The Long Hello
By Curtis C. Chen
Alexis was doing her best to keep her mind on her work, but she couldn't stop thinking about her upcoming date. Also, she was just a tiny bit exhausted.
She and Bonny had stayed up all night, video chatting until both their bandwidth allowances had run out. They'd had just enough time at the end to set up an in-person meeting for tonight.
Alexis hadn't been on a date in months. What was she going to wear?
"Hey!" shouted the welder working half a meter to Alexis' right. "Watch your flow, Lexi!"
Alexis jerked upright and automatically closed the fuel valve on her torch. Thank god for muscle memory. "Sorry. Distracted."
"Yeah, I noticed." The other worker lifted her helmet visor to give Alexis a disapproving glare. "Hot date tonight?"
"Actually," Alexis said, feeling slightly embarrassed, "yeah."
Her co-worker, whose legal name was Charlene but who insisted that everyone call her Charlie, elbowed Alexis playfully. "Hey, good for you! How long has it been?"
"A while." Alexis checked her equipment, preparing to get back to work. "Not a lot of dating opportunities out here." She had transferred to this outpost on Titan four months ago, not just because it had a better view than her previous gig in the asteroid belt—Saturn's rings were spectacular no matter how often you saw them—but also because there were more people here, gathered together inside habitat domes. Kicking rocks in the belt paid well, but it was lonely.
Of course, even though having lots of people around increased her chances of finding compatible friends and maybe even lovers, there were no guarantees. And so far, Alexis hadn't been very lucky in love.
Deena, one of the bartenders at the local watering hole, had set up Alexis' video chat last night, which Alexis had initially been very skeptical about. But now, she had to admit, it all seemed to be working out. Bonny was cute, had an interesting job, and didn't tell dumb jokes like some people did.
"What's her name?" Charlie asked.
"So what do we know about this bitch? I mean butch."
Alexis frowned. "That's not funny."
"It's a little funny."
"You've been making the same joke since the day I arrived," Alexis said, firing up her torch again. "Get some new material."
"You get some new material...for your wardrobe!" Charlie pointed at Alexis' boots. "Please tell me you'll be wearing different shoes tonight, at least."
Alexis grumbled, closed her visor, and went back to work.
Titan's winds filled the hangar and behind Deena's bar threatened to topple Alexis as Bonny's ship approached. Alexis carefully moved backwards, one magnetic boot at a time, until she was well clear of the landing pad, hoping the spacesuit wasn't wrinkling her outfit underneath too much.
Charlie had gotten into her head about what to wear for this date, and Alexis had spent way too long changing outfits. Normally she would have done a skirt or a dress, something to show off her legs, but she'd run out of time to shave her legs and was forced to resort to her dress slacks. And she had no idea where Bonny was going to take her on this date, so Alexis had erred on the side of being comfortable in case they were going to do some physical activity. Bonny had mentioned she liked working outdoors as a xeno-archeology student.
Then again, being "outdoors" on Titan meant being sealed into a pressure suit. The atmosphere wasn't breathable, and the temperature was always below freezing. Alexis was secretly hoping that Bonny just wanted to sit in her ship and chat like they had last night.
The ship landing now was a two-person craft with a small cargo pod on top. The cockpit had a wraparound window, and Alexis saw Bonny waving one brown hand as she landed, also flashing a wide smile.
Oh, wow, Alexis thought, she's even cuter in person. I'm in trouble.
It seemed to take forever for the hangar doors to close, and another eternity for the airlock on Bonny's ship to cycle open. The other woman hopped out of the ship before the landing ramp had fully extended, wearing a rumpled flight suit. It looked great on her. Alexis struggled to remove her spacesuit helmet.
"Hey there!" Bonny spread her arms wide. "May I give you a hug?"
Alexis smiled. "Sure."
Bonny had a firm embrace that Alexis felt even through her bulky spacesuit. It had been quite a while since Alexis been held like that. Or been close enough to smell another person's scent. She liked it a lot.
"Ready to go?" Bonny asked, taking a step back.
Bonny took Alexis' gloved hand in her own. "You're going to love it. Come on."
Alexis let the other woman drag her into the ship, grinning like an idiot.
Their destination was just over the foothills behind the bar. Alexis didn't really know what was out here, but then again, she wasn't on Titan to be a tourist. She was here to do a job, building water pipelines to support the new habitat domes being built around the underground lake that GruberCorp was excavating, with an eye toward establishing an actual settlement on this godforsaken ice cube.
