Facing Your Fears by Martin Lochman

There are many fears in the world. Some are quite straightforward, such as the fear of heights, flying, or enclosed spaces, while others can be considered more complex—social anxiety, for example. Some are based on abstract concepts, e. g. fear of failure, whereas in other cases, the subject of one’s dread takes on a very real, very tangible form: insects, big, carnivorous animals, diseases… the list is virtually endless. A whole other, non-negligible category is represented by childhood fears (fear of being alone, of the dark, of the monsters under the bed)—fears that a lot of people are quick to dismiss as a product of youthful overactive imagination.

Bobbing on the surface of an ocean on a planet sixteen and a half lightyears away from Earth, Milan can wholeheartedly say that he definitely is not one of those people.

The liquid he finds himself submerged in has about the same density as the water of the Dead Sea which, on its own, could be considered good news, were it not for the fact that it’s as black as a freshly made espresso. He can’t see more than a couple of centimeters below the surface, so there is no way of knowing if the ocean floor is a few meters or a few hundred meters underneath his hopelessly dangling feet. It’s really difficult for him not to imagine the immensity of the potential depth…

He shudders even though he is far from cold—the liquid’s similarity to the popular caffeinated beverage doesn’t end with the color, and his suit’s life support system for some reason fails to keep the boiling heat out entirely. Squeezing his fists as hard as the tough material of the gloves allows him to, he takes several deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth, just like they taught him in training) and tries to shove the unsettling thoughts aside.

The technique appears to work: he now feels calm enough to objectively assess his situation. He slowly, carefully, turns around, taking in both his immediate surroundings and the distant views. The ocean stretches all the way to the horizon in all directions, and there don’t seem to be any islands or even isolated rocks protruding above the surface. The sight allows him to draw two conclusions, neither of which really inspire optimism: first, he won’t be able to experience what the planet’s solid ground feels like any time soon, and second, he is truly the only remnant of the crashed lander.

It’s okay, he tells himself—he expected both, it’s just that he didn’t want to dismiss that tiny flicker of hope straight away.

Sticking to his resolve, he brings his left arm up. He wipes the inky drops off the small screen above his wrist and is relieved to find that it still works. With a few quick taps, he checks the status of the suit’s systems—they are all fully operational, save for the life support which explains why he is feeling more and more like he’s in a sauna.

Alarmed, he runs a diagnostic. It takes the in-built computer maybe a quarter of a minute to finish, and in the end, the results are bittersweet: there is nothing wrong with the air supply, but the cooling works only at seventy-five percent capacity, and the damn device won’t provide him with any clues as to why that is.

Great, so I will slowly cook to death before I suffocate, the cynic in him says, momentarily halting the analytical train of thought.

He bites down on his lip and shakes his head. Cynicism may not be as bad as despair, but it sure isn’t far away from it, and he can’t afford to think this way! Not before… not before all hope is irrefutably lost. And it’s a hell of a long way before it gets to that, right?

He considers his options. His fellow crew members up in the orbit must have registered the crash the moment it happened, so they will no doubt be launching the second lander to look for him. There isn’t much he can do from his end to aid their efforts, save for staying put—which doesn’t appear to be a difficult feat to accomplish, considering the lack of currents or wind. The ocean surface is almost eerily still; the only waves, barely discernible in the dark vastness, are generated by his occasional movements.

Even so, perhaps he should do something to make himself more visible from above. He immediately realizes that’s easier said than done, since any potentially useful equipment went under together with the lander, and all he has is his suit, but he doesn’t want to give up that easily. He checks the pockets—nothing there except for a couple of self-adhesive repair patches and a universal multi-tool—then consults the computer, clicking his way through the expanded directory of individual subsystems.

He feels like slapping himself when he finally stumbles upon the solution. How did he not think about it right away? Uttering a few unflattering words under his breath, he switches on the helmet lights at full power. Twenty seconds later, he changes the steady stream to an intermittent blinking, deciding that he has better chances at being spotted with them operating in this manner.

He leans back, looking up at the gray alien sky, and waits.

In spite of the sweltering heat that makes the air in his helmet so thick he can basically drink it, he somehow manages to doze off. He dreams that he’s back on Earth, walking through a labyrinth of narrow streets in a nondescript city filled with old, stone buildings. It’s the middle of the day, or perhaps afternoon, but he feels a distinct sense of urgency—he needs to find a way out of here before nightfall, and there is a lot of ground to cover, an insurmountable distance to cross, and he’s slow, way too slow to achieve the objective. He tries to run, but his legs are two pillars made of concrete, impossible to move the way he wants to. His anguish grows exponentially, filling every fiber of his being. He decides to hide in one of the buildings, but the doors are all locked, and then there are no doors whatsoever, only stone walls inconceivably high—

The scenery abruptly changes: he is now trudging through the knee-deep water of a sea, or perhaps a giant lake. The bottom beneath his feet is covered with rocks of various shapes and sizes, but not bigger than his fist, which makes his movement only slightly difficult. He is heading for the nearby shore where his lander awaits, its silver hull glistening in the sun. There is something wrong with the little ship—it’s tilted sideways, slowly sinking into the ground. He picks up the pace, but the distance to the shore remains the same no matter how fast he moves, and the lander keeps going under. From somewhere a soft rhythmic sound can be heard—tap, tap, tap…

He wakes up in near-absolute darkness. For a few seconds, he has no idea where or when he is, his disoriented mind struggling to separate the real from the imaginary. Then the memories come flooding right back: the crash, coming up to the surface of an endless ocean, running a diagnostic, switching on the lights… The lights!

