Last Days On Narvis 347
In The Shadow Of Two Brothers
Kalvin knew the stats. Heck, he knew the stats better than most since he had helped cross-reference a few. He knew what the job entailed, what was the likelihood of never actually retiring (if he was honest he’d say that, in a romantic kind of way, that had even been appealing), of making back home and enjoy the remaining years of his life. This was deep space exploration. It was like walking the guy-wire between two edges of an abyss. On one side you left what was known – and you hoped there was something else at the end of that thin, wavering rope, something that would let you return home. Kalvin knew that almost ninety five percent of deep space explorers never came back. More than the unsung heroes of a brave new era of humankind – they were dead. Dead, unburied, forgotten, their bodies left to whatever forces the pulsating miasma between the stars had reserved from them. Some were retrieved, of course, when someone else would venture down that same sector; and finish the job they had left incomplete.
Kalvin had five days worth of air left. Five days, an eternity under some circumstances, barely a glimpse in others. Here it was a bit of both it seemed. Five days until he died. The water he had still was enough and, even it wasn’t, the filtration system would provide a sufficient amount to sustain him. He had plenty of food. What he didn’t have was a means to escape the planet, to send for help, and survive.
Kalvin walked amongst the fungal growths of Narvis 347, the planet he had been tasked to chart. There was life here, even if of the primitive kind. He was to take samples, to catalogue, to monitor atmospheric processes, to map an entire planet over the course of a few brief weeks and then move on to the next target. That was the life of deep space exploration. After a few years of this he would be placed in cryogenic suspension and sent home while someone else took his place and kept on mapping the galactic spheres.
Accidents happened exactly like this one did. Some shards of rock, however small, hurtling through space at speeds hardly comprehensible, would hit the hull at the exactly worst spot, at the worst time, breach it, damage all the stuff precisely where they shouldn’t, thus creating serious system failure. In Kalvin’s case, the ship’s self-repair mechanisms had been damaged and, worse than that, he had crash landed onto the planet. Now, standing next to the wreck from which he had miraculously escaped, he looked up into the thick purple clouds in the upper atmosphere. However beautiful that sight was, under a red, yellow and blue green sky, he couldn’t help but feel it was yet another sign that he was doomed.
Since he was going to die Kalvin decided to throw caution to the wind. Clearly his tale wouldn’t be like so many fellow explorers, that had worked diligently until they had died, collecting data ‘til their dying breath. Or was it? Was this really what happened in over ninety eight percent of the case? Or were these numbers simply concocted to inspire such idealism from young applicants? It hardly mattered now. The truth, Kalvin realised, hardly mattered. And, as if to affirm this newfound resolution further, stepped away from the broken ship and plunged into the fungal plains of Narvis 347. Up until now he had followed every instruction by the book. He had made sure every call was the right one. And this, this incomprehensible, unjustified situation, was the place he now found himself. For a few hours more at least. He would at least get to know his doom a bit better. In fact, Kalvin kind of hoped to die from some cataclysmic accident rather than this slow, stagnant death, with slowly increasing levels of CO2 acting as executioner. It seemed fairer that way. If at least he had some fault in the matter.
But… what could happen on an uninhabited planet?
Even if everything was silent, apart from the slow drawl of the wind, Kalvin knew there was an undercurrent of activity and violence underneath it all. Lichens, moulds, fungi, whatever you wanted to call them, fought one another, ate one another, on their ceaseless battle for territory. For some of these, being eaten was actually the way they proliferated. The landscape was dreary swabs of blues, greens and yellows, pastel coloured. Some of the fungi shone at night, thus slowly attracting other fungi to grow in their direction so that, eventually, they’d be consumed. The ground was soft beneath his feet, cushioning them with layer upon layer of fungal matter. These growths would never die, never truly being alive. Their generations piled – but there was no History. This struck Kalvin as odd and, after that moment, oddly beautiful. This entire planet, this world sprawling culture was utterly devoid of remorse or hope or consciousness. In fact, the only thing, for almost a light year all around that was truly conscious was Kalvin himself.
Though not for long.
