The Red City
We landed four days ago. We arrived and they met us. I told them we came with a message, but I’d forgotten it. I forgot what you told me to say. Some mechanism slipped on our reentry, and the data has been erased. I keep trying to remember, but my mind is like a blank wall with no doors. I know enough to be afraid, but I am not afraid.
The voyage was worse than anyone expected. We crossed a darkness that stretched in every direction. We lost all sense of time. Half the crew is dead. They simply never woke up. The others fell sick, most likely from the radiation. No one is feeling themselves. My reflexes are languid.
I have a headache that paints the back of my eyes.
How far have we come? Our instruments are frozen. And those that do work tell me . . . nothing. This morning they found me in my cabin. I’d been sleeping. They wanted to show me the Red City. I couldn’t walk. They carried me. We passed through a barren desert. We arrived before noon. The buildings were magnificent, structures carved out of ice. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. All the questions I’d thought were important when I left seem irrelevant now. They’ve been replaced with new questions.
These buildings seemed to be alive. They turned with the sun. And now, the City talks to me when I’m alone. It’s telling me things I don’t want to hear. It speaks to me with a dark intelligence, and I can feel its pulse in time with my own.
Sanders, they’re like us. They look like us. They move like us. They think like us. But they don’t feel anything. There is no pain here. They knew we were coming. They’ve been waiting. They know all about you. They guessed why we’d come.
There is no pain here.
I want to die, but they will not let me. They watch me at all times. When I sleep, I dream I am an ocean. I dreamed I was a mountain range. I dreamed my mouth opened, and matter disintegrated. I dream I am next to you, in your sitting room, and you are telling me: pay attention. Your hair parted to the side. Your shirt unbuttoned. My ear on your chest, listening for something I knew is not there.
Time is bending. We are a memory that belongs to someone else. This city is talking to me, and I have begun to listen.
This morning, the windows in my cabin opened, and I woke with the sun. The planets here are blueshifting. The light is like an idea that refuses to take shape. My legs are still swollen. I can walk, but only with assistance. The pain is great. They have moved an object into my cabin that emits a low frequency. It is a calming presence. It is supposed to heal me. But Sanders, I know better. They are experimenting on me. I no longer need to eat. I no longer need to drink. I no longer have desires that are recognizable to me. There is something wrong with my mind.
I am taking notes to the best of my ability in case I see you again. I am studying them. I am writing it down. They behave collectively, as if in a hive. They are co-operative. Orders are issued, and followed. They are impassive. They do not die. They look like shimmering light.
When they visited, I asked them to bring the logs from our ship. They told me they’d been destroyed. I was told to stay seated, to stay in bed. I was told not to think of my crew. I was told that soon I would be visiting the Red City again, and needed to rest.
At the foot of my bed I have placed my shoes, and on top of them I have placed my helmet. I have my camera and recording equipment. It is through them I am transmitting to you now, though I receive no signal in return—nor confirmation of receipt—it is like speaking into brain static. You told me that knowledge itself was a thing of beauty. But knowledge is nothing without memory. I have no ache for the past, but I would like to know it, if only to make sense of the days to come.
You told me that knowledge itself was a thing of beauty. But knowledge is nothing without memory.
At the foot of my bed I have placed the watch that you gave me. It no longer works.
What is companionship? What is love? I miss your touch, but I cannot remember it. There was a time when I could think of you, and feel the indentation on my skin. Your hands on my body. My fingers in your mouth. All of that is gone. You sent me here. Some part of you must’ve known this is what would happen. I know they killed the others. I heard them incinerated, screaming at the gates of the Red City. The city told me—it spoke of these things. It was a great mercy.
My pain is the only thing that anchors me to myself.
Sanders, there are days when I imagine I am hearing you—that you’ve slipped across the expanse and have joined me here. The signals I’m receiving are intense. You have to make them stop.
I seem to be undergoing an accelerated evolution: my skin has hardened, and now forms a rough carapace under which my blood slowly pushes and sings; my legs are no longer in pain, for I no longer have legs; my left hand has transformed into a crab-like claw. I watched my fingers fuse and dissolve. I can turn my head only with difficulty. My torso has become shell-like, and is glazed over in the same crimson hue I saw reflected in the Red City. I cannot move on my own. They have depressurized my cabin. I am carried everywhere.
I no longer require my helmet to breathe in this planet’s atmosphere. It strands into my lungs, and braids itself to my body.
There are no mirrors in my cabin, but I know I have become frightening. Each day, my body finds itself newly hatched. The sensation is like pushing a splinter through an infected sphere. It is a sexual release. I am ashamed to feel the way I do.
The sensation is like pushing a splinter through an infected sphere.
Finally, they told me I was ready. They laid me in a blanket, and carried me to the Red City. I was on my back. I saw whatever streamed above me. I saw the stars. I saw light paint itself onto darkness. I heard their feet step across the sand.
In the blanket, I was rocked like a child. I remembered my mother. I remembered my father. I remembered the way they held me. After many hours of walking, the sky became light and the buildings emerged. They bent like trees to welcome us.
I thought I heard the ocean. We progressed into an interior space. The temperature dropped. Some of my companions held their ears against a sound I could not hear. Eventually, they put me down. I had the sensation of falling. My claw was useless. Then I was propped up.
It was then that I saw her. She is as you described, but more so. She sat atop a glowing pyramid. I could not look at her for long. She is the pulse I’ve been feeling. The room was domed and enormous. She reached out her arms, and I was brought, hovering, forward. The pain was intolerable.
She reached out, and held me. She picked me up. I felt a warmth from her I’d forgotten. She put her fingers on my head, and everything dropped away. I felt her swimming through my mind. I could feel her unfolding my memories. I didn’t care. I was outside of myself. Time came to a halt. I wanted it to.
Sanders, why did you send me here? You have no idea how lonely I’ve felt. No concept of pain. You have no idea about what is out here. You have no idea what we are capable of. My body has fallen away; I have been touched; and I am afraid that I will live forever. I swim now amongst the buildings of the Red City. I am: a golden bird, taking flight. I am: consciousness itself. I am a planet-eater, present at the very birth of a new universe. They are coming for you. The eradication will be swift.
Do not ask for mercy. Do not ask for help. I am with you now, inside the very mind you’ve cherished. Prepare yourself. It will feel like nothing you can imagine. It will feel like being unwound. It will feel like an end, but it will not be.
Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.