Alexis was liking her job less with every passing day. Maybe it was a good thing that she was getting out more.
Bonny lowered her ship to the ice with surprising grace. Alexis barely felt the bump when they touched down next to what looked like some kind of excavation. Not the company dig, though.
"Here we are," Bonny said, locking her ship's controls and starting to don her own spacesuit.
"What is this place?" Alexis asked.
"My dig site."
That explains all the warning signs, Alexis thought. "Am I allowed to be here?"
"You're my guest." Bonny winked, and Alexis felt her heart melting. I'm in so much trouble. "Helmet on, let's go."
They double-checked each other's suit seals, and then Bonny took Alexis' hand again. She led her out of the ship, glove in glove, down the ramp, and over a rickety set of metal platforms into the excavation.
Their suit lamps came on automatically, and the light revealed what looked like a stone wall with a roughly human-sized hole near the bottom.
"Wow," Alexis said.
"Is this turning you on?" Bonny asked.
"I'm joking!" She laughed again. That was definitely doing something for Alexis. "It's pretty exciting, though. First intact structure we've found on Titan."
"That's amazing," Alexis agreed. She'd heard periodic news reports about the artifacts that people kept digging up all over Titan, but she had stopped paying attention after the hundredth time they turned out to be basically just bricks, or pieces of bricks. Sure, it was a huge scientific discovery to find evidence of intelligent life besides humans, but the evidence itself wasn't anything special.
"You want to see inside?" Bonny asked.
Alexis moved backward instinctively, but Bonny's tight grip kept her close. "Are you sure it's okay for me to go in?"
Bonny shrugged. "Nobody's going to stop us. Aren't you curious?"
"Have you been inside already?" Alexis squinted at the opening. "Is it safe?"
"Safe as houses," Bonny said. "In fact, it might have been a dwelling of some kind. We've already examined and scanned it and collected all the data we can; the team's moving on tomorrow. Nobody will mind if we sneak a peek tonight."
"Okay." Alexis squeezed Bonny's hand. "I'll follow you in."
Bonny squeezed her back. "You're going to love this, I promise."
It was pretty amazing. The interior walls were covered with carvings—possibly writing, but some of it looked more like artwork. None of the previous ruins had shown anything like this.
"Is this art? Like a mural?" Alexis asked.
"We think it's writing. But we didn't have any linguists here, so we never—whoa, hey, don't touch that!"
Alexis had pressed one gloved finger against a squiggle. "Didn't you say you'd already taken samples? Didn't that involve touching the walls?" She looked down. "And haven't we been touching the floor with our boots this whole time? Hmm?"
Bonny relented as Alexis playfully poked her spacesuit with the same finger that had been on the wall. "Okay, fine, yeah, you're right. Sorry. I didn't mean to be so..."
Bonny frowned. "Geez, you make me sound like an old spinster or something."
Alexis leaned forward until their helmets bumped together. "You're definitely not either of those things." Her voice echoed, vibrating through her faceshield and then coming through Bonny's radio a split second later.
"Wow, this was a dumb idea for our first date," Bonny said, clutching Alexis' suit shoulderpads with both of her own gloved hands. "I can't even kiss you."
Alexis smiled. "You want to kiss me?"
"So much right now."
Alexis started to agree, then stopped. She was feeling vibration again, and it was stronger than before. It was everywhere. The walls were moving. Her boots were bouncing against the stone floor.
"Is this thing moving?" Alexis squeaked.
"Just an icequake," Bonny said. "You've been on Titan how long? And you've never felt a quake?"
"This feels different!" Alexis swung her helmet around, moving her light over the walls. "Where's the door?"
The opening they had entered through was nowhere to be found. But on the opposite side of the chamber, Alexis' lamps illuminated the wall just as a section of it turned transparent, showing the icy surface of Titan dropping away below them.
Bonny wasn't initially convinced that her "ruins" were actually some kind of ancient alien spacecraft which had activated and lifted off the largest moon of Saturn with herself and Alexis inside. But the navigational locator in Alexis' wristband, required by the construction company and accurate to within ten meters anywhere in the Solar System, definitely showed them moving into outer space. As if the sight of Saturn and its moons receding out the window weren't already enough.
