Marooned

Message Found on the Cloud Planet K-77

Our mission began as a simple one: find the Starship Ultramundane. It now appears more complex. The Ultramundane is lost, its inexperienced pilot, a cadet, having fled K-77 with little notion of how to interface with the ship’s navigational equipment. On the planet we found three corpses, the wreckage of a robot and no sign of the two remaining crew members. What follows is the confidential log of the legendary Captain Kurtz. My thoughts regarding its contents are inconclusive and varied. I will outline them at the end of the transcript.


Captain’s log, subjective day 1001 since last docking:
    Going crazy. The crew is irritable. I’m tired. We’ve all spent too long by the vide-screen. Stars streak past in an endless blur as we race to some forgotten end of the galaxy. Navigator Hawk is fixated on a read-out and insists we investigate. No doubt another ice planet, or arid rock with the barest rudiments for survival. But what can we do but go on, and try to remain hopeful?
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, supplemental:
    A magnetic storm has disabled all sensors, necessitating repairs by the robot A-30. Hawk has found his planet, but without access to life-form readings it’s a mystery: a seething grey ball orbited closely by a single moon, which glows in the light of the red-dwarf sun. Ah, and we’ve attained orbit. The ship drifts. Cabin lights are dimmed. Planets glow with sudden vibrancy, teetering like some colossal child’s mobile. (Kurtz laughs.) Listen to me, like a child myself at the thought of the new world! Why should this planet be the one? And yet... I sense it. A landing party, consisting of myself, Science Officer Mirabella and Ethical Adviser Brand, will leave shortly. Should we not make it back, we gave our lives for the glory of the Academy.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, on K-77:
    We’re here! We’ve made it! I speak now from the surface of the cloud planet, far from the sterile corridors of the Ultramundane. Sensors remain inactive and life-form readings are unknown, but at first sight it’s perfect: lush, dense with foliage, riddled with streams that meander across a dark soil. Mirabella was wary at first, after the heartbreak of K-76, but Brand was enthused, and as we sat eating our foil-packs by a stream I savoured the charge in the fecund atmosphere. Typically impatient, Doctor Kavan radioed from the bridge: Hawk had collapsed after his removal from the navigator’s helmet. In all cases of helmet-rot ageing quickens, but Hawk’s is extreme. Lately, the pipes and wires through which he communicates with the ship seem to suck more life-force than he produces, yet the helmet – or the thirst for discovery – is addictive. It’s unlikely he can make it much further. So we are camped in a clearing cut from the jungle, all but A-30, which guards the Ultramundane and tends to repairs. A holo-fire smokes and crackles. There is no squabbling. In his enthusiasm Cadet Stimpeii hacks a path through the jungle. Even Kavan has joined the festivities, and she and Brand – lately so estranged – are laughing at the boy’s exertions. While Mirabella consoles the navigator I lie in my dome and gaze at the alien vegetation above me: gigantic stalks like trees without branches or giant blades of grass, which tower so high as to disappear in the low ceiling of thick cloud. Somewhere the sun is setting, red among the stalks.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, day 2 on K-77:
    After all this dreaming of paradise could we have found it? I awake this morning to joy for the first time since leaving Earth-12! Last night the clouds darkened, the sky groaned and rain fell from above! We stopped, all of us, in amazement, beneath the downpour. Of course we’d been trained to expect the phenomenon, but how many of us had experienced rain before, growing up in the geo-domes of Earths 10-12 or New Philistia, or the irrigated deserts of Eroticon-V? Mirabella was first to react, waving us under shelter and collecting a beaker for testing. Impatiently I took it from her, held it to the light and, perceiving its perfect clarity, drank it in one gulp. Brand shouted his approval and leapt into the rain. Then we were all running, yelling, embracing each other in the warmth and steam and chaos of water.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, supplemental:
