White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Matt Elzweig
Matt Elzweig edits Pachinko!, an online literary magazine scheduled to launch this fall. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, and as an English language teacher in New York and Japan. He recently blogged a mandatory road trip from San Antonio, TX to Long Island, NY under the pseudonym, Tycho Brahe.

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White Earth

Matt Elzweig

The supply line was almost a month late and we hadn't heard from the Nucleus in almost as long. This scared us. It scared us even more than the dog.

 

“Don't change the subject, Ron,” Maura said. She turned to face me, covered almost to her shoulders with the heavy bedspread. Maura wasn't a crier, and when she did cry it meant something really, really bad had just happened or was about to. And now, two wide streaks of saline were descending down her cheeks.

It wasn't supposed to be a second honeymoon. This was work. But it wasn't supposed to go the way it had been going either. We had arrived six weeks before and found a planet that was covered in a fine white matter that fell somewhere between sand and dirt. Somehow it hadn't shown up this way on the monitoring equipment at home, not with this consistency, this thickness. It was as if someone had taken giant sand dunes and replaced them with flour.

The part we were stationed in was a wide flat plain, a basin really, because it was surrounded by steep mountains but was completely level. We had seen it countless times around the time it was discovered by a ground unit that had captured it on satellite video and then during our pre-deployment briefings. But to actually feel it under our feet and the atmosphere breezing past, around and into us, sometimes pelting our suits with it, the strange white earth for the first of many times, was validating and unsettling in a way that I had never felt before. As an empiricist, you see an image that is accompanied perhaps by a sound that you then attach to it, but thing is, if you're not completely frozen inside a corner of you still wants to know if the thing’s real. And unless it's a dream you know that it has to be real because it comes with an explanation. Things don't just 'ring true.' They either are or are not. It's a version of spiritual awareness, but that's as far as an empiricist can go.

 

There were others who lived to the west, just over the dry, tree-speckled mountains. This was something even more incredible than the white earth, but it was also terrifying so we tried not to


think about it. But now it demanded our attention like a petulant child or offensive writing on a wall. The area the others lived in was also flat, but not hemmed in on all sides. It resembled tundra of the cold, Antarctic variety. No one had touched down and examined them yet, but remote observers at home said they were intelligent, intelligent being a relative term of course. This assessment didn't seem very scientific to me, but I wasn't about to go there and study the damned things from the ground. The slightly longer version of their findings was that their infrared picked up some kind of internal heating system that made it possible for these beings to survive in such a frigid environment. It was speculative as far as I was concerned.

 

When Maura found the dog, we realized that we didn't have a gurney or a stretcher, which was odd. Had I known this before we left home, I would have insisted they give us one. The thinking behind this may have been that one can't rescue himself; that if we needed to be rescued, the foundation or the government techs or whoever would bring their own equipment.

Consuelo's dog was in post-rigor, which made it stiff and cumbersome, and we had to carry it in our arms after we dug it out of the earth, each of us clamping two of its detached legs with our armpits, each of us holding on to its torso with our hands and pushing our feet down hard on the earth so we could move in our bulky, awkward suits. The earth was much less dense than it appeared, which made this a slow, difficult process. Maura moved forwards while I walked backwards towards the housing unit.

 

Maura hadn't cried when the planet came into view for the first time or even when we stepped out of our transport and saw it zip away in the direction of home. The only time her eyes moistened was when we were entering the housing unit, which had been set down by another unmanned transport, three months prior, for the first time and as we carried the dog inside. I knew she wasn't mourning the loss of this animal we had never known while it was living and that when we took those first steps into the housing unit, she hadn't been on the verge of tears due to the thrill our being the first human researchers here either.


Only Consuelo's dog had preceded us here. We hadn't heard that it had gone missing until we were already in orbit. Of course it had been known to several of the principals and their various lackeys at least three days before we left home. They had kept it from us for fear that one or both of us would lose our nerve, and I was pissed off about it when I found out a few days into our journey, to put it mildly. Inevitably, it slipped out during a mid-flight conference we were having with Evan. Evan gave me some lame excuse—communications problem with the retrieval team or something like that. But had he been forthcoming, then he wouldn't have been doing what they pay him to do, among other things, which is to deflect scrutiny of any kind away from the foundation and its partners. Not that any of that matters now.