"It just doesn't make sense," Bonny protested while Alexis inspected the chamber more closely. "Why would aliens leave a booby trap like this? Why would it activate now, when it didn't respond to anything we did to it previously? Why do we have gravity if we're in outer space? Why—"
"Those are all very good questions," Alexis said, hunched over part of one wall, not looking at Bonny. "But may I suggest that they're less important than maybe deciphering some of these markings? They might tell us something about how to get control of the ship."
"Right, right, sure." Bonny knelt down next to Alexis.
"You said the dig team was collecting data in here for how long?"
"Three months and change. The first couple of weeks were just excavating, though."
"Tell me what you all have figured out so far."
Bonny pointed at one cluster of symbols, which kind of resembled a circle if you squinted at it. "This pattern—or something like this—seems to show up a lot." She pointed at a few other places where similar clusters were carved into the surface. "We couldn't figure out how a pre-industrial civilization could have done such intricate stonework, but I guess they were more advanced than we thought if this is actually a fucking spaceship."
Alexis grabbed Bonny's hand and stood up, dragging the other woman up with her. "I'm going to say something now that might seem insane, but I need you to hear me out."
Bonny couldn't tell if Alexis was joking. "Go ahead."
"You're really tense right now."
"I want you to take off your spacesuit so I can rub your shoulders."
Bonny yanked her hand out of Alexis' grip and took a step backward. "You need to check your oxygen levels."
"My O2's fine. And so is the air in this room. See?" Bonny held up her wrist, showing the control panel mounted on the sleeve of her suit. "Check your own computer. We've got atmo."
"Why the fuck would we have breathable air in here?"
Alexis threw up her arms. "Why is any of this happening?"
"I am not taking off my helmet!"
"Fine. I'll go first." Alexis put both hands on her helmet seal.
"Wait!" Bonny grabbed Alexis' arms. "Just wait a minute!"
Alexis dropped her hands and looked at Bonny with a sad expression. "I'm going to tell you why I came out here."
Bonny let go of Alexis' arms. Their conversation last night had covered a lot of topics, but whenever Bonny had steered it toward why someone would agree to be shot out past the asteroid belt for work, Alexis had changed the subject. Bonny's reason was obvious: where else was her Black ass going to have a chance to dig up alien artifacts? But Alexis had spent nearly a year in the belt before moving to Titan, and that was a lot of time to spend alone, both in transit and on the job.
"We don't need to talk about—"
"My mother died." Alexis' eyes glistened with wetness. "Remember how I told you I had to scale back my college plans, because of family obligations?"
"You really don't have to—"
"She got sick, and I was the only one who could take care of her." Bonny hadn't wanted to pry into the circumstances around Alexis' parents getting divorced, and she couldn't imagine living through that as a teenager. "I refused to move away for school. But she insisted I get an education, so I took night classes while working two jobs."
"One on weekdays, another on the weekends," Bonny said. "I remember."
Alexis smiled as a tear rolled down her face. "She lived long enough to see me graduate. I'm glad she was there for that. But after she died, I just couldn't stay in that house anymore. I needed to be somewhere completely different."
"Some people might say you overreacted."
"Some people can go fuck themselves." Alexis sniffled. "Okay, I really am going to have to take off this helmet so I can blow my nose."
Bonny stepped forward again. "Can I really not talk you out of this?"
Alexis shook her head. "You saw the nav readout. We're leaving the solar system at ten percent of lightspeed. No human spacecraft has any hope of catching us. And I don't want to die inside this stupid spacesuit."
She looked so sad. Bonny just wanted to hold her, to do anything to make it better.
Bonny's ship was still parked at the dig site—or whatever was left of it now. Someone must have seen this alien craft lifting off from Titan. Someone must be chasing them.
But Alexis was right. No human ship was going to catch them at this speed. They had several hours of air left in their suits. Hours to sit and stare at each other through their helmets.
Or they could touch each other, for however long they had.
Bonny took off her helmet.
Alexis couldn’t speak. Not even to say something totally clichéd like “What is that thing?!” She just kept screaming, and pointed at the glowing shape that had appeared behind Bonny as soon as Alexis had taken off her helmet.
Bonny turned around, saw the bright pulsating blob, and jumped backwards, crashing into Alexis. Together they flattened themselves against the wall, as far away from the thing as they could in this small space.