    Paradise? Mirabella avoids me. Brand is silent, ignoring even the doctor’s barbs. The cadet has a phobia: he scours the underbrush for insects. And Hawk has disappeared entirely. Mirabella is spooked, but Kavan is unfazed. At this stage, he’s safer anywhere than in the grip of that helmet. (Tape stops.) Today’s explorations were also disappointing. We are camped in a valley roughly three kilometers in diameter, circled by stone and surrounded on all sides by dense fog. Maybe it’s this discovery that has dissipated the crew’s optimism: the threat of the unknown, or the feeling that we’re as imprisoned here as in the Ultramundane. I have heard the word “enemy” for the first time this evening, and of course we must prepare ourselves for anything. Today I found a cave in the valley wall, and entered it with raygun drawn. Though it was empty a strange nervousnesss haunted me as I stepped back to daylight. But what great man has not hesitated on the threshold of his destiny? For me, the sense of relief at our arrival cannot be dulled by the fears associated with it. I’m free of the Ultramundane! The endless pacing of my cabin, the re-runs of taped world-casts on the vide-screen, the black poison of space pressing in at all windows. And if the planet is inhabited? Then we’ll deal with its inhabitants in a manner befitting six such esteemed members of the Academy, rather than going insane in a computerised tin-can on a voyage to nowhere.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, day 3 on K-77:
    At times I doubt the abilities of the crew. Navigator Hawk is the first to buckle, prey to a hallucinatory paranoia which would not do credit to the cadet, let alone this supposedly seasoned explorer. Last night, he says, a “presence” emerged from the fog as he circled the lip of the valley in the twilight. Its nature? Evanescent. “He? They? It? I!” he said, as Kavan shot him with sedatives. But Hawk was adament: “I! I!” he shouted, before the injection pulled him under. Whether this senseless catalogue of pronouns is another of his mind-games is uncertain, but I ignored it. That we must endure this zealot is one thing, that we must take seriously his rantings is another. As to whether his condition remains helmet-related, Kavan is uncertain. (Tape stops.) While Hawk languishes in his dome the able-bodied among us develop the valley. The women plant food sources while Brand and I build a communal dome, and the cadet stands watch at the perimeter. Ah, to be outside in the warm moving air! And the stalks – hundreds of stalks – sway stiffly above us. No engine-drone or beep of scanners, but silence, utter silence. Sometimes even our way of talking seems changed, as if we were shy to pollute such peace with human voices. Then I breathe easily. I bow my head as I work. But the calm is broken. Kavan wants the vide-screen where Brand has put the treadmill. Or now the cadet discovers some breed of small animal which we’d mistaken for countless seed-pods, and Mirabella is mothering him, holding him as he shudders. I kick his dome in frustration as Hawk calls for the doctor. Humans, humans, humans! Our mission: to find a home for billions of humans! And us? The Ultramundane? Captain Kurtz? Mirabella? Forgotten. Or our names given to street-signs or memorial plaques or suburbs. The planet as much a prison as the Ultramundane. The new world a facsimile of the old. (Tape stops.) The weather is changing, even as I speak. This evening the sky was restless. The rain was heavier, but the novelty is fading. Before recording this entry I sat alone by the holo-fire, and with every gust of wind or shudder of the stalks my hand shot to my raygun. Days are quiet, but nights are inundated with sound. Maybe it’s the drone of my mind, nothing more. Or maybe... (Kurtz laughs.) If we’re attacked we’ll retaliate. I’m not afraid of battle.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, day 4 on K-77:
    Cadet Stimpeii is the second to lose his reason. This morning an envoy of seed-pod creatures invaded his dome through the crack I made in it yesterday, and he woke screaming. I leapt up with raygun drawn as he tore them from his body. Mirabella held him though dressed in her sleeping garments. I ordered her to dress. She ignored me. I would have reprimanded her further had Brand not interrupted, coaxing her away. To my surprise, it’s Brand who is adapting best of all of them. He glows with new vigour, and defers to his superior in all things without argument. In contrast, our female contingent bickers constantly. Take the care of Hawk. Long-disgusted by his shriveled physique, Kavan barely touches him. So Mirabella takes over, tidying his dome and attending to his personal hygeine, while the cadet lingers – from fear or fascination – at her shoulder. Kavan is furious. But what difference does it make who doses Hawk with sedatives? (Tape stops.) It’s become a habit of mine to record these entries at night. Again I sit with head tilted back, watching the sky. From above, the cloud is lit by moonlight. On a backdrop of red the dark stalks quiver. Of all the