“Message in a Bottle” by Jocelyn Koehler
Read our interview with Jocelyn Koehler
Dorian stretched her fingers, fitting them precisely into the gloves, which were just thick enough to be annoying to manipulate. Her mind was not on suiting up, a process by now so automatic that she couldn’t remember each step two seconds after she’d done it. That ought to worry a surveyor. Missing a step could conceivably kill her. But the good ship Persephone had so many redundancies that Dorian knew she was safe.
After suiting up – sans headgear till the last moment – she glanced at the monitor, which showed a view of the surface below. Some of the places she’d been were breathtaking: rich, violently green worlds seething with life…but not her kind of life. Others held atmospheres that were deadly to humans, at least until they were treated. It was Dorian’s job as surveyor to help assess each new planet’s potential. How long would it take to make it livable? How much would it cost? How long would the treatment last?
“Why this hole?” Another surveyor muttered, staring at the screen.
A voice further down answered back. “Low biological threat rating.”
Dorian snorted. “Low biological everything rating. There’s nothing alive down there to hurt us.”
“So no bonus on this trip,” her companion noted, referring to the incentive for any explorers who found a positive answer the question that everyone was asked. Did you find any evidence? Because never in the history of humanity had any proof been found for alien intelligence. Stories, yes. Frauds, absolutely. But as for a true non-human civilization – even one long extinct – no physical evidence had ever been uncovered. And with every new planet mapped, humanity got a little lonelier.
The planet below had been named Blake by the astronomers who first sighted it. They’d used up the gods and the angels, the astronomers joked. Now they were down to the poets. Blake – orbited by its two small moons, Innocence and Experience – was all desert. But prelims had suggested water might be found deep below the surface, so here came Persephone and her gallant crew, ever ready to check things out.
The Blue Team expected the search for water to be straightforward. The only variable was time. The drill they were using was meant to burrow deeply into the ground, which could take a full standard day if they were lucky, or up to a week if the crust was particularly rocky. So Dorian would have plenty of time to collect rock and soil samples, one of simplest tasks in surveying a new planet. The captain gave her the order almost apologetically, but Dorian didn’t mind the job. Even on a planet like this, her insides tightened with anticipation. After all, she’d be the first human to walk that path, wherever it led. The hills and valleys she scouted…hers would be the first living eyes to ever take them in. It was her little bit of fame, even if it existed only in her own mind and in Persephone‘s daily log.
The shuttle took them down to the surface. Once Dorian’s feet hit the ground, she quick-marched westerly, stopping exactly five kilometers away from the landing point. The ground had risen steadily, and she now had a good view of the valley in which the shuttle lay. Ahead of her, the ground fell away again, becoming another wide valley, riddled with rocks. Veils of dust drifted over the surface, making things hazy at a distance. She absorbed the drab terrain, which tempered her excitement, and then headed down.
Once in the valley, Dorian headed straight, directed by the navigator in her suit. She paused every fifty meters or so, stooping down to grab a soil sample to be stowed in a little glass vial and marked with exact coordinates. After she stowed each sample in her case she continued walking, repeating the act fifty meters on, a suppliant on bent knees.
At the site of the seventh sample, she noticed a small pile of rocks off to the side of her path, about twenty of them. She had the immediate impression that they had been placed there, which was absurd, since she and her crew were the first to land on this planet. The pile was just that: a pile. Erosion of some type must have caused them to gather in one place. Wind or water – though water seemed to be an unlikely culprit. See, thought Dorian to herself as she glanced ahead, there’s another pile over there. She continued on her proscribed path, and soon reached the second pile. This one was slightly larger, with maybe as many as thirty stones. She noted it as she filled another vial, but then quickly headed off again.
She confirmed her heading: due west, at least according to this planet’s magnetic pole, which Dorian remembered as being fairly far off from the geographic north pole. She hadn’t read that part of the brief too closely, however, and she forgot how long it took for the poles to shift. Then again, she could just ask.
