A Saturday Night Mutiny
by J. Keegan
"Sergeant Jerr, can you take a look at this?"
Sergeant Jane Jerr is my colleague, and my friend for eight years. I hold in my hand a Petri dish; I am a naturalist, and like Charles Darwin before me, I collect biological samples. Unlike Darwin, I am exploring not just a remote island, but an antipodean planet.
The white field suits make it difficult to maneuver, but Jane stands from kneeling.
This planet is numbered 343220.127.116.119.8539, but the crew nicknamed it Spele from the word speleology, meaning the exploration and study of caves. And, how do I fit in in the grand mission? The satellites and robot probes and the aerial drones do most of the specimen work. Really, I am a failsafe in case the technology fails. I am a bystander to science.
A series of valleys spread out before me like a Persian carpet unrolling on uneven ground, and this alien world is beautiful like a sixteenth century Iranian weave. Many colors.
"I think I have something here," I say to Jane.
Jane's brother bought his way into a marriage on planet L18.104.22.168., and his lover is in prison, so Jane's brother by planetary law is made to live in prison with his lover, and it is a twenty year sentence, and there is no parole in their legal system. That is why Jane is here; she traded wealth and rank to be alone, out here. And, no one shipside knows her name is Jane; they all call her, Jillian, and it is our little joke. Her brother is in maximum security on an undocumented world. And Jane tries to use the universe to hide.
The Petri dish is full of white downy particles.
Myself, I am rendered. I have had myself sterilized. Why? To make me a better intellectual.
"Lieutenant Vibbard, what have you got there?" asks Jane. Jane is a redhead, and like me half her head is shaven and tattooed with numerals, the numbers, 1.4142, 3.146, and radicals and irrational numbers. And, we share some of the same numbers, Biot-Savart's Law and Wien's Displacement Law.
"This is what I have waited two years aboard a deep space frigate for." I hold the Petri dish up to the light.
Jane says, "Something has eaten the germinal mold."
We are collecting spore samples for their chemistry to help in pharmaceuticals.
"Where a mold infection was supposed to be growing, there is none." I look at Sergeant Jerr's hands, and I can see her identity chip, the transmitter the size of a grain of rice buried in her hand, like a freckle between her thumb and index finger. Our bodies are tracked on GPS, and heartbeats, respiration, even blood sugar levels are monitored.
She always calls me Cat. I keep pictures of domestic short hair cats, Prussian Blues, and once she asked me how many I owned, and I said, "None. And, I have never owned a cat," and she laughed at me, but being this far out, this far from earth, what is one to do? When I was eleven, a neighbor across the hall owned a cat, and that is the closest I have ever come. I own pictures of cats.
"Cat, I think you have something here."
In my laptop, I record field notes.
Jane begins to test.
The alien landscape is like the shell of an Easter egg that has been dropped, the many cracks revealing different bands of color like sedimentary rock, but more lasting, as if fused by heat and pressure: sediment laid down in one geologic event, and stirred in four ice ages, now being worn away by sun and wind and water.
I say to Jane, "This observation is the most promising we've had."
"The ship is monitoring us," Jane says, with that far-away look she gets when listening to a different comm channel. "It is fourteen minutes out. And they've heard, and they're picking us up."
The planet is a collection of snowmelt runoff, many caves and more freshwater than earth.
"What beautiful caves," I say and I point southwesterly.
"In Poland, there are salt caves, and the citizenry carved massive cathedrals out of salt. The Krakow mines; this alien world reminds me of the Wieliczka Salt Mine."
Shipside -- In The Galley
We eat at the Captain's table, while at the long tables, the rest of the ship's crew are seated. Forty sailors eat, but at the Captain's table, there are only eight chairs.
Captain Colocador says, "Welcome back."
We drink Near Wine, a toast. The Captain raises his glass. "A toast," Captain Colocador says, "To you, the mission scientists." And he stands.
In four days time we will start home, start another two year journey. And, I am sick at hearing the conversations: 'When I get back I'm going to San Francisco; when I get back, I'm eating at Cliffhouse, then, Ghirardelli's; when I get back, I'm going to Fisherman's Wharf." You are two years from it. But you will never get to San Francisco, never even get to earth. We are too far out. Two years from now, maybe I'll get to see a cat.
Captain Colocador asks me, "What are you going to do when you get back to the world?"
I say, "Find another ship, and do it all over again." And, that's the truth.
And everyone laughs.
Captain Colocador says, "I had the ship's cook make a special dessert, something French, for the occasion, cherry clafoutis; it is like a little cake, but with vanilla bean and brandy. I had in my private stores the one pound of black cherries with stones."
How should I describe the Captain? Family stories, a PhD in Geometry, a collector of antique maps, and in his left ear a gold hoop, not allowed by code of conduct, but the earring means something: as a captain of a wooden ship, a tall ship, he sailed around the Cape of Africa.