The shape resolved into the image of a creature—displayed in three dimensions as a structure of tiny glowing violet dots, like microscopic purple fireflies hovering and moving in formation to animate the image. The creature stood about waist high to Alexis, with six limbs, a round head, protruding snout, two bulbous eyes, and floppy triangular ears.
It looked, more than anything, like a weird breed of dog.
The holo-dog sat down on its back legs, with its middle legs touching the floor, and spread its front legs apart, paws turned up in what seemed like a welcoming gesture.
“RRRRMMMMNNNNMMMM RRRNNNNNN,” the holo-dog said, its mouth vibrating.
“Nope!” Bonny said, shaking her head. “Nope, nope, nope. Not doing this. Nope!”
She started to put her helmet back on. As soon as she had it sealed again, the holo-dog disappeared, the glowing dots scattering back into the indentations on the wall behind it and going dark.
“What. The. Fuck,” Bonny said.
“Do it again,” Alexis said. “Take your helmet off.”
Bonny gaped at her. “Are you kidding me?”
“We both saw it, right?” Alexis pointed at the wall. “That means it wasn’t some kind of hallucination we suffered because we breathed the air in here. This place—this ship, or whatever it is, is actively responding to our presence. It knows we’re here. And it’s trying to communicate.”
Bonny narrowed her eyes. “You’re saying that this thing abducted us into space, and now it wants to talk to us?”
“We might as well hear what it has to say.”
“In its weird alien dog language.”
“Or we could just sit and talk about our feelings some more.”
“Why am I the one taking off my helmet?”
“Because you did it before,” Alexis said. “I mean, I was going to, but you beat me to it. And now we want to see if the same action produces the same result. Science, right?”
Bonny grumbled. “I hate you.”
Alexis put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “So you don’t want to kiss me anymore?”
Bonny removed her helmet. The holo-dog reappeared. “RRRMMMNNNMMM RRRNNN?”
Alexis pointed at the wall behind and above the dog. “Were those symbols lit up before?”
“Not sure.” Bonny stepped closer. “I was kind of freaking out about the weird dog hologram.”
They both studied the wall for a moment as the holo-dog repeated its introductory phrase. A wide, rectangular grid of symbols above its head was lit up in a cycling pattern. After a few repetitions, Alexis noticed something.
“The wall’s lighting up at the same time that the... image speaks,” she said. “Look.”
“RRRMMMNNNMMM RRRNNN,” the holo-dog said. The grid pulsed twice, illuminating a different area of the pattern each time.
“Like it’s telling us what those patterns mean,” Alexis said. “Or it would be, if we could understand the language.”
“You’re saying that’s... help text?” Bonny waved at the holo-dog. “And this is some kind of virtual assistant?”
“It’s a hypothesis. Science, right?”
“You keep saying that,” Bonny muttered.
“Well, tell me your brilliant ideas, Mx. Xeno-Archaeology Expert.”
“I’m just a post-doc. I can’t have any ideas unless they’re peer-reviewed.”
“Ha ha.” Alexis started to move one hand toward the wall, then stopped. “I’m going to take off my gloves and touch this wall. Okay?”
Bonny sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “I don’t think I can stop you, Marie Curie.”
“Hilarious. But as Madame Curie said: you gotta die of something.” Alexis started unlatching her gloves at the wrists.
“I’m almost certain she never said that.”
“Il faut mourir de quelque chose,” Alexis said, clipping both gloves to one of the equipment loops around the midsection of her spacesuit. She held up both hands, positioning them a few centimeters away from the flashing symbols. They didn’t feel warm, or shocky, or... anything. That’s good, right? No news is good news?
Alexis took a deep breath and glanced over at Bonny. “Ready?”
“Hell no,” Bonny said. “But just do it.”
The next time the first set of symbols lit up, Alexis touched what she judged to be the middle of the pattern with one fingertip. The light changed from purple to white and stayed on. Next to it, the second set of symbols began pulsing in purple, individual glyphs lighting up in sequence, chasing each other in a spiral that wound from outside into the center.
“RRRRNNNN MMMMRRRRMMMNN!” the holo-dog said, bobbing its head up and down.
“I can’t tell if that’s good or bad,” Bonny said.
“Well, it’s different, anyway.” Alexis exhaled. She moved her finger over the target indicated by the pulsing spiral. “Here goes nothing.”
She pressed down at the same time that the light reached the center symbol. The surface still felt the same, just like a cool piece of carved stone.