“Polarity shift rates vary per planet,” Persephone announced when it heard Dorian’s query. “On Earth, some reversals occurred within 10,000 years of each other. But there are periods of ten of millions of years where no shifts are recorded. A single polarity shift may take up to 1000 years to complete.”
“What about this planet?”
“No data yet exist for this problem.”
“Using an average rate for polarity shift, the estimated time period is 1000-5000 standard years for total polarity shift.”
“So we’ve got a while,” Dorian muttered under her breath.
“That is correct,” Persephone confirmed, and then closed the connection. Dorian was never quite sure if the ship’s programmers had somehow given it a sense of humor.
By that point Dorian had arrived at another cairn; no, another pile of rocks. This one was still larger, almost twice as big as the last one. She could see another in the distance. An odd sensation was growing in her stomach, akin to the excitement that tightened it when they landed. Strangely unwilling to consider the pile as a whole, Dorian instead examined the rocks themselves. They were slightly different sizes, but nearly all were of the same mineral composition. Granite-like – volcanic, certainly – and smoothed down from millennia of gritty wind. She considered the small chance that water might have been responsible for the arrangement of stones, but nowhere did her trained eye catch the customary markings of a riverbed or lakeshore. Even watercourses that had been dry for centuries left traces. Here the rock piles were not gathered in the little dips and valleys of the terrain. They seemed instead to form a line. But Dorian, alert to the human tendency to impose regularity on nature’s randomness, knew that the line she thought she saw must be imaginary.
Dorian considered this as she continued her walk. Off to her left was a small rise, barely a proper hill. She swerved to climb it. The constant wind gusted up, and the dust swirled around her. After a short scramble, she stood at the top. The scene stretched before her. Dusty earth of a uniform color covered the gently rolling plain, with only the scattering of rocks to punctuate the monotony. With her eyes, Dorian retraced the path she had taken from the shuttle, now out of sight, concealed by the larger ridge of hills.
She stared at the rock cairns she’d passed.
They actually are in a line, she thought. Well, of course. She’d made an imaginary line of rocks to mark her path, a connect-the-dots mind game that ignored anything that didn’t fit the pattern. But even as she thought that, she looked to where her path continued, and the pattern became clearer. The piles weren’t scattered all over the valley floor. In fact, apart from her line of rocks, there were very few piles to be seen. Dorian noted a few off to the north, several hundred meters away.
A line. A real line. But it was still just random piles of rocks. Right? The queer feeling in her stomach sharpened, so she decided to return to the piles and examine them more closely. That would put her mind to rest.
Kneeling, Dorian carefully replaced the rocks she’d just counted. Twenty one. The previous pile had contained thirty-four. Just random, she told herself. Then why did she still have this feeling in her stomach, in her spine?
She stopped at a small pile, one she hadn’t even noticed on the way out. Grumbling at the absurdity, she stooped down and moved each rock one by one, making a new pile out of the old one. Thirteen. She repeated her exercise backwards, replacing each stone carefully. Partly it was a desire to confirm the numbers. But part of her felt it would be dangerous, no, that it would be wrong to leave the piles in the wrong place. Dorian did not like experiencing ethical dilemmas regarding stones on a foreign planet. But it wasn’t a pattern. 34, 21, 13. Just random numbers.
Why do I remember those numbers? Dorian shook her head. Getting up, she stretched as much as the suit allowed, then continued her path back. Only ten meters on, she noticed another tiny pile. Hardly worth counting, she thought. But she did anyway. Eight.
Random. She continued on. After five meters or so, she stopped. A miniscule pyramid confronted her. Five stones, four in a square with one placed on top. Dorian shivered. She wouldn’t have even glanced at it, in fact she hadn’t even noticed it on the way out. But it looked…constructed. 5, 8, 13, 21, 34. Piles are just piles, she thought. It didn’t mean anything. Dorian sat down by the little pyramid, and looked out at the scene.