 

Maura found the dog's body while we were out collecting samples about a week after we arrived. She could handle the experience of stumbling upon the four detached canine legs—they were somehow sticking straight up out of the earth at strange impossible angles from one another—and the rest nearby, fully in-tact and thinly covered with earth

like a white speed bump. Not even this, the condition of its remains, brought Maura nearly to tears as we carried it into our temporary home. Rather it was the myriad interpretations, the hypotheses that the way the body's condition set loose in her mind, all of them negative. But I maintained my resolve to keep an open mind. Was I not “The Man Who Made Tomatoes Grow in Death Valley” almost eight years earlier and whose countenance had graced the cover of Nevada Popular Science Review under the headline “The Miracle Worker,” a week later? It behooved Maura, as well, to keep her emotions and certainly any doubts in check. Was she not a three-time Rockefeller University Grant recipient, recognized justifiably each time for conducting environmental research that was nothing short of groundbreaking? One dismembered German shepherd did not necessarily equal hostility on the other side of the mountains. Yet if her response to this and any other surprises continued I would have to remember to be a husband rather than a colleague. Yes, the torn-off appendages were sad and more than a little scary. But they were not about to rain on one of the biggest milestones in our careers, as far as I, and I thought she, was concerned.

 


Now if my great aunt is to be believed, back home it used to be telemarketers that rang just as you were taking your first bites of dinner. Out here, it's The Nucleus, but they call via touch field rather than telephone. The other big difference is that we actually depend on them to call us. In fact we're so desperate for their calls now that no matter what we're doing when they call—eating, working, showering, surveying the mountains around us, reading, cleaning, even if we're being intimate—we're going to drop everything and answer.

We knew what the neighbors looked like. We had access to government grade cameras that penetrated underneath the mountains and reflected everything to us. And before we left, we had seen an album's worth of still photography, all of it dull except for the fact that the foundation had identified the neighbors, who it could add to its catalog of thirty odd newly-discovered species that lived outside our solar system, all of them discovered as early as the turn of the 22nd century. The video footage was a little more enticing; at least the large, translucent slug-like beings could roll and twist themselves around. But they did not seem to

possess any recognizable form of technology.

But what the foundation is more interested in, and the primary reason they sent us here was habitability. We were sent to test the elements, to look for new minerals and other natural resources, and assess generally how colonies of humans might one day live here should overpopulation, pollution or the exhaustion of our natural resources become too great for our own ecosystem to bear. We had been sent to identify natural resources that could be used in new medical treatments. These reasons and the reason I had been singled out for the mission—water purification and plant genetics—were the foundation's priorities for this mission.

 

“I'm gonna tell Aunt Linda about the dog,” Maura said. We were both sitting up now, the comforter at our bellies, both of them still healthy and soft.

“No you're not.”

“Ron, do you really think the foundation's going to choose the two of us over defense? Or agriculture? Or all the aerospace and biotech outfits pitching them exciting new projects?”


She had a point, the key being defense. The most recent reports that day listed another 160 casualties for the allied concerns that had once been the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Our region was made up of the states that had been referred to as the Southwest during the days when the union still existed. Our patchwork of allied, independent republics—Nevada, Arizona, Mexicali and Old-New Mexico—were completely separate from the LLC of what had been New England before the Great Rift except for a tangle of family and social ties between our ministers' palaces and their Board of Directors. This arrangement created a situation in which we were increasingly expected to use the fruits of our labor, peace and prosperity to shore them up with whatever they lacked in the war they were fighting—weapons, munitions, fighters, medicine, technology, and worst of all for us, money. The confederation that controlled our area wasn't about to raise taxes to meet this new discrepancy. And that could mean only one thing—austerity.

“They have a great reputation," I said, meaning the foundation and hoping she wouldn't recognize how absurd this was, but she did obviously. "They

don't screw people.”

Her eyes widened and she leaned on the mattress with both hands so she could turn and face me directly. “Are you serious? The continent is dissolving, our alliance about to evaporate, and you think they care about loyalty? About ... ethics?”

