The explorer wakes up on a strange planet with no memory of how she got there, clawing at the black ground beneath her, gulping against the smoke-filled air.
It wouldn’t be the first time, this getting to and forgetting. She scans her surroundings: no ship, wrecked or otherwise; no rations or equipment to help with the breathing.
For the haziness, the air is impossibly hot and permeated with the scent of lavender and citrus and something else the explorer recognizes, possibly cinnamon. A sick kind of sweet, like fruit the day before it turns.
She rises. No time to waste. If the smell is any indication, there is wildlife to be found. Fruit trees and flowering bushes, and the creatures that feast on them, and the beasts that eat those. Signs of life. Promising for the explorer, who is a good hunter and better when hungry.
Black earth. Still, thick air. With each step, the atmosphere feels more intent on suffocating. The dirt sticks to whatever it touches, leaving long, streaky smudges. Charcoal or ash. A volcanic planet then, maybe. All the more reason to hightail it. But when the explorer looks for a tall peak, she finds none. Flat as sin. No variation in the landscape whatsoever.
The navigation tools would have gone down with the ship, wherever that may be, so she doesn’t know where she is going. She tries to follow the scent where it is strongest, but it seems to come from all directions, a ubiquitous bouquet.
She can’t estimate how much time has passed—where is the sun in relation to this planet? where are its moons?—when she starts to lose hope. No trees, no bushes. Not the slightest rustling of leaves or the wind to make it so. No scampering of little feet or any cause for them to run. Yes, the explorer thinks, a barren planet is a problem.
Suddenly, she comes upon the cliff—and the sea beyond it. A shocking departure from the terra firma, ultra fine and dark as night, where she stands. This, she now believes, is no more than an island on the larger planet, a planet improbably rich with water.
That expansive, gorgeous sea. A pleasant, creamy white, almost waxy smooth in parts. In others, the steam rolls gently off the surface, obscuring the horizon. The water looks hot, but not so hot that it couldn’t sustain life, the explorer reasons, especially at cooler depths. She rests at the island’s edge, spent from her journey there, and succumbs to sleep, dreaming of the odd brine of alien fish.
She wakes to the familiar sense of smothering, feeling that, by now, she must be entirely made of aromatic purple petals and smoke. Then she remembers the sea. It waits for her, to bathe and feed her. Not too long now. Not so far away.
To anchor herself, she digs into the soil at the cliff’s perimeter, then leans over the edge to map a route down. Immediately, she’s overcome with dread. A sheer cliff face, many thousands of times taller than she is, certainly much taller than the island is wide. The island a pillar. It didn’t appear so dire when she first got here. Was she delirious then? Imagining things now?
Nothing even remotely resembling a foothold. Worse, the vertical face seems to spiral and fray, as if loosely braided, and the rock, when she reaches down to touch it, reveals itself to be dangerously soft.
The explorer, dazed with hunger, blinking back stars, leans back and runs through her options. Stay on this desolate, soot-covered pillar. Set up camp—with what cover? Wait for rescue—by what forces? Eat nothing but ash and certainly die.
Or jump. And then what? Almost certainly die upon impact. Or don’t die upon impact, but die when what she assumes is water turns out to be acid and rots her straight through. Or don’t die by acid, but die when she, weaponless, is unable to catch any fish. Or don’t die by starvation, but die when the fish she catches turn out to be toxic, indigestible by beings not native to this world. Or don’t die by poisoning, but in the maw of one of those selfsame fish, having miscalculated the hierarchy of this planet’s food chain.
Or not. Or live.
Then what? Eat her fill and tread water indefinitely? Try to find refuge on one of the waxy-smooth areas, which look more solid than the liquid around them and might, if she’s lucky, support her weight? Swim until she finds another island like the one she came from, but one short enough for her to climb?
Doesn’t matter. No use visiting every outcome. One death is certain and the other isn’t—is blissfully uncertain, in fact.
So the explorer knows she must jump. Not down, where sharp, unseen rocks may gather at the island’s base, but up and out. She steels herself, remembers her training—no, doesn’t remember her training at all.
This constant getting to and forgetting.
Must jump. No other way.
All her energy pulling from her extremities, from the corners of her, concentrating at the center, churning uncomfortably. Her core rising to a searing temperature even greater than the air around her, the water beneath her. Her body overtaken by fever.
Jump now. Now. Up and out. Do it.
It is the most that has ever been asked of her: to accept being deposited in this place without the currency of understanding. It will take all she has to extract herself from it.
Count yourself down. They tell you to count yourself down, that it helps with anticipation, control. Ten, nine. Okay: three, two.
The explorer jumps, all heat and Hail Marys, off the ashy pillar into the waxy sea. Into it, but away from it, too—up toward a less stifling sky, out toward the blurred horizon.
That’s when the curtain catches fire.
That’s when the house begins to burn.
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short stories and poetry. Her work can be found in The Masters Review, Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She has been shortlisted for The Masters Review Anthology Prize, longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. See more at kristinaten.com.