I asked him why his left ear.
And he said, 'Because the Cape was on my left.' If he were to have crossed it with the continent of Africa on his right, he'd wear the earring in his right ear. And, among sailors, it is customary, for a great Captain to wear an earring after sailing the around the Cape of Africa, rough waters, rough like the circumpolar oceans.
Jane asks, "Is the cook part French?"
Captain, "No. Part Chinese."
Some do not like me because I am too booky, too by the book, but the Captain liked me from embarkation.
The dessert tastes like a candy I had in Nice. And after two years of freeze dried, finally real ingredients, and I heard sugar is fifty-two dollars a pound.
After officers retire and sailors gather in small groups some to talk, some to play Jhgjrh, Captain Colocador motions me to his side, so I tap Jane's foot and pull her with me. The Captain and Jane, and myself, have become good friends, the three of us.
The Captain leans in to me and says, "You like this planet?"
"Very much so."
The Captain says, "You know no one is coming back out here for eight years or more, or even longer, or ever. And once our engines fire..."
Jane asks, "What are you getting at, sir?"
The Captain says, "Think of it, eight years. Have you ever seen the Pierre Bonnard oil on canvas entitled An Earthly Paradise?"
"No," I say; how bizarre I think; he is not drunk. "I have never beheld it."
"I could help you to see it; I could maroon you on this planet."
He is staring straight at me. A few of the officers have stopped talking. Some laugh at the Captain.
Jane says, "This supplation is nonsense. Even if we wanted to stay, we couldn't. Someone, a rescue ship would have to come and get us, and then we'd be court-martialed."
Captain Colocador laughs, and he says to me, "When the time is right, you will let me know if you and Jane want to be the next Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta."
To Jane, I say, "What do you think about what the captain said?"
"I have been thinking about it, and I don't know what to make of it. Do you realize that he called me by my real name? He called me Jane, and not Jillian?"
"I did not notice. There is something going on here."
"I'd give anything to make my home here. Think of our legacy, what we could leave behind. We'd be famous."
I look at the ground. "Don't be too sure."
"Do you know what this world is like?"
"It is like the Iditarod, passion and movement. But beautiful things, darling," I tell her, "hold certain ugliness."
"Some of the flowers on the planet have been in bloom since before the battle of Yorktown, and you picked a bouquet yesterday."
"This world is like a chrysalis."
"We'd be arrested and have to serve time at a Maxi-Max, the Sea of Tranquility."
"Can I read you something? I have your own field notes. 'Today, discovered a reed which in maturity begins to decay, and hollows itself out; reaching full maturity the plant sounds like an oboe when the wind blows, and I am thinking of naming the plant The Oboe.' And there's more, a Doppelganger insect, an insect in the shape of a corkscrew which parallel to an earth chameleon, an earth anole, not only takes on the colors of its surroundings, but the shapes. For example, a twig, a leaf, even a colored stone, or drops of water. How pleasing... As well, a bird-like creature, I named the Nanny, whose job it is to feed the young of other birds, the offspring of other animals, like a super mom, strange behavior.' Your own words."
"The planet will be colonized."
"In time, yes. But it's too far out. Our grandchildren will colonize it. And, then what will happen? Like the other colonized worlds, polluted, over populated, ruined in a century, and at carrying capacity. "
R & R: Saturday Morning
On the planet's surface, "We must remember to thank the Captain," I say, "for this R & R."
"Yes," answers Jillian. "And where is the Captain Colocador now?"
"Getting in a little fishing."
Captain Colocador ordered R & R be taken in shifts, twenty crewmembers at a time. "And to think in two days we'll be earthbound again."
Jane and I hike a rim and break down into a canyon toward the caves. The caves. Series of grottos meet us. We hike into canyon corridors. Water is everywhere. Dozens of waterfalls, creeks flowing into creeks, the remnants of stalactites and stalagmites like ruins to flying buttresses. Steam, hydro power, breathing from the soil as well. Moisture like the engineers shipside steaming out lengths of piping. Minerals leeching everywhere from the rocks, a rainbow effect, iron ore deposits mostly, like red scarves everywhere. The place looks like a dissection in progress. Once I won an academic honor in Exobiology and won the opportunity to dissect a Sividal, a creature like a spider, but with seventy organs, fragile, but as large as a housecat.
"I feel," I say, "I am part of the lost generation, generation n, n as a number, just a generation on the number line."
The cave openings now are visible, hundreds of them, some narrow shafts others, eight hundred foot swaths.
"The bats of Earth would love this place." I feel the rock formations like dove joints in furniture, pot marked.