This planet had never seen anything quite like him before. Something that moved this fast, that could change and adapt this quickly. Something whose thoughts seemed to echo in the barren life that everything was immersed.
That had been the first day.
On the second Kalvin started seeing things.
At first he thought he had seen something move in the distance so, naturally, he moved closer to check it out. The presence of life, real life, any kind of life seemed to offer him the hope of salvation first and foremost, however faint. Fear came a long second. But there was nothing in the distance as soon as Kalvin got there. Nothing apart from the ubiquitous smooth, moss-covered hill slopes. Then it happened again. And again (?). Kalvin assumed he was seeing mirages due to all the strain he was experiencing. Then it started to happen all the time. Wherever he looked there were people fading in and out of sight, in the distance, one hundred, maybe two hundred metres away. They fused with the landscape and disappeared, or emerged from it and then were gone just like that. They were like shadows, but more distinct, more lively and unpredictable. Kalvin shook his head, then hammered it with his gloved hands, trying to get his mind to focus, to determine that his eyes were deceiving him somehow. He sat on the floor, irritated he couldn’t even scratch his head inside the suit. The ship was gone from sight now, abandoned a few miles away: Kalvin even knew exactly where. The machine’s flank was raggedly open, like a nasty scar. It had been by an incredible combination of luck and skill that he had managed to get inside the pressurised suit, go back to the control room and manually steer the dying contraption to the surface of the planet. Gravity here was about half that of Earth and that had been the only reason he had survived the crash. That and the strict exercise regimen he endured every day to prevent his body from atrophying. Still, the five daily hours at 2G, had made him physically more resilient than most people on Earth. The Space Exploration Committee prepared for situations such as this. Space exploration was all about crunching the numbers and never shying away from the results. At least that was what they had told him at the academy. Now Kalvin wasn’t so sure. In fact he wasn’t so sure of all that much anymore. The closeness of death didn’t bring everything into focus. It merely threw everything away from focus and, in doing so, made everything a lot more real.
One of the figures approached Kalvin. For a split second he considered to turn away and avoid it. Then he realised he was being stupid, that it would probably disappear before it ever reached him and that it was a goddamned illusion anyway. He looked at his instruments. They showed no change. There was no other complex life form out there save himself.
The figure did not disappear. In fact, it became more solid, more rounded, more real as it neared him. This disturbed him a bit. The fact that it was his old chemistry teacher disturbed him even more. He didn’t have a space suit, and he walked with the same red shirt and brown trousers he had sported so much of the time he had lectured Kalvin’s xenochem class. Kalvin smiled at this, nervously then curiously. His mind was playing tricks on him: he might as well fall in line and enjoy that one last ride.
‘Why don’t we cut the formalities?’ The teacher told him. ‘You are dying after all.’
‘And you’re not even real…’
‘Oh… I should say that such things hardly matter, given the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘What do you want?’
‘What do I want?! My dear Kalvin, shouldn’t you be asking what do you want?! I clearly do not want anything, as I am not even here…’
Kalvin sniggered. ‘I want to live.’
‘Yes, that much is known.’ The man said, pacing around Kalvin. This irritated him, this ease, this comfort, this detachment. It was as if he was back in class, during some exam. Whilst he struggled to find the correct answers, Mr. Hendry had nothing else to do but pace around and wait for their inevitable mistakes. ‘But, it is also known that you know you will not survive this so, I ask again, what do you want?’
Kalvin frowned, puzzled. This figment of imagination was too coherent for his liking. And he sounded just like Mr. Hendry.
‘You’re not real. I shouldn’t bother answering.’
‘Why not? Do you have anything more important to be doing? Besides, reality is hardly the matter here. Reality, in any case, is flexible and something people try so hard to agree upon – and fail. Here you are alone. No one to disagree or agree with you. Reality is what you decide. More than you think.’
‘So you’re saying I can “real-ise” my way out of here, is that it?!’
The mirage was trying to outsmart him, to taunt him even. Why? This puzzled Kalvin to no end. Was his mind simply trying to avoid the impending suffering by focusing his attention elsewhere? On an unsolvable puzzle perhaps?