features of the valley, this bizarre species of vegetation has most grasped our attention. Mirabella says the stalks are swelling, while the underbrush is wilting away. It’s as if the process disgusted her, a science officer and student of nature. For my own part, it’s not the stalks which disturb me but the wall of fog surrounding us. In my anger I have plunged through this membrane. The ground fell away beneath me and I slid towards the void, the fog so thick my feet were invisible as I scrambled back up the slope. Who knows when or how or if the fog will lift? Somehow it makes a mockery of this valley, makes shapes and distance and light seem absurd. And to think I’m enclosed in a dome once again! How is a dome of vapour any different from the geo-domes of Earth-12? (Tape stops.) So again this loop of memory: the destruction of Earth-12. I see the crack edging up the wall of the dome as the crowd looks on, hear the wail of sirens as people scatter, sense the shadows of ice beyond the wall. Only when the shock of cold hit me did I run, up the escalator to the mono-rail, where the crowd fought for space on the last carriage. People shouted. Someone shrieked. Children were crying. These people had brought children into a world destined to die! Was it love or hate of humans that made me decide at that moment to join the Academy, to found a new world where my descendants might prosper? I stood at one edge of the platform, over the great aqueduct which streaked through the city to the opposite wall, where an emergency gate closed steadily. With a will to survive born of my sudden ambition I threw myself into the torrent. Water smashed against me. A piece of the ruin – light, buoyant, plastic – rushed towards me. I became adrenalin, a figment of the air, caught in a whirlwind of colours and sound without meaning. Only later did I comprehend what I’d seen. The explosions that disappeared as the ice choked the fires. The people frozen solid in horror and agony. The tempest that tore through the crack, forcing it higher, until the entire dome crumbled above me and I saw for myself the wasteland my planet had become, a jagged blinding world of white which I inhabit in my dreams even now. All this as I sped from the dome in the rushing water – which itself froze metres behind me – and passed under the gate a split-second before it closed. (Tape stops.) And this is the world I must bring here, with its technology and its disasters and its people and their senseless propagation, which will ruin K-77 just as surely as it ruined the Earths? No. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. The human race must start again here. Let the old world find some other planet. This is our second chance.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, supplemental:
    Not long since my last entry – a few minutes, an hour, I can’t be sure. I’ve been dozing here, by the embers of the holo-fire. After what seemed like seconds I awoke. The stalks creaked rhythmically. The clouds glowed, closer than ever. The night hummed, with changes in frequency like bursts of static. Maybe I dreamt it, but a flicker of movement at the far side of the clearing set my heart racing. I drew my raygun. For a moment the shadows rippled like a curtain, in time with the humming that by now throbbed through my body. There was a gust of wind. A stalk groaned behind me. I swung around. When I turned back the intruder, or the vision, was gone. Given that I – a captain, twice decorated – have had such fears, the reactions of my crew should not surprise me. But why pander to their weaknesses as I fight to overcome my own? So the crew have problems? I have a problem too: I can’t sleep! And I’ve been dreaming, despite my strict sleep-programming regime. But I must sleep now. I must sleep.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, day 5:
    Tonight the rain was heavier. The lower parts of the valley will soon be swamp. The underbrush is rotting into the soil, and filling the air with stench as it does so. Cadet Stimpeii has aired his grievances, and Mirabella requests leave to the Ultramundane. Hawk, she claims, cannot be treated here, though Kavan denies this. As to Hawk, he rejects all suggestions of leaving. He gazes at the valley with demented childlike rapture, yet for some reason I’m loathe to let him go. Call it a hunch, but what if someone – something – had tried to reach us through him, and this drooling second childhood were the after-effect? Of course I’ve said nothing to Mirabella, nor would I speak now if I thought this log would be heard by the Academy. But let them find me! Let the clerks pass judgement! I spit on the Interstellar Operations Code! I won’t protect my crew any longer! Yes, the Starship Ultramundane