandages. I did not see any face I recognized.
They let us go through. Someone shouted at us when they saw that we were coming from the laboratory, but the scream was extinguished very quickly, although I did not see what happened to the person. I did not know what they were waiting for, but I sat with them. There were people asleep, on the floor, on chairs, on tables. Plates and bowls laid, finished or half-finished. Children took refuge in their parents' lap. At some point I let sleep take me.
The screams woke me up. I had a headache, a pain that seemed to have been silently growing in my long working days, waiting for its chance to emerge.
A circle had formed in a corner of the common room, away from the window. I did not want to see what was going on. I left the room and wandered, blind and deaf, overcome by fatigue. I came across other emaciated, half-sleep faces, and sometimes we greeted each other with a gesture. What's up, we seemed to say. The world is coming to an end.
A sudden pull shook me out of my drowsiness, and I found Gonzalez's anguished face. Her hair fell on her face. She pulled my arm again, and I let myself go.
“What's going on?” I asked, as if I didn't know.
“It’s here!” I shrugged my shoulders as I pushed forward. “You don't understand! I had heard rumors of what was going on in Jupiter, they said that... people had stopped fighting, that they were getting infected deliberately!”
That last sentence made me react, and I looked at her.
“HeLa has been found in two of the apartments. It had consumed the three families, and the people...” Her voice broke. “The ones who found them… just jumped into the red mass. The people have stopped fighting! They say they want to be part of the future!”
I finally understood her. A wave of nausea made its way into my stomach. I would have vomited, if I'd eaten anything in the last few days, but I only expelled bile. A couple crossed paths with us and looked at us without interest.
“Their reproduction still follows the exponential reproduction rule, right?” I asked. It was her turn to shrug.
“I have no way of knowing, but why wouldn't it? It’s got enough matter to feed on.”
We looked at each other. Even if we hadn't always understood each other, throughout our relationship we had learned to communicate without speaking. I let myself be carried by her, this time gently, to the hangar of ships, and we went into one of the evacuation capsules.
“Nobody tried to leave?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Those who keep their sanity know that there is nowhere to go. Those who have lost it want to stay.”
I nodded. It was not the reaction I would have expected from a panicked crowd, but perhaps the finality of the moment had changed us. Wasn't my reaction also atypical?
We left the station behind. Gonzalez drove the capsule as I watched through the airlock as Jupiter's red eye grew larger and larger until we plunged into a sea of clouds. She suggested approaching the old Jove base in Jupiter, out of sheer curiosity, knowing it would be a dead place.
We didn't even find it. It wasn't on the radar.
Since then, we have sailed through the rarefied atmosphere of Jupiter, like a leaf carried by the storm. I regret not staying in Hestia. Perhaps we should have stayed with the others, lived with them that red communion, in which bodies and minds dissolve.
The radio's back on line. A few days ago we found a live channel of hissing and clicking, which did not correspond to anything we had heard before. Gonzalez and I made love again surrounded by the strange static.
The signals come from the floating station Jove and from Hestia. We even received some communications from beyond the Oort Cloud, fading in the distance. They are talking in their odd language; one part listens and the other emits. It should not be real. They should not be able to communicate. But somehow HeLa's colonies know of the existence of others. We went back to look for Jove, quadrant by quadrant, but the taken station eludes us. Maybe it's deliberate. We checked that the signals from Hestia and the other bases in orbit sound farther and farther away. Our brothers and sisters are leaving us behind.