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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Monkey

Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. She attended Clarion West in 1998, and since then, her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov's, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen's Universe, Strange Horizons, Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, and several other anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. The Italian translation of her novella "Looking Through Lace" won the "Premio Italia" for best international work. Her novel Yseult/Flamme und Harfe (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in 2009. She maintains a web site at ruthnestvold.com and blogs at ruthnestvold.wordpress.com.

In the midst of the lush, jungle-like vegetation of Caipora, the only thing moving was the monkey.
And then she ceased to move.
Jane died today. We all thought it an unnecessary precaution, sending her down first. The results of the data gathered by the probe indicated ideal levels for a habitable planet, all tests for poisonous substances negative. We had already popped the cork on the bottle of bubbly as we watched the transmission of planetfall, Jane trundling out of the lander to the surface.
Every exploration ship has its rhesus monkeys, sending them down first is the regulation, and send her down we did.
Now no one can go down to bury her. She died alone, and she'll rot alone.
I feel like I've betrayed her.
The monkeys are not chattering. They seem to know. Multik curls in my lap while I stroke his silky, light-brown fur, and Bonny and Miss Sam hang from a bar of the jungle gym, quiet.
Vladaya wants to send Multik now. I argued that we should send a robot first, try to recover Jane's body; we could examine it in quarantine and determine the cause of death. But Ikuru said Jane could have eaten something, although she's trained not to. Putting the blame on me and Jane. I said there's no evidence, but Vladaya sided with Ikuru, saying we couldn't know for sure. Before we try picking her up with a robot, it would be easier to send down another monkey.
Caipora hangs in the sky above us, green, verdant, while we float beneath the dome, mourning Jane. Lapik chatters a little, drifts by, like a shadow over the planet.
It's decided--Multik is going down. I have been outvoted. No one else seems to care about the monkeys, only their precious bonus for finding a habitable planet. And they so badly want it to be habitable, they will ignore the evidence of Jane's death, cling to their probe results, as if we know everything in the universe there is to know.
"There may be harmful microbes down there we can't detect," I said. "Something so different from the chemistry and lifeforms we understand that we don't even recognize it."
Wana'ao laughed. "But how different could it be, Pam? The albedo is ~0.3, the oxygen content of the atmosphere is almost exactly the same as Earth, and 75% of the surface is covered with water. It's more similar to Earth than Alchera is."
The bottle of champagne still sits there, on a side table of the deck. No one drank it, but no one has thrown it away either.
Multik blames me, I know he does. He's moping, and he doesn't curl in my lap anymore. Somehow he realizes he's being sent to his death, a part of the pantomime.
Perhaps there's some way I can stop them.
I am a coward, and now Multik is dead too. The lander is back and the robot is going down tomorrow. Why didn't they send the robot in the first place, like I suggested?
I did not watch planetfall on deck this time. Afterwards, Gayatri found me at my station, which the others call the zoo--a zoo, that's a joke, with only four monkeys left.
Bonny and I watched her come through the farm's rows of quinoa plants, silent.
She stopped in front of us. "I'm sorry. I didn't want them to send him either."
Bonny whimpered and hid her face in my neck.
I think the planet of Caipora is defending herself: the lander with the robot crashed.
No one on our ship laughs now, not even at me. But I can feel it--they will try to send Bonny next.
This time, I won't let it happen.
Lapik and Bonny and Tarzan and Miss Sam roam the torus, and I pretend I have lost control over them. They have free range of the ship, but usually they do not stray too far from the zoo and the garden and me.
Today, the monkeys are restless.
Wana'ao storms into my station, my space, my zoo. "Can't you control your apes anymore?"
I pull the syringe I prepared out of the pocket of my smock. He is the first to go.
The light on the observation deck is tinged with green from the controls, and Miss Sam cries out sharply when I enter.
"Oh, shut up, beast," Vladaya says, bending over her instruments. She is alone except for Miss Sam.
Vladaya doesn't even look up when I take the abandoned bottle of champagne from the table and lift it high above my head.
When Gayatri runs through the hatch, there is a pool of blood at my feet, mixed with old, flat champagne. The smell is strange, like an uncleaned barroom with rusty furniture. In the corner Miss Sam is squealing, high-pitched, excited.
No longer lethargic.
"Pam, what have you done?" Gayatri says, a hint of hysteria in her voice.
I stare down at the broken bottle in my hand, thick and green, dripping with red blood.
"She killed Multik. She would have killed Bonny next."
Gayatri is breathing heavily. "Pam, Pam, no one has talked about sending Bonny. Think. Vladaya is--was--one of us, our captain, human, we need--needed--her. Jane and Multik, they're monkeys."
I blink, disappointed. I had thought she was with me, but she's not.
It wasn't pleasant, but it had to be done. After Gayatri, I didn't want to use the bottle again, so I opened the weapons cabinet, and what I couldn't carry I gave to Bonny and Miss Sam. It was easy after that.
Now the monkeys and I float beneath the dome, admiring the lush green and blue of the poisonous planet Caipora. They chatter and play like they used to, and I am content.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Author Comments

The initial idea for "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Monkey" came from a writing challenge to use "a barrel of monkeys" as the starting point for a science fiction story. As I was playing around with ideas, I remembered that in the early era of space flight, monkeys were sent into space for testing purposes, and I decided to go with that as a basic idea. I had also recently been rereading the poems of Wallace Stevens, and I thought it would be fun to try a write a short story with a similar structure to his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The biggest challenge in writing the story was maintaining the thirteen different sections (I, II, III ... ) of the poem, keeping those sections short enough that the story would still have a kind of poetic feel, and at the same time creating a plot arc with hook, conflict, and resolution.

- Ruth Nestvold
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