Although she was correct to assume the worst, that ugly version of her, the one I don't like to admit exists, the one I see on rare occasions when she gets angry or¸ even rarer, when she gets frightened, surfaced and I did what I tended to do whenever this happened. I reacted by becoming defensive and by not being clear-headed enough to give her the support she needed.

Now she started to actually cry. “What is it?” I said, bringing her close, but she pulled away from me.

“I'm never going to see my baby again," she said between sobs, referring to Sam, our only child. "And he's never going to have a sister or a brother.”

I was about to reach for her again, but then realized the thing to do was to wait. Instead I just told her, “you will...He will.”


For the past two years we'd been trying to conceive again and had been continually frustrated. But just before we left we had gotten encouraging news about a promising experimental treatment one of the foundation's satellite campuses was developing. We planned to enroll as study participants as soon as our work here was complete and our lives had returned to normal back home. And even though we both had lukewarm relations with our own siblings, we believed a brother or sister would teach him to share, to be more outgoing, to nurture, defend and to fight a little too. Sure, it's possible one or both of us were trying to rewrite our own childhoods, but that didn't negate the benefits we knew a sibling would have for Sam. I felt guilty for masking the uncertainty and for presenting the best possible outcome as the likeliest one, but I had to at least try to stay positive.

 

Now the blankets were at our hips and I was holding her. There was a creak and then a crack.

“Shit.” She pushed me away. “What is that,” she said, her eyes now wide open.

But I knew what it was: “the fucking window again.”

This had been an annoyance every few days since our arrival, but given everything that was going on, it was a little scary. Yet I still clung to logic. Maura's samples confirmed just how dry this plain was, unlike the other side's, which apparently was humid enough to support tundra. On certain days here, there were increases in atmospheric pressure. The windows were fireproof, shatterproof and made with state of the art plastic—similar to the plastic our face shields were made of, but heavier. But once the pressure passed a certain threshold, there strong winds and they dragged up the closest layers of the ground and mountainsides, which sometimes proved too strong for the panes to withstand. Fortunately the panes and face shields had two layers each, so if the outer panes cracked, the inner panes remained stable and nothing got in. We had replacements for the outer panes that cracked, and were fully-stocked. They were biodegradable too, so in the event one cracked, I'd remove it and throw it outside on the ground, and after a few days it was in the wind, literally. Once I did this all Maura had to do was punch a code into


the wall console—every room had one—pull a lever, and a replacement would shoot up from deep in the ground into the sill and lock itself in place. Then the housing unit would mist it from the outside with a reinforcing sealant that helped to further prevent shattering and burning.

“We're gonna run out of replacement panes,” she said, to underscore the gravity of the situation.

“Relax," I said as my patience flagged for a second. "We've got plenty.”

“Don't you tell me to relax,” she said. Maura had made a point early on that I had recognized but had chosen not to ignore. There were lots of panes for the windows and even more for the face shields, but they weren't infinite. She got up, threw on a nightgown and a robe and walked quickly out of the room and, I figured, into the bathroom or her office or the communications center.

 

I found her in the living room.

“I don't want to continue,” she said.

“Continue what?”

“I'm not going out anymore,” she said, meaning outside to collect samples.

“Maura, we have to," I said, but I noticed myself trying to override a loss of my own conviction.

“Listen to me carefully," she said. "I'm not going back out there until they can guarantee us a ride home. And our safety.”

She was watching the only station we could get out here, the foundation's internal channel. But it was basically a weather feed, and from the looks of the radar nothing special was going on, there was nothing interesting moving across the skies of our home galaxy. Light rain for the coast. Sunshine. Eighty degrees and sunny with low humidity in our region, but that was it. Maura stared at it, her arms spread out along the back of the couch. Neither of us said anything until finally, Maura spoke.

“I miss Sam.”

Then I was holding her hand with my eyes closed, still standing. “I do too,” I said. We were like that for awhile, and then I sat down and we watched clouds and winds pass over China. “I'll handle this,” I said in a whisper. “I'll call them first thing in the


morning.” It was about 3:30 a.m. in Phoenix and they wouldn't consider this an emergency even thought that's exactly what it was, so I knew I'd have to wait.