is a den of subversives! Doctor Kavan, addict of synthetic opiates. Cadet Stimpeii, rebel sympathiser with his former homeland New Philistia. Commander Hawk, whose morbid personal quest no directive can touch. And though I lack proof, I question the rise through the ranks of our science officer from the normally-closed professional circles of Eroticon females. Ethical Adviser Brand, as befits his “purer” Earth-10 lineage, is a company man to the core. But he stole Kavan, despite our mating permits, and though he’s welcome to her I’ve kept a file on their intimacy ever since. (Tape stops.) But why continue this log at all? It’s mine now, my confidant. In view of that, I can speak with it more freely... There is something I hesitate to mention here. All this cloud, it... dulls things. Days pass without definition. I count off the hours to keep time alive in this sheltered cavern of vapour. If only something would happen! Anything! I’m choked in the grip of a tension I don’t understand, caught in some stalemate with the planet itself. Even the stalks – these innocuous stalks! – now make me uneasy. Each day they swell noticeably. Beneath their surfaces huge veins appear, each as thick as a soldier’s arm. And unless I’m mistaken, I’ve glimpsed large bulbs forming atop them. But surely it’s natural they flourish when fertilised by the rotten pulp which surrounds them! Yet didn’t they explode into life at the very point at which we grew fixated on them, as if they fed on that fixation? (Tape stops.) The sky is lightening. Up high a wind is blowing. Some upper portion of the cloud has shifted, leaving a thin layer in its wake: a stencil-like membrane with the texture of sand on a stream-bed, or of some giant brain. And now the moon is rising, flooding the sky with its radiance. I almost wish I could stay awake to watch this. But it’s been a long day.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, supplemental:
    It’s late. I should be sleeping. Look at me: a shivering coward huddled in a plastic dome! Damn it, what’s happening here?... Quiet. Mustn’t wake the others. It’s still now, so suddenly still. I had a dream, and it haunts me, though it passed in an instant. I dreamt of... an eye. A single red iris surrounded by black, and the wide-open pupil at its centre. It was ancient, this eye, as if made of stone, and so huge I couldn’t look away from it. When I tried to, it surrounded me. When I ran to escape, it was infinite. And as I awoke I was falling, plummeting through space towards it: the full and gigantic red moon, so close I feared it would crush me, so bright it burned my eyes, and surrounded by a halo of light that mirrored exactly the iris of my nightmare. The hum of the place was deafening – it could have been the planet crying in agony. My senses reeled on the verge of breakdown and... it was over. Sudden quiet fell like a blanket over the campsite. Clouds swept across the sky as though they had never parted. At first I didn’t recognise that ragged breathing as my own. Then from Hawk’s dome I heard laughter, gleeful, intoxicated. “Aye aye, Captain!” he shouted, and I shut my mouth and fought to calm myself. (Tape stops.) I forgot to mention it, but A-30 radioed from the Ultramundane: repairs of the sensors will be completed by tomorrow. Maybe then we’ll see who’s crazy, and what we are dealing with here.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, day 6:
    Barely three hours sleep, and the crew are worse than ever. By assigning Brand and Mirabella the morning watch I somehow insulted the doctor. “You don’t see!” she said, but I see well enough: if Brand – my only ally here – doesn’t get some peace he may prove closer to breakdown than I am! And the cadet, ah, the poor little cadet! Tense and paranoiac, he paces like the hero in some vide-drama, scratching at a rash beneath his uniform which the apathetic doctor is yet to examine, and ranting about a planet of insects conjured from nightmares. In his theory, the humming at night is giant wings! By afternoon, as I searched for a dry spot to sit down on, I gave in to nostalgia for the Ultramundane. On a whim I teleported, to verify or destroy these dangerous recollections. But it seemed illusory, all of it: the narrow corridors, the stale air, the cold ringing of my boots on the steel floor. Least convincing of all, the dull glimpse of space past the tiny portholes. Dazed, I went to the observation deck. The sun disappeared as night swept across the planet, and this attested not to the size of the planet but to the distance of the sun, which was more massive than a thousand planets yet one of a billion stars. All at once I laughed to think of us in our floating office-space, fussing over details as if the monstrous wilderness were illusion. The Earth is dying – we can’t turn back. Space is infinite – we could have plunged on forever. Out there we’re nothing. On this planet we might prosper, if we keep our wits about us. (Tape stops.) Work on the sensors is complete, aside from calibration to the atmosphere, which A-30 is performing as I speak. That robot is nothing if not thorough. The sun is setting beyond the vapour. Maybe I could sleep now, briefly, if I tried.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, supplemental:
    Night. Trapped inside by the rain. Life-form sensors ruined. Robot in pieces in the mud. And we have a traitor here. (Tape stops.) She couldn’t have chosen a worse time for her rebellion. I’d just fallen asleep when she banged on my dome. Outside, A-30 counted down to its verdict. I struggled to focus as she listed my shortcomings. I’d disobeyed regulations for the trial colonisation of a wilderness planet. I’d not informed command of our discovery. I’d neglected my counselling duties in a time of danger. By now the others stood watching, shadowy forms in the halflight. What should I have said? If she was petitioning to leave the planet I told her it was impossible. As to her threat of official enquiry, we were all criminals in the eyes of the Academy. At this she exploded: I hadn’t radioed command, had I? The crew murmured their support, and I realised it was unfair to keep my secret any longer. I spoke of the new world! But when I’d finished they were silent, until she proposed mutiny in response to the gift I had offered them! In my shock I reacted instinctively. And instinctively, I did what any soldier would have done: I drew my raygun and aimed it at Mirabella. Behind me there was a click and a whir – A-30 had completed its life-form readings. But its next words informed me only that its proton-phaser was trained upon me. An explosion threw me face-first to the ground – Brand had fired on the robot! But Mirabella ran towards him, he spread his arms as though unwilling to defend himself and she pummeled his chest, crying, until he embraced her. Kavan switched on the holo-fire. I picked my way across the wreckage of the robot, to find the sensors shattered. By now even Hawk had staggered from his dome. “It’s as if –” I began in fury, turning my gaze to the sky. “It’s as if I was being born,” said Hawk, and collapsed unconscious.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log, second supplemental:
    I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep! The wind howls. The stalks thrash drunkenly. The clouds writhe in anger or agony, careening across the thickly-veiled moon. After my last entry Hawk’s condition became critical. He slept, but not peacefully, racked by tremors like electric shocks. Grudgingly Kavan examined him, and found a weeping sore on his back, from which she pulled a bloodied seed-pod creature. The cadet panicked. Brand dragged him away. With the wound cleaned and Hawk quieted I left for my dome, but heard shouting, and found Brand and Mirabella undressing Stimpeii forcibly. Outraged, I sent Stimpeii to the Ultramundane for sentry duty. But Mirabella had found a wound under his jacket, and wanted to follow and investigate. Needless to say I refused, but in minutes she was back, having reached the cadet via radio: the Ultramundane was out of range of transporters, and leaving the solar system. And this – the cadet’s desertion – was my fault! Brand had followed her through the rain. At seeing her hysterical he grabbed her arm. “Go back to her!” she spat at him. I left them to their cabaret. As to the cadet, he won’t get far. Without training he’ll be eaten by the navigator’s helmet. But enough! There are greater things at stake! What of the enemy? A personal squabble – some vendetta of Mirabella’s against me – has destroyed our life-form sensors. Yet surely the instincts of an old soldier should not be discounted.
    Kurtz out.


Captain’s log – captain’s log, I said!
    I can hardly hear my own voice! The stalks squirm like angry tentacles. Through the clouds the moon peeks and vanishes. I try to sleep, but the red eye awaits me. I shake my head and it scatters into countless red circles, throbbing in time with an ache in my head too excruciating to describe... But can it be? Can it be? That the eye is the enemy! That it is infinite, is everywhere, surrounding us! Rain pours as we express our delight with it. Stalks feed on our fixation. A dome of vapour imprisons us in mimicry of the domes of our homelands. Even this heat – this torturous heat – is uncanny after years of ice and cold! But I won’t be taken! Do you hear me? I won’t put up with it! (A loud crack. Kurtz drops the microphone. A raygun is fired. Tape stops.)


(TO BE CONTINUED...)