“Persephone,” Dorian asked, more to hear a voice in this desolation than for any great desire for knowledge, “Are there data on the weather of this planet?”
“Preliminary metrics indicate moderate to hot temperatures, no precipitation, and light to moderate wind speeds. Storms occur, but no reliable weather patterns have been established yet.”
“What about earthquakes?”
“No data for significant seismic activity have been recorded.”
“If I listed the numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34, what you say about them?”
“They are all integers.”
“Thanks,” Dorian said dryly.
“They are also consecutive terms of the function fn = f(n-1) + f(n-2), where f is greater than 1,” Persephone continued.
“What?” Dorian suddenly sat up straight.
“This is also known as the Fibonacci sequence, which approximates Phi, the golden mean.”
Dorian sat very still. Then, “Shit.”
“Yes, Dorian?” The ship waited for her next request.
“What is the full sequence? I mean, the beginning of it?”
“0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233….”
“Thank you!” Dorian cut the computer off. She got up and ran back to the next uncounted large pile, silently chanting the number fifty-five as she ran. It was several hundred meters, and she was slightly winded when she arrived. She began shifting the rock pile, counting quickly, as she grabbed stones with both hands.
More slowly, she replaced the pile, counting again.
Dorian sat down again, suddenly weak-legged. Not random.
“Persephone, tell me more about the sequence.”
“It was first named by Fibonacci circa 1200 CE on Earth. Although it is not a universal law, it can be described as a universal tendency. The most famous is the nautilus shell, but many plants, such as pinecones and sunflowers, show structures consistent with this equation.”
“So not rocks.”
“Only a fossil. It is peculiar to organic structures.” The computer paused, then broke the connection when Dorian remained silent.
An hour later, she sucked on the water tube in her suit. The climb up the tall hill on the edge of the valley had been exhausting. The atmosphere was thinner than she was used to, and the filter on the suit didn’t help. When she had caught her breath, Dorian turned around to survey the valley. There was the line of cairns, extending almost half a kilometer from end to end, but the line didn’t end with the pile of five rocks. There was something else there, like a lock waiting for a key.
Dorian peered at the valley floor. There appeared to be another line of cairns intersecting her own, running perpendicular to it. Her eye drifted to the north again, to where those few other cairns lay, the dusty wind almost hiding them in a thick, drifting haze. Count them, she told herself. Her body hesitated. Count them. Move, Dorian! Taking a deep breath, she bolted down the hill.
The light was growing dimmer, the sun dropping to the horizon. Dorian stood at the center of a gigantic cross. The ground below her feet was clear because it was the zero point on this vast Cartesian plane, this compass rose. The west arm was made up of the cairns matching the terms in the Fibonacci sequence. The axis that pointed east contained the simplest piles, integers that started with the single rock closest to the zero point. This was also the arm that would have been missed if Dorian had elected to travel that way to collect her samples, because the numbers increased so slowly that there were no large piles to be seen from a distance.
Between the two lay the north arm, and this one had puzzled Dorian in the beginning. Again, the single rock started the axis. Then it was eight, 16, 24, 32, always increasing by eight. Why eight? And then, after Dorian had paced up and down that arm, her breath growing ragged, she decided, why not? Base ten came naturally to humans because their physiology suggested it, not because tens occurred any more frequently in nature.
The last arm, composed of cairns increasing exponentially, was much shorter. After the seventh pile, Dorian found nothing to match the next number. She ran up and down, looking for a scattered pile, or some clue, but there was nothing. And then she realized. It was incomplete. A broken arm.
Once again, Dorian moved to stand at the zero point of the grid, her heart pounding, not only with the exertion of running back and forth along the axes and shifting rock piles over and over. Her heart fluttered, and she felt light-headed. This is it, she thought. This is real.
Whoever, whatever had made this grid was not human, and probably left it a long time ago. But why? It was too time-consuming to be an emergency signal of any kind. There was no evidence of habitation. If the rocks remained, surely traces of a home would as well. No, whoever did this didn’t live here. But the incomplete fourth arm suggested that someone did die here.