“OK,” she said.

 

It's always important to have one ally. I don't mean your spouse or your best friend, but someone in business, or at work if you're in a traditional employment situation. I had been doing business with the foundation for 15 years and trusted everyone there, but there was only one person at the foundation who I trusted as much as any close friend was confident could handle information this sensitive should the need arise. Just as important, I could count on him to tell me the unvarnished truth no matter what. My ally at the foundation was Peter, a senior analyst.

 

Normally, Maura and I scheduled our Nucleus calls at least a week in advance, but this different. And if Peter, not one of our regular points of contact at the foundation was unavailable, I would wait until they

could track him down for me. I didn't want anyone else to find out that we were suspicious and go into damage control mode, weaving together doublespeak to shut us up. If only we could connect to personal phones, but we couldn't.

As luck would have it Peter answered after about six pulses.

“Ron?”

“Hi Peter.”

“I wasn't expecting a call from you today.” He looked preoccupied.

“I wasn't expecting to call you.”

“Well you look like shit. Is everything OK?”

“Look who's talking,” I said, somehow able joke around but probably just to prevent myself from exploding. Peter's younger than me but had prematurely gray hair that goes down to about his shoulders. There were dark bags under his eyes.

“I heard you found Consuelo's dog out there,” Peter said.

I sighed. “I'll tell you about that later. I have to


ask you about something."

"What's going on?"

"We haven't heard from Nucleus in ages, and we haven't been able to get supplies."

Peter was silent for a moment before he spoke again .“Well, in case you haven't heard, CVAC announced a resource find in our catchment area, so now everyone and their third cousin's headed over here. With guns mostly. They've got me moving around our satellites and hiding them so they don't get hit by any of the nuts scrambling for it. I've been up for 15 hours straight. The funny thing is—”

I had to cut him off. “Peter this is really important.” He had a tendency to ramble on if you encouraged him to, but even so it seemed he was trying to avoid something.

“What is it?”

“It's about the length of the study. We want out.”

“Wait, didn't you get a call from Nucleus about that?” He sounded surprised.

“No...”

“Really?”

“No... What was it about?”

“Oh, shit. I can't believe they didn't call you," he said as if we had time to spare.

“Well what would they have told me?” I was growing impatient and becoming oddly hopeful that the connection would be lost, and I wouldn't find out what the underlying matter was.

“Chain of command. I should've figured they wouldn't tell you until everything was settled" Peter said more to himself than to me, shaking his head. “Well," he continued, "it's about the budget.”

“What about the budget?”

“They're cutting it.”

“Everyone knew that was coming. So what?” Once again emotion, shock, was impeding my ability to think.

“The thing is, a big part of the new budget is war aid. Nucleus is using it to help put the expansionists in a holding pattern.”


“This is old news.” My mind raced to think of the possible scenarios the bureaucrats might have deemed to be in the interest of the greater good while I was on Planet Oblivion. There were some crackles and a warping sound in the background that wasn't loud enough to obscure Peter's words completely, but loud enough to be annoying.

“It's kicking us in the teeth, Ron. More than this kind of thing ever has. The expansionists keep cutting off our supply lines and it's costing us a ton.”

“Right...” As the fragments started to come together I saw where this was going and I didn't like it.

“It's forcing them or so they say, to shut down a lot of upcoming grants.”

“Again, that's unfortunate but expected. So what?”

“Ron," he said. "They're going to shut down all the upcoming grants—and put all current projects on hold.”

I froze.

“Until when?”

Then he spoke softly, as if that would make it less true, less horrifying, but would still get me the information I required. “...Indefinitely,” he said.

Forever, is what I thought.

I told myself I had heard him incorrectly, that it might be the connection. “What did you just say?”

“All grants are—” If he was already white or red, he turned green upon delivering this unwelcome news to me a second time, at a greater volume. "Cancelled. Including yours."

I felt the urge to unleash a vicious cross examination so I could get to the core of what was really happening to us.

“Peter, help us. Please,” was all I could say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Matt Elzweig. White Whale Review, issue 4.2


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