(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 45 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting, a trapped ghost, an alien planet, hiding from an unseen danger, and the first line, “He could feel the water rushing into his lungs.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division!)
He could feel the water rushing into his lungs. Dr. Gladwell had told him the planet was completely devoid of water, so either something had filled the craters with it or Dr. Gladwell had been wrong yet again.
“The surface of the planet is like a velvet painting,” she had said. “There is a fine layer of hairlike follicles on the surface, but it appears to be perfectly smooth. Over the centuries, meteors have left vast craters in the ground, but the follicles eventually covered their floors.”
He asked if the planet was like a giant hairball.
“Of course not. These follicles, despite their ever-changing nature, couldn’t possibly be the byproduct of a living organism,” she replied.
As it turned out, his theory had been more accurate than the doctor’s. The fuzz, as he liked to call it, was most definitely alive. It was the sole source of sustenance for the Chatters, an alien race whose existence Gladwell had also failed to anticipate.
The Chatters took no interest in his landing pod or his meaty flesh, but they did crave one thing: idle conversation.
The planet lacked anything remotely akin to weather, but the Chatters discussed it anyway. They had no family structures, but they still complained about relatives. They knew no hunger or thirst thanks to the fuzz and their underground water supply, but they still talked about planning meals and their worries about “the harvest.”
There was no harvest.
He started to lose his temper after three days of hearing about the nonexistent sports the Chatters never played. He tried plugging his ears, but the Chatters were telepathic.
The rescue craft was not due for another six months, but after a week, he finally lost it. He tried to run and hide during a lull in the dull conversation about traffic jams. (The Chatters had no vehicles).
He rushed to the underground river, which was accessible through a tunnel in one of the craters. He was able to hide and survive on fuzz and river water.
After a week, he felt the Chatters’ psychic energy probing the tunnel, looking for his brain waves. They wanted to tell him about their stressful jobs, even though none of them worked. He had no choice but to swim downriver.
The current swept him away too quickly, and he ended up in the largest domed crater on the planet with almost no air left. He struck a patch of fuzz on the crater floor then tried to swim away. He couldn’t. The fuzz was less like a velvet painting and more like a sheet of hairy fly paper. Movement was impossible. He cursed Gladwell’s name as the water filled his lungs and he drowned.
His ghost floated to the surface and up to the dome, where it stopped moving. The dome was composed of transparent dolomite, an incorporeally impermeable mineral. He had nowhere to go; his ghostly form wouldn’t let him sink and the dome wouldn’t let him rise.
The Chatters rushed into the lake, and then they climbed out of the water and onto the rocky shore. Their telepathic voices began speaking in unison, directly into his soul’s thoughts.
The Chatters wanted to talk about politics. They had no government, but they definitely had a lot to say.