‘Perhaps. I am not to say. Believe me when I tell you I do not come here to give you hope. Such things are overpriced in my estimation. I’m a realist.’
‘An illusory realist.’ Kalvin mocked.
‘Better an illusory realist than real demented fool, wouldn’t you say?’ Hendry approached Kalvin and stared him straight in the eye. His stare was steely and slightly dismissive. Or at least that was how it felt to the explorer. ‘Which, by the way, is what you may well become in the coming hours.’
Hendry walked away, turning his back to Kalvin. He followed that strange defiant ghost, now demanding answers.
‘What?!’ Kalvin said, stepping in front of Hendry and forcing him to stop.
‘My dear boy.’ Hendry said earnestly. ‘You are not in control here. You never were but that’s hardly the matter now. You are not in control and you have oh… let’s say four – no – three and a half days more to live. Your mind is under considerable pressure as it were. Some of your long held patterns are breaking apart. And tearing you with them, as they are one and the same. Surely you know this. You live in there after all.’
Hendry said “in there” with a uncaring nod of the head, turning his eyes away from his former pupil. Kalvin searched his mind frantically. He wanted to see where inside him all this was being generated. He could not. There should be some sign, some pressure, some tension, some pain that indicated this. But there was nothing. His mind felt as calm and stressed and tired as it had for at least the almost two years he had been browsing through space.
‘Such effort will lead you nowhere.’ Hendry said. ‘Do you not believe your own conclusions? You decided from the onset I was unreal – do you wish to retract that now? So soon? That, my friend, is really the road to madness should you decide to tread it so early on…’
‘What are you?! Why are you here?!’ Kalvin said as he lunged to Hendry. The figure however successfully predicted this and moved away from the explorer’s reach.
‘Why try to break the illusion when that is all you have?’ It said. Kalvin stopped dead on his tracks and, surprisingly, fell to his knees. For a couple of moments he refuse any desire of motion his body threw at him.
‘You want to establish the basics? Reiterate them again?’ Hendry insisted. Kalvin pushed himself up and started walking away. Hendry caught up until both were side by side, walking towards a blue-green dune covered with what looked like moss-leaves. These caromed in an absent wind, making shapes and dismantling them. Every so often one of the leaves burst into a fine powder and, for a few seconds there was no other motion but the slow fall of a fine golden dust cloud.
‘Very well.’ Hendry continued. ‘I am a projection of your mind. I am not real – well, not as real in the sense you are real – but I do have some autonomy. And I am here, clearly, to help you. Why else this ruse as one of your favourite school teachers?’
Kalvin did not know what to say to this. Part of him wanted to stay there and chat, forget he was really alone, no one coming for him and that, consequently, this person here was real and meant something. Another part of him, however, knew indulging in such fantasies was dangerous, his mind could easily slip, if he kept on heading into that strange, uncharted mind territory.
And it was more than that. Kalvin realised he was afraid, afraid of something else: he was afraid of losing his sanity.
‘Ah… now we’re getting somewhere!…’ The shadow said, smiling broadly. Kalvin looked at it, surprised.
‘You’re afraid of going mad. Your last few hours alive and your mind fails you and you stop being yourself long before you die. It’s a different kind of death, a far more treacherous one – and one you can stop. Or, at least, that’s what you keep telling yourself.’
‘Stop taunting me!’ Kalvin had expected many things, but not this. Not this rage boiling inside of him whilst chatting up an illusion.
‘Taunting? I have done no such thing. I merely point out the rational so that you can more easily determine the course your life will take during the next few hours. Since how you die seems to be so important to you I am merely here to ensure you have the tools to do so properly. You should be thankful. And you’re welcome, by the way.’
Kalvin kicked some of the moss covering the ground – but there were no dust clouds, no ephemeral structures rising and eroding at his casual command.
‘I honestly do not know why it is taking you so long to admit the truth. After all it’s not as if you have time….
Kalvin didn’t want to say anything. He knew whatever he said this creature, this shadow would torture him with it.
‘You have read the statistics after all, better than most. You know how many accidents could actually be attributed to human error. You know the exact percentage of explorers that develop some kind of mental illness. Paranoia. Overwhelming existential fear. Reality withdrawal. Ego disintegration.’
