Dr. Alfred Dudley tapped the translator on his lapel again.
“You, dreadful dirge day, tomorrow,” it said for the second time with a crackle of static. Well, he’d configured it to run an adaptive linguistics algorithm. Maybe that wasn’t even what Manti was trying to say.
“Define ‘dirge’,” Dudley asked. He knew what the word meant, but he wanted to check that the algorithm hadn’t run amuck somewhere between the Pungee language that Manti was jabbering and the English words he was hearing.
“A mournful song or piece of music forming part of a funeral rite,” the translator said. The natives of this uncharted planet where Dudley had been marooned for the past nine months appeared in every way gentle and hospitable. Perhaps a bit morose, but who wouldn’t be given the perpetually gray sky, the gray dirt, and the slight but constant sulfurous odor. The Pungee’s gray skin was beginning to get to Dudley, too. He’d noticed himself lately walking around with his head hung low. But now he felt a surge of energy.
“What do you mean ‘dreadful dirge’!” Dudley said, raising his voice.
Manti cringed and shrugged his shoulders. He answered, “Surprise.” Oh, great. It’s a surprise. They had reached an impasse like this once before where the translator, their little pidgin language, and even hand signals proved useless.
It was hard for Dudley to stay angry with the four foot tall, three fingered, grim faced native for long. Talking to Manti all these months had been the only thing keeping Dudley from going crazy. “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Manti. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be fine. Let’s get back to work on the ship. It will be just fine, whatever it is.”
When the ship had popped out of hyperspace on the wrong planet at a low altitude, the pilot did the best he could, but he and the doctor had been killed on impact. Somehow, Dr. Alfred Dudley, the biologist, had survived. Every time he touched the hyperdrive, Dudley wished he’d majored in physics or electrical engineering. The repairs were moving at a snail’s pace.
The day they met, Manti approached the ship tentatively, offering Dudley a bowl of the most disgusting, black worms Dudley had ever seen. Since Dudley refused the worms, the second day Manti brought a plate of three dark pancakes, no doubt made from the same black worms, but Dudley took a bite. They weren’t bad. When the food aboard the ship ran out, he was thankful to have them.
Every day Manti would come shuffling down the trail with a plate of worm-cakes in hand, his head hung low, and his eyes toward the ground. His body language screamed clinical depression, and why not. Everything was gray.
It wasn’t long before Manti became Dudley’s assistant, handing him tools and parts. Everything was going great until Manti spoke of this odd “dreadful dirge day” thing, and it was scheduled for tomorrow. What was tomorrow anyway? Dudley wondered. He brought up a calendar on the half-working computer.
Tomorrow was his birthday. The connection had to be more than mere coincidence, but how did Manti know? Dudley had never shown him how to use the computer. This was only the second time Dudley had used it himself since the crash. But somehow Manti knew. Dudley tossed and turned half the night worrying about it before falling asleep.
Dudley awoke in the darkness of the early morning with Manti shaking his arm. “Come, Come,” he said. Dudley could see a bright, flaming torch spiked into the soft ground outside. Although Dudley had a flashlight, he left it behind. Somehow the torch seemed like a part of the ritual. “Come, come,” Manti repeated, motioning with his hand.
Dudley followed him into the village, a small grouping of mud huts formed from the colorless clay. A crowd of villagers had gathered, forming a long line, three Pungee wide. They carried crude musical instruments: drums, pipes, and stringed instruments. Manti led Dudley to the front of the line and spoke loudly. The translator on Dudley’s lapel screamed, “Dud-lee! Dirge Day! Dreadful Day of Deciding!” With Manti’s hand pushing him, Dudley walked at the front of the procession.
The band played a song that almost brought tears to Dudley’s eyes. The Pungee sure knew how to do sad. Dudley looked over his shoulder. All of the Pungee wept bitterly and wailed loudly. The terrain sloped gently upward as they marched on. At some point, Dudley and Manti had left the mourners behind, and Dudley saw the cliff. They stopped three feet from the cliff’s edge.
Manti looked up into Dudley’s eyes. Manti’s cheeks were wet with tears. “Choose,” Manti said. “One more cycle, or to the abyss.” He paused, touching the side of his head. “Think. Take time.” Then he turned, walked away, and stood several yards downhill with his back to the cliff.
So this is how they celebrate birthdays in the land of worm-cakes and endless grays, thought Dudley. If you can’t take it anymore, just throw yourself into the pit, and nobody will blame you. Hell, they’ve already had your funeral.
He looked over the edge. He couldn’t see the bottom, only darkness. He knew he might never be able to fix the ship. But he wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. He’d sign on for another year of worm-cakes and swearing at the hyperdrive.
Dudley turned away from the cliff and walked down to Manti. “One more cycle,” Dudley said. Manti looked up and smiled. It was the first time Dudley had seen any of them smile.
Rollin T. Gentry lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife where he works as a software engineer for a large company. He reads and writes as much speculative fiction as possible during his spare time.