"And this world, like earth, and what I like most is the temperature seventy-six degrees, and like Earth's Amazon, only a fluctuation of ten degrees all year long. And did you know the Amazon sees a greater fluctuation in temperature in a day than from changing from summer to winter?"
And in the waters a type of fish like a yellow perch that never stops moving, its entire lifespan Irish dance.
Jane says, "In four hundred years do you know how valuable this will land will be? We are standing on Miami beach."
"It is estimated that there are eight thousand caves along this ridge alone."
The place smells of mushroom compost. My feet are already sore from hiking. The caves smell of manure. Water left in a watering can. Water up to our knees in places.
Jane stops and looks at it all.
I speak first. "I'm more at home here umpteen trillion miles away than on Earth these days." I look around. "This place reminds me of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Have you ever been to Arkansas?"
"I've flown over it in eleven seconds in an F -898 G. It looked nice enough, Arkansas."
We are walking together, going down into, and cross a fast moving creek, and I slip coming out, and Jane almost slips, and my pants are wetted to my waist.
"There's a cave here. Follow me in," I say.
The grotto opens up into a cave, and I think of Russian Orthodox churches. We walk in and the sunlight illuminates the first sixty feet.
"We could camp here tonight," I say.
"That would be a good idea."
Jane screams, "Oh my God!" And she points at the south wall.
Startled, and, I panic. And, I see the south wall for the first time. And, easily, now, I can see cave paintings. And Jane and I stare at ideograms, hieroglyphics, among the concretions, like cuneiforms. I am staring at cave paintings. Intricate, renderings of animals mostly, insects too, strange that both are drawn to the same size; a three inch insect is the same size as a fish. And there are pictures of cave openings like maps, and the cave entrances are painted like stomachs, like the middle of things, neither an entrance nor an exit. To think, aliens painted this, and I know that I am starring at evidence of intelligent life on other planets. There was a society here.
I look for garbage dumps, and on the cave floor, fossils, petrified animal bones, litter.
Jane says, "What a discovery. Sentient aliens do exist. There once was intelligent life on this planet."
I say, "This is our little Big Bang."
The cave painting depicts a map of the cave and cavern system like a plan view in architecture, but more resembling a 3-D object, like an isometric drawing but at 15 degrees, and there are no straight lines, but I think of the Cartesian coordinate system in the design, but in 3-D; the painting is like lifting a napkin partially off a table and drawing with great detail, the napkin, an artist working hours and hours, maybe years at the drawing. And the work, and I comprehend this, does not begin like English from left to right, and not like Arabic from right to left, but like in columns, seven or more columns; a few phrases written in one column, and then skip three columns and then writing in the forth column, and I determine this from the color of the ink, the paint used, and also the handwriting. The picture is a construct of words and pictures, like writing out the word grotto, but just the letters gro, and then the rest of the word is a picture like a hieroglyph, and then letters again, tto. I wonder on the calligraphy of drawing. And, the colors many colored, but the color blue signatory reoccurring, and sometimes in the middle of a word, one letter, another color of ink, blue, and what is the significance? The map is like an antique map. "This is the Rosetta Stone," I tell Jane. I am staring up at the Rosetta Stone.
From deeper in the cave I hear a noise. Not a stick breaking, but a falling, like rock breaking off. A noise. Jillian hears it too. We walk holding hands, and further in the cave, rounding a corner, is a small campfire on the floor, twigs, pieces of chanterelles strung together, and kindling and clay-like pots near the fire.
I say, "I can smell their food." Like wild rice.
"Someone," says Jane, "Was just here. The coals are still warm."
"Let's get the hell out of here," I say.
Jane runs away. Bolts, runs toward the door. I follow her. We both flee.
The Captain speaks, and I have never seen him shake. "I told Houston-Austin of the aliens. I said we have definitive evidence."
I ask, "So, we are staying on? For how long, two months? Four months?"
"No. They're sending us home as soon as possible."
I say, "What?"
Jane puts her hands to her face, "Impossible."
Now, I understand. We, having discovered the aliens, and D.C. -- Norfolk, and London - Berlin are in a panic.
"I've been over and over it a hundred times in my mind. And, I could not figure out why higher higher wants us to leave." And, I say this. "Anything that impedes colonization..."
Colocador, "Nothing can impede colonization."
Jane says, "No. And, that is how they see it."
Then, I say, "There has been a lot of work on a retrovirus here, out of the ordinary work. A germ like the common cold, like a retrovirus.
Colocador asks, "What does that mean? What do you mean?"
Jane asks, "Like germ warfare?"
"Yes." And, I say, "We're staying. We'll document. We'll publicize everything."
Colocador shouts, "They didn't expect an alien caveman. And all the retrovirus work means earth is going to kill them off and colonize."
I say, "Earth could blame us, scapegoat us. Say that we infected them somehow. And everyone would believe it as an accident, a great captain, Captain Colocador he'd never do it on purpose."