He “sits up,” assuming a more vertical position. A layer of black liquid—is he just imagining it or is it somehow thicker now, more syrupy—slowly slides down his faceplate, but the visibility barely improves which can only mean one thing: the helmet lights are off. Whatever residual drowsiness he was feeling up until this moment is gone, replaced by a plethora of acute sensations, the most prominent of which is unease, slowly creeping toward outright terror.

It’s not that he is afraid of the dark. He wouldn’t even mind it, were it not for the consolidation of the most unfavorable facts that make up his current predicament.

He frantically checks the computer. He can barely see anything on the screen—it turns out that the steady tapping noise that roused him to consciousness is rain; rain that’s now ceaselessly coming down in sheets from the heavy, coal-colored clouds. It takes him close to two minutes to get through the settings, only to discover that according to the highly sophisticated, state-of-the-art software, the lights are on.

He swallows a curse and runs a full-system diagnostic again. Its results are consistent with those of the first one, which compounds his anxious frustration. He flips the software switch of the helmet lights a few times, reboots the entire system, then runs another diagnostic, but no matter what he does and the amount of desperate vigor he does it with, they remain stubbornly inactive.

“Why? Why?! Whyyyy?” he growls and smacks the helmet until he feels dizzy with exertion.

The rain stops in the meantime, rapidly going from a powerful torrent to a soft trickle, but the suffocating darkness persists. It must be the nighttime then, not just bad weather, the scientist in him muses, temporarily dampening his grievance. How long are the nights on this planet again? A couple of hours, a couple of days? He is unable to recall even the ballpark figure from the orbital survey, regardless of how hard he tries.

What does it matter anyway? flashes through his mind. They know where to look for you, don’t they? They will be here, day or night, unless…

Unless they won’t.

A knot settles in his stomach as he realizes he has no idea why his lander crashed in the first place. He remembers a swift descent through the upper atmosphere, zero turbulence and other detrimental atmospheric conditions, and equally smooth braking as he entered the troposphere. He can see himself in the cockpit looking at the satellite images, searching for the best place to touch down, while keeping the small vessel steady. Then comes a sudden jolt, seemingly inconsequential at first, but when followed by a discernibly more powerful one, he understands that something is wrong. The controls stop responding, the onboard computer yells a warning, the lander rapidly loses altitude, eventually going into free fall—and the next thing he knows, the cockpit is filling with inky black liquid. Dazed from an impact partially alleviated by the airbags, he fumbles with the harness, but the buckle remains doggedly locked. Only as he can’t see anything anymore does he manage to open it; he then blindly makes his way to the emergency hatch, and out of the craft toward the unknown.

No, there is nothing that would indicate the culprit behind the accident. It might have been a technical failure in any of the minor or major systems of the lander, but it also might have been something external, something that could potentially prevent a successful landing altogether—which means that any rescue efforts would be inevitably destined to fail. What’s worse: they could bring about additional casualties, both human and material, possibly endangering the mission itself!

He finds himself feeling divided. On the one hand, he would love nothing more than to be back on the ship, in the comfortable confines of his cabin, to hear the reassuring hum of the fusion drive and the soft, steady clicking of the onboard systems, but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to be the reason other crew members get stranded here, or worse. But what can he do? He is utterly powerless—he can’t recover any crash-related data, much less relay them, and he can’t contact anyone, not without the lander’s transmitter. All he can do is hope—no, pray—that they were more successful in identifying the cause of the accident than he was.

He spends the next half hour battling his frustration before the feeling of isolation creeps back in. It starts raining again.

He is thirsty.

Six hours have passed since the helmet lights stopped working, almost eleven from the moment he broke the ocean surface. He has long finished whatever little water there was in the in-suit drink bag, sucked every last drop from the tube next to his mouth, even shook his upper body several times in case some still stubbornly remained in the nooks and crannies of the entire supply system.

The heat, of course, only exacerbates his need for hydration, but at the very least, it isn’t getting any worse. If anything, he has gotten used to it to a large extent—it’s far from pleasant, but when preoccupied with more pressing concerns, he barely even registers it.

How could they equip these suits with so little water? Talk about a design flaw!

He licks his dry lips, thinking hard about what he could do to alleviate his current need. His musing is suddenly interrupted by the most unanticipated sensation—of something brushing against his right leg. The touch is delicate, barely noticeable through the thick material of his suit, but it is enough to send shivers down his spine.

He kicks his legs, propelling himself backward, all the while scanning the pitch-black surface around him for any sign of movement. It’s stopped raining and it’s day again—or what passes for a day here—not that the fact helps him much. His heart feels like it’s going to jump out of his chest, and it’s all he can do not to start hyperventilating.