Then the floor disappeared, and Alexis and Bonny both cried out as they fell.
Bonny had learned to swim when she was twenty years old, primarily because she needed to pass a physical assessment in order to graduate from her university. Everyone thought it was a pretty silly thing to require in this day and age, but certain institutions covered in ivy still clung to their traditions for no reason other than it felt like a link to the past. Tradition, heritage, whatever you wanted to call it. It was a comfort to some folks, and having to spend ten minutes treading water wasn’t a huge inconvenience to Bonny.
And it was certainly helping her right now. After being dropped into a body of liquid of indeterminate size, but deep enough that she’d gone under initially, Bonny had managed to surface quickly.
Alexis, on the other hand, wasn’t doing so well.
“Are you okay?” Bonny called out as she swam over to where Alexis was flailing in the liquid, head bobbing up and down. Oh Jesus, I hope this is actually water. Or at least not poisonous.
“I can’t swim!” Alexis shouted, and went under again.
Fuck fuck fuck. Bonny kicked and swam faster until she reached Alexis, then threw her arms around the other woman. “I got you! You’re okay! You know how to tread water?”
“I just said I can’t swim!”
“Okay, okay! Stop moving, I’ve got you!” Bonny gripped the outside of Alexis’ suit with one hand, pulling her up, and used the other hand to touch her face. “I’ve got you, Alexis. You’re okay. We’re okay.”
Alexis stared at her wild-eyed for a moment, then seemed to realize they were both floating, and her breathing slowed a little. “These suits. They’re too heavy. We need to get out of them.”
Bonny agreed, but hesitated. “We let them go, we might not get them back.”
“They’re already ruined. Unless yours is waterproof on the inside?”
Bonny grumbled. “Okay. You first.”
She helped Alexis out of her spacesuit, feeling a knot in her stomach as half of all their equipment fell away. But it did make keeping Alexis afloat much easier for Bonny.
“Now you,” Alexis said, making an adorable if ineffectual effort to tread water with her arms.
“I can’t let go of you,” Bonny said. “You can’t swim.”
“A wall. We need to find a wall. There’s got to be one nearby.”
“Right. You hold on to me—piggyback.” Bonny rotated away from Alexis, gripping her elbow with one hand until the other woman got one arm around her neck. Then Bonny let go, and Alexis circled both arms around the neck of Bonny’s spacesuit.
“We’re going to go under for a second,” Bonny said.
“What? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m just going to drop the bottom half of my suit so I can swim better—what’s funny?”
Alexis stopped laughing. “I imagined a very different situation where you took off your pants in front of me for the first time.”
Bonny rolled her eyes before realizing that Alexis couldn’t see her. “Are you ready to hold your breath?”
“Okay. On three—two—one—now!”
It took a bit of maneuvering, but Bonny managed to wriggle out of her suit and surface back into Alexis’ still-circled arms before the other woman started panic-flailing again. Once Alexis was clinging onto Bonny again, she swam ahead, figuring the direction didn’t matter much.
This chamber was dimly lit, the only light coming from the room above them, flickering purple and white through the opening in the floor. Bonny could barely see the ripples in the liquid—still hoping it was water; it had no smell or taste, anyway—as she moved them forward.
A few seconds later, Bonny couldn’t see the ripples in front of them, and she wasn’t sure if it was due to them getting farther away from the light. But then her hand scraped something hard in front of them, and she turned so they drifted sideways into the wall, both women’s shoulders bumping against the vertical barrier at the same time.
“Wall,” Bonny gasped. She hadn’t realized how hard it would be to swim for two. “Look for a handhold.”
“On it,” Alexis replied. “This feels like—it’s got the same kind of inscriptions as upstairs?”
There wasn’t enough light for Bonny to see, but she now made more of an effort to feel the wall, slowing the motion of her fingers as she searched for something to hold on to. The patterns did feel similar, but she couldn’t distinguish them that well by touch alone. “You can feel that much detail?”
“I can’t be sure, but—whoa!”
Alexis’ arm tightened around Bonny’s shoulders as the wall lit up, a violet circle expanding out from where they were to the edges of the room. Bonny followed the light and saw that the wall was rectangular, extending at least a meter above and several meters to either side of them. Below, the liquid in which they floated was transparent—that was a good sign, probably?—and seemed to refract light as water would, but it was impossible to tell how far down the space extended.
