George Tom is a speculative fiction writer from Bangalore, India.
I crouch on the bitterly cold surface. Although the suit’s climate controlled to the last degree, I want to shiver. My visor helps me see through the incessant blizzard and I can see the team trudging on towards what has brought me to do this and risk everything: A journey to witness the birthplace of the cosmos.
How can you suppress the desire to kneel and touch the roots that sprung you, your ancestors, and their spirits? To know the place—a single point on this planet that entirety was born from. If you gently pour water onto the icy ground, you’ll see it crystallize rapidly, beginning with a seed crystal, expanding its scaffolding for others, quickly outgrown and forgotten. We want that seed, its crumbling lattice, its painful edges. It is here and not one of us will turn our backs on it until we drink its radiance. Some primitive instinct keeps us going.
I pick myself up and crank up the temperature, but I can still feel a frosted dread. No one will admit that unrest has settled in them, but it’s clear in the way the team moves on without a word or gesture. In the absence of a map, we had to rely on intuition as the team leader calls it, though I know there’s hardly any intuition about the direction we’re moving in.
Team leader keeps reminding us to send a pulse through our notochords, relish the blanket of insulating air trapped in piloerection, feel the bite of requited terror, unsanitized and then disappear. There’s an epilepsy of torsos and limbs, over in a second, then returned to the steady drum of marching men, poised for another shudder.
But I can’t, I just can’t shiver.
The storm intensifies, and it gets harder with the wind in your face. Even your gear has its limit. Every step feels like lifting lead and the fluctuating gravity fields only make the going harder. The constant low rumble above us stops and then there is a ghastly silence. A ragged beam drops from the sky and right onto one of us. He drops cold. We move on because there’s no time for goodbyes. I look behind and see through his visor. Even through the hazy weather, I can see those frozen eyes trying to tell me something, but the team leader gives me a sharp look. I keep moving.
The terrain keeps getting harder to cover and we would have dropped from exhaustion a long time ago were it not for the immunity the gear gives us. But we are not immune to pain that wrecks our fatigued souls. The mountains tremble and a low rumble transforms into a loud roar as several tons of ice come crashing down towards us. The leader gives out the command to disperse and I scramble to get out of the way. Some just stand there frozen in defiance looking foolishly at the charging avalanche. The suit minimizes exposure and reveals only the eyes, but I swear I saw a weak smile on their faces as they met their doom. We lose more men to the calamity than expected. Our pace increases and the leader doesn’t do much anymore except occasionally turn around to assert his remaining authority.
The blizzard calms, the flakes fall gently onto us, and the fields finally stop fluctuating. We move faster and it renews our spirit. We find a spot to lie down and rest. Some never rise from this position again. We resume our march, the snow stops, the ice thaws, and the temperature steadily rises above freezing until the mercury rests at a comfortable level. Most of us shut down the protective climate control and we can finally breathe in the planet’s air without our lungs stinging from the unforgiving cold.
Rolling plains stretch ahead of us and for once, we can see miles ahead of us. Our speed quickens and we break into a jog. Then without warning, the leader’s suit blows and he crumples to the ground. We all stop and crowd around him. He frantically tries to cover the jagged tear with his hands, but it’s useless. Without a shepherd to lead us, some seize the opportunity and run away into the wilderness. I, among a few others, remain loyal to the cause and move forward.
We were only in the eye of the wretched storm. The field intensity and heat increase soon after that and we quickly restart our suits to counter them. The land grows barren and the planet’s relentless stars beat down on us. The parched and cracked ground makes us beg for the cursed Blizzard. Then, from the dry scrub around us, giant blue flames erupt and slowly consume the thorny forests. The forest fire gives the atmosphere an eerie red tinge and hot, toxic fumes envelope us. Some of our suits strain under the pressure and its circuitry fuses. It doesn’t take long for the heat to get to them after that. Afraid of a similar fate, the remaining few of us amble, knowing that any exertion could be our last.
Then the ground erupts in tremors and splits to swallow us into its deep chasms. I pay heed to my instinct and run as fast as my suit will take me. I barely manage an escape.
The landscape changes again and the entire scene is bathed in scarlet. I sense that it is near and look around for any comrades. I am alone. A stream of red cuts its way through the earth and passes ahead of me, widening to become a surging river. I bend down and dip my hands into the fluid. My pain and fatigue wash away in this river of blood. Tired of this mission, I dive into the river head first. My gear still holds against this alien viscosity as I sink lower into the depths of the river. I become limp as all my troubles leech through my suit and into the waters. Then my legs are at the receiving end of something hard as my knees bend and adjust to the landing on the river bed.
Fear, I think, is the love for meaning, an unconditional love. What should I feel when I’m being born into a new death?
I see it in all its glory, the river of Ichor, of annihilation and birth, where it all began, at the bottom of the river that washed away my suffering and eased my pains. I slowly kneel on the soft river bed and bow my head in a final submission, drifting away to a foreign land. This is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And though my suit’s conditioned to the last degree, I finally shiver.