This planet is a lifeless, barren piece of a rock, he repeats to himself like a mantra. Nothing could survive here.

Yet his imagination is already running high, fueled by vivid recollections of a particular subgenre of horror movies he watched when he was growing up. He pictures an alien shark: long, sleek body as dark as the environment it lives in, multiple pairs of fins for easy maneuvering, wide, hyper-extendable jaw filled with rows of serrated teeth, each as big as his thumb and sharper than a razor… It probably has very poor eyesight, but it more than makes up for it with other senses—and what is that organ called? The one that allows the sharks on Earth to detect electrical currents?

Before he can fish out the pertinent information from his memory and in doing so add to the frightening mental image, he feels another touch on his leg. This time, it seems to linger somewhat, akin to a lover’s gentle caress or a friendly pat, or perhaps a long, inquisitive nudge, and Milan’s reaction is nothing but proportional—he lets out a panicked yelp and kicks and splashes wildly with all his limbs until he remembers that this kind of commotion is exactly what attracts sharks to their prey in the first place.

With every ounce of will he possesses, he forces himself to calm down and remain as still as possible. How well can his suit isolate his heartbeat? His body’s electricity? People that get attacked by the infamous predatory fish are usually naked, or wearing a wetsuit—they are never confined in an airtight pocket of their natural environment, right?

Seconds drip away together with the beads of sweat on his face (oh, how he wishes he could wipe them all off, just this once), but the third dreaded contact never occurs. Maybe the alien shark lost interest; after all, it’s not like Milan represents its usual prey, being the first human to ever set foot on the planet.

Or maybe it went to get its friends…

“Milan! Are you there?”

The deep, heavily accented voice startles him and it takes him longer than he would ever care to admit to realize where it’s coming from, who it belongs to, and what its presence represents. Before he manages to force himself to reply, the speakers in his helmet squawk again.

“Milan, come in!”

“I am here!” Milan rasps, an almost unbelievable relief washing away all the discomfort caused by the parched throat. “Do you read me? I am here!”

A second passes, then another, and just when he starts to think that bad luck struck again, the voice exclaims: “Oh, thank God! It’s really good to hear from you, buddy. The crash looked pretty nasty from up here.”

The person on the other end of the line is Lazar—he is the second-in-command of the mission. He doesn’t like Milan very much, professionally, personally, or otherwise—call it the side-effect of being cooped up in the same (limited) space for the past two years—but right now, his words and the way he delivers them sound nothing if not genuine. Not that it matters to Milan; all he wants is to get out of this black liquid hell.

“I am okay. The suit is intact, more or less, I am uninjured, and—” Milan rambles on, giving his colleague a concise rundown of what he’s been through.

“Understood,” Lazar says simply after he’s done. There is a brief pause, then: “I’ve locked onto your signal. Sit tight, I’ll be there soon.”

“Hurry up! I…”

Milan’s voice trails off. He wants to reveal the most recent occurrence to his colleague, but at the same time, some rational part of him resists that idea. After all, he has been cut off from the rest of the crew for nearly twelve hours following a traumatic, nearly lethal event, in conditions that could only be described as adverse—isn’t it, therefore, possible that the close contact with the presumed local life-form is simply an unfortunate byproduct of frayed nerves? The prospect, however relatively undignified, is certainly more appealing than the terrifying alternative.

In any case, Lazar doesn’t react to his unfinished statement, leaving Milan to continue pondering in silence. His intrapersonal dialogue eventually dissipates into nothingness, displaced by the eager anticipation of salvation as Lazar announces that he is a mere thirty seconds away.

Milan hears the lander before he sees it, a subdued roar that is quickly gaining in intensity. He instinctively looks up—it appears to be descending in a straight line, as close to him as possible. The sleek, silver design of the atmospheric craft is simply the best sight Milan has ever laid his eyes on.

“You are going to have to squeeze into the storage,” Lazar says. “It won’t be comfortable, but I’ll have you back on the ship in no time.”

“I’ll survive,” Milan utters jovially.

I would ride it out strapped to the outer hull if there was no other choice.

The lander hovers less than half a meter above the surface, the storage doors welcomingly open. Milan starts awkwardly toward it—the suit makes it difficult to employ any swimming techniques efficiently, but he doesn’t mind. He can already see himself climbing on board, patiently waiting until the lander makes it back to orbit, and then shedding the suit and with it, the entirety of this unpleasant experience.

Four meters, three, two—he is right next to the lander. He is reaching out to grab a handle mounted on the hull right next to the storage opening, almost there…

Then something immensely powerful grabs his legs, and in a heart-stopping instant that feels like an eternity, pulls him under.

Martin Lochman is a Czech science fiction and speculative fiction author, currently living and working as a University librarian in Malta. His work appeared (or is forthcoming) in a variety of venues, including New Myths, Kzine, 4 Star Stories, Theme of Absence, The Weird and Whatnot, XB-1 (Czech SFFH magazine), and others. You can find him at his website or on Twitter.