Before Bonny could relay her observations, the entire chamber filled with bright white light, blinding her. She closed her eyes, gripping Alexis’ arm with one hand and scrabbling against the wall with the other, searching for an inscription or indentation deep enough to serve as a handhold.
“Bonny!” Alexis called out.
“I’ve got you!” Bonny squeezed Alexis’ arm.
“Not that! Look up!”
Bonny opened one eye just a fraction and saw that the light was only coming from the walls—the bottom of the chamber, still an indeterminate distance away, was smooth and featureless. She opened both eyes and looked up at the ceiling, which was covered in inscriptions like the walls—though not as densely so. But it also looked different now.
“Where’s the door?” Bonny swept her gaze all around the ceiling. “Where’s the fucking trap door?”
“It must have closed,” Alexis said. “And is it my imagination, or is the water level rising in here?”
Bonny looked down again, finding where the line of liquid intersected the wall and trying to remember how far down it had been before. As she watched, the line crept slowly upward, filling in a row of symbols.
“Shit,” she said, not vocalizing her next thought: Great idea, taking off our helmets and spacesuits. Two dumb bitches dying in outer space, not even able to serve as a cautionary tale for future dumb bitches.
“This is weird,” Alexis said. She seemed to be treading water much better now, at least. Bonny counted to ten before responding.
“Would you like to be more specific?”
“I think...” Alexis pointed at the wall. “I think I can read some of these symbols. That one, that means... ‘big’?”
“It means ‘increase’ or ‘augment,’” Bonny said without thinking, surprising herself. She blinked and looked more closely at the wall. “Holy shit.”
They could definitely read the symbols. Alexis wasn’t picking them up as quickly or easily as Bonny seemed to be able to, but of course, Bonny had been in here before, studying the place. Alexis was just happy that she could keep up right now.
“Numbers, these are numbers,” Bonny said, waving one hand over a cluster of symbols. “Base twelve, it looks like? Yes! Twelve different digits, and that’s a separator.”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“Sorry, am I going too fast? This digit is zero—”
“Not that,” Alexis said. “It doesn’t make sense that we can suddenly understand an alien language. Are we hallucinating? Going insane?”
“Both of us, at the same time, in the same way?” Bonny shook her head. “I don’t understand it either, but it’s what we have to work with. And if there are any controls that will get us out of here before drowning, I vote for pushing some damn buttons ASAP.”
Alexis couldn’t argue with that. She started looking over the section of wall in front of her. “Okay. I’m seeing some numbers in here, but these symbols aren’t laid out like those other ones.”
Bonny swam closer to look over Alexis’ shoulder. “Instructions. Those are instructions! That’s an information panel, this one’s a control panel. It’s not a spiral, it’s a...”
“A snake,” Alexis said, comprehension clicking into place in her mind. What is happening here? “The lines go back and forth. Left to right in that row, then down to the next one which is right to left.”
“Everything’s linear,” Bonny said. “The lines bend and curve, but there’s always a path to follow.”
“We’ve got... three time units before we drown,” Alexis said, reading the info panel. “We can’t stop the chamber from filling with liquid, but—“
“We can drain it!” Bonny said, reading ahead. “To unlock the—valve?”
“Escape valve,” Alexis corrected.
“I like the sound of that.”
“Enter a code sequence to specify—“
“Got it.” Bonny moved back to the control panel and started pressing symbols. Each one changed from white to purple as she touched it.
“Wait, what are you entering? There’s a whole series of adjustments we can make.”
“I’m sure the defaults are fine, as long as they keep us from drowning.”
“Not if this chamber gets opened to vacuum!”
Bonny stopped. “Is that what it says?”
“I don’t know, I’m not done reading yet! Just give me a second!”
Bonny moved her hands away from the wall. “Sorry. You’re right. Go ahead.”
Alexis turned back to her panel and took a deep breath. “Thank you. Okay, so... Adjust flow rate... Adjust aperture size... Adjust branch selection? Is that ‘branch’?”
Bonny squinted at the symbol. “I’m getting... ‘Division’?”
“There are six choices here.” Alexis pointed at where the line of symbols split, and six new lines fell vertically away from the previous block of text. “But I don’t... I can’t read any of those symbols. Can you?”
“I’m trying.” Bonny frowned and moved her lips silently. “No. I got nothing. It’s weird, these are completely different from anything else we’ve seen.”
