Cael desperately wanted a cigarette. He tried to focus on something else – like how he was sitting on an uncomfortable creaking chair. He tried moving; he drummed his fingers on his nervous knees. But he fixated on how he hadn’t smoked in over ten years. According to his application papers to study on Mars he had never had a cigarette. He’d even scrubbed his fingers and inspected his clothes for burns when he went for his first interview. He told himself he would quit smoking and drinking if he managed to get the opportunity, and he did. Here he was, studying Mars and its capability for life. He’d been here for ten years now, and couldn’t imagine ever going back to Earth. He had a nice home, a boyfriend, a few good friends, and a great job. Getting away from his home planet was exactly what he needed, and it had all been fine until three days ago when the trouble started again. Now, since his outburst at work he had been instructed to see the resident shrink. This hadn’t helped at all so far. All he’d done was sit in the office waiting, desperately wanting a cigarette.
He tried to distract himself by looking out the window at the red, dusty landscape. He saw scientists and researchers loitering on the street corner of the orange brick buildings, chatting as if they were back on Earth. It was fascinating how quickly they’d evolved to live here as if they always had. For Cael, the sky was the thing that was the hardest to get used to – the atmosphere made the sky look almost like Earth … but not quite. It was a much deeper blue, with a hint of grey, and the clouds had an orange tint. The sunsets and sunrises were drawn from a series of icy blues and reds. The constellations looked different from Mars, plus – the planet had two moons. Cael was abruptly brought out of his daydreams by the sudden opening of the door.
“Sorry to keep you waiting-”; the occupational therapist paused and looked at her large notebook. It had pieces of paper threatening to fall out. Her glasses were tilted and her nearly black hair had wisps of silver scattered through it. “Cael! Of course.” He responded with an awkward smile and a nod, and he felt exhaustion fill his body as his sleepless nights felt like rocks tied round his chest with clingfilm. “I’m Juana Indiano,” she began. Her accent was certainly unique, Cael thought. She sounded like a Latino New Yorker with an edge of New Zealand. Or maybe Australian, he thought. His ear for dialects wasn’t as astute as it was back on Earth. She arranged herself in the room, placing her pile of notebooks and folders on the desk, her handbag by her feet, and she shuffled on the chair until she was comfortable. She sighed, gave a wide smile when she was settled, and then began the session. “Now, you were sent here because of a little argument with a colleague.”
“Yeah, it was-“ Cael gulped and looked away, his cheeks burned and his shoulders pushed his torso forward. “I was a bit on edge and he’d made a mistake with – It doesn’t matter. I apologised, and he was totally fine with it. It’s just- I’ve been on edge. I haven’t been sleeping. It’s nothing to worry about.” He was a little unnerved at how rapidly he was talking. He squirmed in his seat and tried to find something in the room to look at. There were plain white walls, a desk with a computer, and two chairs. Nothing could hold his attention but Juana.
“Haven’t been sleeping,” she said curiously. She leaned forward and furrowed her thick eyebrows. “Anything been troubling you?”
“I mean,” Cael hesitated. He supposed he wasn’t going to get anywhere if he wasn’t honest. “I had a video call with my parent – didn’t go well. It’s… I just need some pills to get me a good night’s sleep and I’ll be fine.”
“You mentioned sleep paralysis to the GP, correct?”
“I- yeah but-“
“Can you tell me about this?” She pressed further.
“It’s happened regularly since I was a kid, it’s not important.”
“Maybe it’s not. Would you like to talk about your parents instead?” Cael was shocked at the question, one that Juana had managed to make sound like a threat.
“You can’t – whatever. Fine…” Cael said, growing more uncomfortable by the second. The creaking wooden chair didn’t help. It was strange though. There were no trees here that could be cut down, just those that had been grown in the lab. Juana must have taken them from Earth, he thought. “I – This time was different from all the others. I have it every now and then, used to be bad. But it stopped when I was about eighteen-”
“When you left home?”
“Guess so. Anyway. Normally I see weird, distorted figures. People with long spindly arms and legs that twist around each other. Huge white figures around my bed reaching out to me. A man with spider legs crawling over my ceiling. It feels like I’m frozen and drowning all at once. Can’t speak. Can’t yell. Can’t cry. I just stare. Terrified. But when I wake up it is fine; they felt stupid, blurred, not real. But this time- I don’t know, it was different.”
“Why? What was different about it?”
“There… there was a thing on my chest. A robot like the ones we have here but much more primitive. It was silver and black, it had wheels and a camera. It was on top of me and I could feel the weight, really feel it. It was crushing me into the bed. I tried to wake my boyfriend but he just snored next to me, dead to the world. Then it spoke. They never speak.”
“What did it say?”
“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
My work ‘Curiosity’ is strongly inspired by the works of Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett – in particular Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed and Pratchett’s early short story ‘The Picture’. Le Guin’s work inspired the idea shown in Curiosity of technology progressing and two worlds merging – in this case, past and present as well as Earth and Mars. My work compares to The Dispossessed in this regard as the novel also switches between two planets (Anarres and Urras) as well as two different timelines. Cael’s transformation from a troubled life on Earth to a happy one on Mars shows a theme of escape and hope for a better life. This I believe is similar to the protagonist’s story in The Dispossessed, or at least it is what he desires. Regarding Pratchett, the short story depicts a person’s descent into madness as they have delusions and hallucinations about a bizarre planet. They keep drawing this world, and become obsessed with their pictures. The twist at the end is that this strange planet is Earth, and it takes places in a distant alien world. This sense of isolation as well as the depiction of mental illness being a gateway into a different planet (or in this case time) is something I found fascinating and wished to get across by introducing sleep paralysis.
Elliot Rivron is a queer writer from West Yorkshire. He specialises in fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. His interests include activism, the paranormal, and fandom culture. His inspirations include James Baldwin, Ursula Le Guin, and Chuck Palahniuk. He lives in Cleckheaton with his partner, their hamster, and their mass of plant life.