A crash, possibly? Some alien being who was also an explorer or a surveyor like Dorian? Perhaps they landed and something went wrong. Perhaps the rock writer was the sole survivor, and had enough food for several days, weeks more likely. But no hope of rescue. So what had it done in its last days, all alone with the knowledge that no one would be coming?
It wrote a letter. But what did the message say? What do you write when you don’t know who will ever read it? You write in the only language you can. Mathematics. But what can you say? Especially if you are not a mathematician, but just someone; a traveler, an explorer, a sole survivor.
There is only one message you can write. And whether you’re counting in base eight, or the Fibonacci sequence, it’s the same message. I was here. I was here.
Dorian was roused from her contemplation only when a gust blew against her hard enough that her body rocked. She glanced up in the direction of the wind, and saw a distant, but dark wall of dust just as the Persephone‘s warning sounded in her ear.
“Dorian! Increased wind speeds are noted near your location. Possible storm. Return to the shuttle at once.”
“The storm is here,” Dorian snapped back, even as she turned toward the shuttle. The range of hills stood between her valley and the shuttle’s. She would never make it over before the storm arrived. It the wind caught her on those hills, she’d get flattened. She looked back and the wall of dust was already much closer, far too close. The wind propelled her toward the hills, getting stronger by the second.
I need to get behind something, thought Dorian. But there was nothing in the whole valley to hide behind. Except the cairns.
She sprinted toward the nearest of the large cairns, still hundreds of meters away. It was roughly perpendicular to the wind, so Dorian had to fight from being knocked sideways as she ran.
“Dorian! You are heading away from the shuttle!” Persephone‘s warning, much louder now, echoed within the helmet.
“Too far! Heading toward nearest shelter,” Dorian said, her words coming in gasps as she focused on speed.
“Roger. Dispatching Search & Rescue team immediately. Report when you are stopped.” Persephone sounded fainter as electromagnetics from the storm interfered with the signal. Dorian didn’t think about it though. She thought about running. The wall rushed toward her relentlessly. The valley seemed much smaller than before. Dorian reached the pile of 144 rocks, the first of the larger cairns. She slowed only for a second, evaluating the distance of the dust storm to the distance of the next pile, which was twice as large. Chance it, she thought, and continued on, keeping her eyes on the rocks through the rising dust.
She dove into the lee of the massive pile of 233 stones just before the wall hit her. The scream of the wind drowned out even her own thoughts, and certainly any communication from the ship or her team. She curled into the fetal position, huddling as close to the rocks as possible. The cairn prevented the worst of the wind from hitting her directly, but she could see only dust swirling in front of her, so she instinctively kept her eyes squeezed shut, never mind that her suit was airtight. She hoped it was airtight. Dorian had a sudden vision of choking on the planet’s dusty atmosphere, unable to breathe, waiting to die. Was this what caught the rock writer in the end? A sudden storm, rising too quickly to escape from, ending his elaborate message with a wall of dust?
Dorian dreamed about the rock writer as the wind continued to scream and rush around her, rocking her body even behind the cairn. The Persephone had promised Search & Rescue, but that was before the storm had scrambled the communications. No one could see the rock piles in the swirling grit. How would they know where to find her, until the storm blew itself out? Would it blow itself out? No one knew how long such storms lasted. It might be hours, even days. Dorian might die of dehydration before she was found. Her water tube spat stale air. The converter pack wasn’t meant to handle an atmosphere like this storm. She remembered the words of an old spacer instructor: You never love breathing till the air is gone.
Time went away. There was no light, no sun or even sky to be seen. Her body began to cramp up, so she moved slightly. She was horrified to find that the dust had begun to settle around her body, partially burying her. With a whimper, she reached out to dig herself free. A voice crackled in her ears.
“Dorian! This is Sam! What’s your location? We can’t see you!”