Captain Colocador replies "We cannot let genocide happen. That's what we're talking about, isn't it? There's never been a mutiny in the United States Navy, until tonight."
In the galley, a going away party, a lot of commotion, officers smoking cigars, the tables folded away, and a makeshift dance floor and soldiers dancing, men and women, and some sailors already drunk dance with themselves. Petty officers on tables, and the Captain Colocador orders, "some jazz music." He's getting all his enemies drunk. I think of General George Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas day.
Jane and I, stand against a wall. "Well, I say what do you think of our going away party?" The ship is scheduled to depart Monday morning. And, the female officers debase themselves. The non-commissioned officers drink, and among them someone has a case of Scottish whiskey, some highland whiskey. A female, a young sergeant sits on the Captain's lap.
"I've seen about enough of this," says Jane.
I say, "Captain Colocador fought at the Battle of Owlet and won; that's like winning the Battle of Trafalgar."
The Captain makes his way to us. He's a little drunk. The music is loud, and there is a lot of commotion, a lot of talk, noise, and background noise. He points to his left front pocket, his chest pocket. Meanwhile he grabs a young sergeant's buttocks, a female. He winks at us.
Inside his pocket is a handwritten note. I pocket the note. And, The Captain leaves with the young girl. I know that he will make love to her, an hour, an hour and a half, and then the murders will start. I read the note. 'If I die, kill them all. Save the aliens. Do whatever you have to, but save the aliens. Damn earth.'
The jazz music builds, Charlie Parker music.
Jane says, "If we lose, the space ship fires its engines, and an alien race of beings dies out. I'll be in the brig or dead. But the ship is moving at 400,000 miles an hour, literally; really, there are no goodbyes. Captain Colocador, the loser, is among the dead. Or He has court-martial to look forward to, a prison sentence, stripping of his captain's license, dishonorable discharge, and probably his own murder.
I say, "And if we win, what better way for a great captain to be remembered? His monument his last action, no tomb but his consciousness. We'll be like the victorious army at Yorktown; we'll be like the victorious army at Owlet. We'll be A good Saturday Night Mutiny."
Very Late Saturday Night
Quantum communications is instantaneous -- entangled particles reflect state changes simultaneously (insofar as "simultaneously" means anything in warpable space-time) -- so news and counter-news and information and disinformation, covering the most trivial and the most important matters, all bounce between the furthest outposts of humanity too fast for any mind or machine to keep up. But I can tell when our story reaches home, and the ripples begin.
Four hours ago, Asteroid fields causing vast communication interferences...
One minute 56 seconds ago, Van Allen belt...
Four minutes 44 seconds ago, sickness aboard space station blamed on air ducts on ...
Thirteen minutes ago, new smallpox scare a rumor...
17 seconds, ago interstellar voting irregularities reported near planet 3948244...
Four minutes ago, rangefinder errors...
Three minutes, 18 seconds ago, incorrect mathematical datum input...
Two hours ago, two minutes, 28 seconds ago, error blamed...
Three minutes ago, failure in structure of offshore rig...
Two minutes ago, high winds of 675 miles per hour... do not stop diplomat from visiting...
Three hours, eleven minutes, 23 seconds, cargo bay door stuck open ...
Seven hours, forty-nine minutes, 8 seconds ago, solar winds destroy two satellites.
Five days ago, recursive engine breakthrough with cold Kelvin start hailed as breakthrough...
12 seconds, a navigational laser fires prematurely, two technicians dead...
52 seconds ago, a main girder fails and eight dead at Cape Canaveral ...
Twenty hours ago, derelict space junk...
16 hours, 36 minutes, 19 seconds, Gamma radiation detected...
Three hours, ago military channels off limits and radio silence on some channels, reason unknown...
Nine hours ago fuel patent rejected...
Thirty four minutes, thirty-four seconds ago, eight inches of snowfall in Buffalo, NY, U.S.CAN. means alternate landing site...
Twenty-two minutes ago planes grounded because of bad weather at airstrips in Nova Scotia.
Sixty-seven minutes ago, sunspots may be contributing to continuing drought, and Agricultural Minister of New Peru is skeptical about annual rainfall projections...
Four minutes ago, a mutiny on the U.S.S. Culcoy, The famed Captain Colocador's frigate, an Arleigh Burke class starship, thirteen dead, a famous scientist among the dead. The ship broadcasting, rebroadcasting continuously, a message, the discovery of life on other planets, intelligent life, and a plot by earth governments to murder off the aliens...
Followed by mass chatter, mass civilian communications, and everyone talking...
© 2008 J. Keegan
Bio: Mr. Keegan's work has appeared in Poetic Voices, Me Three, and Dark Sky.
E-mail: J. Keegan
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