“Yeah,” Alexis agreed. Where all the other symbols had been made up of short, individual strokes, these new ones seemed to each be one long, continuous line that wound over itself. “Like uppercase versus lowercase letters, maybe?”
“It’s more than that. Like formal versus informal writing, something like that—hieroglyphs versus Demotic, or hiragana versus kanji?”
Alexis turned to look around the room. “What are the chances there’s a Rosetta stone embedded somewhere in here?”
“Or that we’ll have time to find and decode it?” Bonny looked up. The ceiling was less than half a meter above them now. “I vote for trying the default settings.”
Alexis nodded. Her heart was pounding. “I want that kiss first. Just in case.”
Bonny hesitated, then smiled. She put one arm around Alexis’ waist and pulled her close. Alexis closed her eyes as their lips met. It had been a long time since she’d kissed someone, really kissed someone, and Bonny was taking this moment very seriously.
It was over too quickly. Bonny pulled away and Alexis opened her eyes. They just looked at each other for a second.
“I’m sorry I got us into this mess,” Bonny said.
“It wasn’t entirely your fault.”
She tilted her head back toward the control panel. “Try the defaults?”
Alexis nodded. “Go for it.”
Bonny drifted back over into position. The symbols had gone back to white—there was probably a timeout setting—but turned purple again as she pushed them. “Here we go.”
She touched the final symbol. It lit up in purple, then sent a purple line zigzagging through the previous symbols she’d touched. The whole sequence flashed and returned to white. A different line of symbols lit up in purple above Alexis’ info panel.
“Does that say ‘error’?” Bonny asked.
“Yeah,” Alexis read over the new lit-up text. “It’s saying you have to input that final setting. The—branch, division, whatever.”
“So we have to pick one of the options we can’t read.”
“One in six chance of getting it right?”
“Unless they all do something bad.”
Alexis glanced up at the ceiling. “Worse than drowning?”
Bonny grimaced. “You pick. You’ve been studying that panel more than I have.”
“Great, so it’ll be my fault, whatever happens now.”
Alexis couldn’t help smiling. “Okay. Give me a second.”
Bonny nodded. “I’ll start inputting the sequence.”
Alexis focused on where the line of symbols split into the new labels. That part of the panel was now underwater, and the refraction of the liquid and the ripples from her own motion made them difficult to read. She would have to get closer if she wanted a better view.
Fuck it, she thought. Not going to kill me any faster at this point.
She let her body dip below the surface, until her head was submerged. She opened her eyes and found the text she was looking for. It was perfectly clear now, and the liquid against her ears muffled the sounds of the outside world—including whatever Bonny was shouting at her, which Alexis had to assume were questions about whether she had gone completely insane.
But she was perfectly rational. And calm. And she knew exactly what to do now.
Alexis surfaced, gulping in air. Bonny was indeed yelling at her, but she ignored that. She simply swam over to the control panel, touched the final symbols in the command sequence, and started the purge cycle.
Bonny barely had time to understand what was happening before the current pulled her under. She struggled to turn her body and keep her head above water, so she could see where she was being carried and to make sure she knew where Alexis was.
The two women sluiced out of a triangular opening that had appeared in one corner of the floor when Alexis entered the final symbols in the command code sequence. They tumbled into another, smaller, circular room, where the liquid from the previous chamber drained away through a grid of round holes in the floor. The triangular chute closed behind them, and a moment later, after all the liquid had gone, the holes in the floor closed up, too.
Bonny helped Alexis stand to her feet and then looked around the room. It was shaped like a hemisphere, with a flat floor and a curved dome serving as both ceiling and walls. There was a distinct lack of any markings in here—she couldn’t even tell where the previous openings had been.
“You okay?” she asked Alexis.
“Yeah,” Alexis coughed. “Sorry I didn’t have time to explain. But after I opened my eyes underwater, I could read the labels. I picked ‘center,’ or maybe ‘core’—”
“Is that why you went under?”
“I couldn’t see the labels clearly enough. I was too far away. But there must have been something in that water—something that affected our brains. Made it possible for us to read their language.”
Bonny shuddered at the thought that she was now infested with alien biotech. “You’re saying that’s why we got dunked? So we could soak in their universal translator pool?”
“It wasn’t fully working just through skin contact,” Alexis said. “But once it got in my eyes, and could also permeate my other mucus membranes—“
“Okay, yeah, I get the idea.” Bonny pointed at where the wall met the floor. “That would also explain how these structures are changing. Some kind of nanotechnology?”