“Here! I’m here! The cairn of 233,” Dorian yelled into the mic.
“Dorian? Again! Say your coordinates?” Sam’s voice was clearer than the ship’s had been earlier.
Coordinates. Dorian opened her eyes and saw her location listed on the screen floating before her vision. She recited the numbers, praying they were valid. Still fighting the wind, she scrambled to her feet. Dust writhed around her like a living thing, but the force of the wind had lessened, or her body had adapted to it. Dorian strained her eyes, looking for Sam. His voice slowly became clearer. Yet she almost missed the signs of his approach, a darker patch of dust emerging from the polluted air.
“Dorian! I see you!”
“There you are!” she said, heading out of the lee toward him. Another shape appeared behind him, another rescuer, anonymous in the dusty twilight. Dorian waded through the air toward the shapes, and clamped onto Sam’s arm to prove he was real. Relief washed over her, and her legs buckled. Hands grabbed her as she blacked out.
Dorian awoke to a blessed quiet. After hearing the surface wind for so long, the nearly silent hum of the ship was as palpable to her as a soothing, low bell tone. She turned her head, and found herself in the tiny infirmary, not much more than an alcove off the bridge. She could see other crew members passing the doorway, talking among themselves. Dorian lay on the cot, listening to the reports, the assessments, the conclusions, the proposals. Everyone was busy with their finds, the most important being the negative find of no water at all. The Blue Team had drilled deep into the outer crust, with no results. From the scraps she heard, the planet didn’t look like an attractive prospect. But you don’t know what I know, she thought, exulting. You cannot “–imagine.” Unconsciously, she’d begun to speak out loud.
The ship’s instruments must have been monitoring her closely, because Sam appeared within moments of her muttering. Dorian began to rise, but he waved a cautionary hand, which was unnecessary, because Dorian immediately discovered how stiff her body was. She grunted in pain, falling back on the bunk.
“Just lie still,” Sam said. “You were resisting gale force winds for eleven hours out there. Your water rations were empty when we got to you.” He smiled wryly at her. “Never said the job wasn’t exciting, huh? It’s not all soil samples and mapping.”
“Samples!” She suddenly remembered her mad dash before the storm. “I lost the sample case. But I found rocks…I found…”
Dorian paused. She could tell everyone about the evidence. Tell them that someone had been here, had possibly died here, and left a message behind, out of boredom, or despair, or wild hope. But then what? They would come back to rip up the ground, hunt for clues, autopsy the planet. In hopes of finding what? A scrap of this traveler’s body or technology or a key to a home? For any proof that we are not alone?
But the one who wrote the message with the rocks was alone. The message in the rocks could only be conceived after the writer had given up all hope of returning home, of ever being found. Dorian’s throat suddenly choked closed as she thought of this unknown writer. We all live and die alone.
“Dorian?” Sam asked.
“I found rocks,” she said. “I found rocks and more rocks.”
He laughed. “That’s about all any of us found down there. No worries. You just rest up. I’ll file your report, okay?” He checked her vital signs on the screen, nodded once, and left the room.
Dorian leaned back, alone with her thoughts again. The sounds of the crew filtered through her. Soon they would leave. The Persephone would take off and leave this desert and its message behind.
But I know, thought Dorian. I heard you. I read your letter. But who do I deliver it to? Secured on the bed, Dorian felt the ship power up under her. She rose, with her message safe inside, up into the field of stars.
About the Author
Jocelyn Koehler grew up in the wilds of Wisconsin, but now lives in a tiny house on a tiny street in Philadelphia. She has worked as a librarian, bookseller, editor, archivist, cubicle drone, popcorn popper, and music store clerk. She learned to love fantasy and science fiction from a very young age. Fairy tales, space operas, and viking sagas all live together on her bookshelf. Learn a little more about the inside of her brain at her oddly named blog, www.teamblood.org. And to sign up for her non-spammy newsletter (new releases only), go here.
Read our interview with Jocelyn Koehler