By Joel Tagert
Art by Nick Flook aka Flooko
Published Issue 107, November 2022
This is the followup to Joel Tagert’s, Filthy Animals, with art by Flooko.
You sure you want to do this?
The ship’s down here, Gedim.
I believe you. But is it wise to go spelunking around an alien cave system when just yesterday we both nearly died after getting sucked into a pit of black goo?
With the moons in sync, the fluid should be at low tide. Goo gone. We should be good for three or four hours at least.
You’re avoiding the question. Do you want to do this, Joira?
Why is it all on me? Do you want to do this?
I asked first.
Meli and Korman died for this.
Sunk cost fallacy. Just because they died doesn’t make success more probable.
Stop playing devil’s advocate! I didn’t throw away my life and spend three years in cryo to lose my nerve at the last leg. The Agastya is down here somewhere. We’re going to find it and fly it out of here. Now, are you fucking coming with me or not?
Oh, I’m coming with you hard.
Can’t wait to get in that slippery hole.
You really do have a one-track mind.
In my defense, you got a beautiful track.
By my read, we’re about two clicks from the ship. We make good time, we’ll be there in thirty or forty minutes.
Do I need to list the eighteen assumptions in that sentence? Starting with the fact that there’s no way these tunnels lead straight there? We could easily have to travel twice that distance.
A minute ago you were all hot to trot, now you’re Joey Limpdick.
I freely admit to being a reflexive pessimist. Blame it on my parents. If I told my mom I was gonna take a bath, she’d break out a life preserver. Also, it’s creepy as fuck in here. And slippery.
I don’t even think these tunnels are made of rock. Look at this.
We were assuming Talend’s cave systems were geological, but what if they’re biological?
Or some combination of both … this is the problem with landing on an unsurveyed planet. Real question is, what else is down here with us?
Don’t say that.
I mean, it’s literally an ecological niche.
I want you to go the next thirty minutes without listing the ways we could die down here, okay?
I won’t make it thirty seconds.
Oh, I’m aware.
Can I say what we both already know?
Does it involve our gruesome end?
We are not lost. We are mapping our progress. We can easily go back the way we came. We just haven’t found a way to the location we tagged yet.
You’re going to make me say it?
These roots are moving.
Up top they looked more or less static, but down here … They’re clearly mobile.
The tunnel walls are still holding shape. There’s no indication of collapse.
That’s not the point and you know it. We need to turn back.
Ten minutes. If we don’t find a more direct path east, we’ll turn around. Deal?
We’re close, Gedim! A few hundred meters!
The walls are writhing!
There’s no reason to think they mean—
We have to turn back!
We’re not in danger!
They’re wrapping around my feet!
What are you doing? Put that away!
The tunnel’s closing!
Don’t fire! You don’t know how it will react!
Get off me! Get off!
Can you move?
Not really. Do you still have your laser?
Yes, but … I’m completely immobilized.
Try to work your hand toward it.
Firing again could cause it to constrict further.
How else are we going to get out of here?
I told you not to fire.
What was I supposed to do? These things were wrapping around my legs. Pulling me down.
But you’re not hurt?
So you don’t actually know their intention. Its intention.
Alien intentions are rarely conducive to human health.
You and your fucking pronouncements, Gedim. I swear, you think that if you can wrap something up in a nice turn of phrase, it must be true. (beeping) What’s that?
Suit breach. The roots have unfastened my helmet. Listen … I love you. It sounds crazy, but this has been the best six months of my life. If you— if you—
Are you okay?
I’m … I don’t know. I feel … different. But not in a bad way. Actually I feel … alive.
That’s the biggest surprise of the day, for sure.
Where are we?
Can’t you feel it?
We’re … in a large space. A cavern. The ship is here!
I think so too. I think we can just walk over to it.
But I can feel so much more. I can feel the planet. I can feel the roots.
They’re in us, now. That’s how we’re able to breathe. When they entered our bodies they changed things around. Modified our lungs, our body chemistry, our cellular metabolism. Making us part of the ecosystem.
We’re infected with it. Some kind of parasite or symbiote.
That’s all you’re going to say about what we just experienced?
What do you want me to say?
We were together, Gedim. You were in me, and I was in you. Twining together like roots, floating in the fluid, the plasma. I could feel everything. The generative force of the planet pouring through us. It was the purest sexual experience of my life.
You don’t know what it’s done to us.
It’s opened our eyes. Given us joy.
We could both drop dead any minute.
No, no. Why would you want to reject this? This is a gift.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
What does that mean? We should be bowing down in gratitude. We’re part of this world now.
You sound delusional. You are delusional. Our first priority is to get in a medical scanner and see what the roots did to us. I’m sure there’s one on the Agastya. Then we’ll see if there’s an antidote, some kind of antiparasitic agent.
What’s wrong with you? This is the most amazing event of our lives, and you want to … what, expunge it?
If there was a worm eating your brain, but the whole time it kept producing endorphins so you felt amazing, would you get rid of it?
You don’t know what it’s done either. So that’s not what this is about. What is it?
… You’re right. We were together. We are together, with this thing, this planet. But I need to know where I begin and end.
You never end. You never end.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Nick Flook aka Flooko is “the O.G astronaut painter” and takes his fans on adventures through original acrylic paintings and animations. This Toronto-based artist specializes in surrealism, space-themed work and impressionistic city and landscapes. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram for more work.