Before Alexis could answer, part of the wall on the opposite side of the room lit up. This time the light was a pinkish color, and it flowed out of the wall to form the three-dimensional holo-dog image again.
“NANOTECHNOLOGY,” the dog said, flapping its mouth.
Bonny and Alexis exchanged a look. “We both heard that, right?”
“DEFINE WORD,” the dog said. It stared at them with round glowing eyes.
“You can’t just read our minds and figure it out?” Bonny asked.
“YOU NOW NOT TOUCH TRANSLATION MEDIUM.”
“Oh, I think I get it,” Alexis said. “That water—liquid—whatever it was, it was like an electrical conductor? But for telepathy or however this translation mechanism works?”
The holo-dog cocked its head at her. “NEED DEFINE MANY WORDS.”
“It only understands whatever words we used when we were in the pool?” Bonny sighed. “This is going to take a long time. And be really annoying.”
“You don’t know that. And he—it—is doing its best.” Alexis knelt down in front of the holo-dog. “Do you have a name? What should we call you?”
“I AM SHIP,” the dog said.
“That’s not very doglike,” Alexis said. “How about ‘Shippy’?”
“SHIPPY IS OKAY.”
“Great.” Bonny knelt down next to Alexis. “Now how about you turn us around, Shippy, and take us back to Titan?”
“The place we came from,” Alexis said. “Where you were, uh, buried. For a while.”
“CANNOT GO BACK.”
Bonny grumbled. “I’m not really looking forward to tearing you apart, Shippy, but if that’s the only way to get navigational control—“
“Maybe don’t think out loud about how we’re going to attack the thing that’s keeping us alive in deep space?” Alexis said.
“NO DANGER IS HERE,” Shippy said. “NO CHANGE IS POSSIBLE.”
Bonny sat down. “I gotta admit, I did not have ‘argue with alien hologram’ on my bingo card for this year.”
“Hmm.” Alexis waved a hand. “Shippy, where are we going?”
“RETURN TO HOME WORLD IN PROGRESS.”
“And how long will it take us to get there?”
“ESTIMATED TIME IS ONE HALF OF ORIGIN WORLD ROTATION CYCLE.”
“Half a day on Titan?” Bonny said. “That’s just over a week, Earth time.”
“Shippy,” Alexis said, “we will need food and water during our journey.”
The wall behind Shippy rippled and glowed pink, then extruded itself into shapes that vaguely resembled an oval-shaped table and two high-backed chairs. The table surface bubbled with yellow light, and four cylindrical shapes rose up from the tabletop, two squat, two tall.
Bonny stood and went over to the table. The tall cylinders were filled with what looked like water, and the squat cylinders held what looked and smelled like a nutty porridge.
“YOUR LIFE NEEDS WERE EVALUATED AND WILL BE PROVIDED,” Shippy said, walking over next to the table and sitting down between the two chairs.
“And what happens when we reach your home world?” Bonny asked.
“YOU WILL MEET MY PEOPLE,” Shippy said. “THEY SEND SHIPS LIKE ME OUTWARD, TO BRING BACK NEW VISITORS.”
“You might get more visitors if you asked before abducting people.”
“I WAS DAMAGED,” Shippy said. “SORRY.”
Bonny laughed in spite of herself. Alexis sat down at the table, took a drink of possibly-water, and used two fingers to scoop some porridge into her mouth. Bonny found the motion inexplicably erotic.
“Not the worst oatmeal I’ve ever had,” Alexis said. “We can work on improving your recipe.”
Bonny sat down next to Alexis, but couldn’t quite bring herself to try the porridge. She looked around the room. “Shippy, I hope you don’t expect us to sleep on the floor.”
“YOUR LIFE NEEDS WILL BE PROVIDED.”
The floor against the curve of the wall opposite them rose up and formed two rectangular shapes, lined up side by side.
“Oh.” Alexis smiled and reached over to hold Bonny’s hand. “I think we’ll only need one bed, Shippy.”
The two shapes merged into one roughly king-sized platform.
Bonny squeezed Alexis’ hand. “Are we really going to move in together after just one date?”
Alexis shrugged. “Well, we already have a dog.”
Shippy said, “I AM NOT A DOG.”
Bonny leaned over for a kiss. Alexis did not disappoint.
Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2020.