‘Sixty-six point eighty seven percent…’ Kalvin said, dragging the words.
‘That’s right. More than half of those that survive become insane.’
‘What? You don’t like the word?’
‘I don’t like you.’
‘Relax. It’s not like I’m accusing you of having paranoid delusions or something.’
‘I don’t feel paranoid.’ Kalvin said irritably.
‘Perhaps it is not a requirement. Still, that wasn’t the number I was talking about.’ The shadow insisted.
‘Eighty-five percent. Roughly.’
‘Ah… yes.’ Hendry nodded. ‘The percentage of accidents attributed to human error. The vast majority of them. And why? Haven’t you ever wondered why? Of course you have. We all have.’
Hendry pushed his face closer to Kalvin’s. He could almost feel the teacher’s bitter breath invading his suit. ‘We all have wondered – but we have not wondered long. The agency tends not to cover the deliberate taking of one’s life.’ The shadow paused and considered the listener for a moment. ‘I wonder, is that your case?’
Kalvin’s fists clenched and he readied himself to strike. Realising how foolish that would be, even with no one else around, he held himself. It was all in his mind. It was his mind he had to regain power over.
‘Such control, such resolve – even in the face of death.’ Taunted Hendry. ‘Is it a lie that makes you hurt so? Or is it the truth? Maybe you don’t know which is which anymore.’
‘Maybe you haven’t know it for a while…’ He said with a dismissive flick of hand. ‘Still this is not the reason of my being here. I think I shall explain it to you now. Now that you have arrived and no other choice but to understand…’
Kalvin looked strangely at his companion but said not a word. His eyes were mesmerised by this presence, inundated by the backdrop of deep violet and purple moss. As the two men climbed the soft slope of a hill, there were boulders taller than them, swaying slightly with invisible wind currents.
‘The ads say that deep space exploration is a lonely business. Yet the people who see them, to whom they are intended in fact, have no idea how lonely it really is. Only those that reach these empty places do… The further and deeper you reach, the more deprived of life and meaning everything becomes. The harder it bears on the traveller.’
Kalvin found himself walking uphill as fast as he could. Hendry however never strayed far behind, keeping up seemingly without effort. Atop the hill he saw a green and yellow streaked plain stretch into the distance. There were plenty of moss boulders scattered around. One next to him began to roll as soon as Kalvin touched it with a gloved hand. It rolled downhill, releasing spores and losing mass along the way. There was smoke billowing from the places where the boulder had passed. The overarching silence throughout this disorientated Kalvin somehow. Motion wasn’t meant to be silent. Even with all the time he had passed suspended in space, he still hadn’t gotten used to this.
‘Planets are mirrors.’ Hendry said, placing a heavy hand on Kalvin’s shoulder, seemingly sharing the view. ‘They echo our beings.’ He paused for a moment, giving time for his words to be absorbed by his companion. ‘On Earth the mirror was full. You could not hear anyone’s echoes because there were so many of them.’ Hendry turned his back and faced the darkened sky. ‘On Earth there is only white noise. An impenetrable mass of being, like a thundercloud, brooding, rumbling, evolving of its own accord.’
Hendry showed up on Kalvin’s right side now. The other man had not moved from his station, but he had seen nonetheless the darkness the shadow had contemplated. With ease, even glee, Hendry watched the open plain. Then he stepped into full view of the stranded explorer. He said, ‘Here? Here you are alone Kalvin. Here you are unique. Here nothing is like you.’ Hendry looked earnestly at him. ‘And so… and so you must hear all that is inside you.’ The shadow smiled compassionately. ‘And so the question poses itself: the mirror will not shatter but… will you?’
Kalvin screamed then, though he did not hear it. He screamed from a place far away of himself, a place made of distance, wanting to dissolve that creature that way, to end all pain and confusion that thus angered him.
‘You lie! You lie! YOU LIE!’ He shouted, grabbing Hendry finding, surprisingly, that he could actually do so. Kalvin shook the shadow as hard as he could. Throughout it Hendry never ceased looking inscrutably at him with those beady eyes.
‘You cannot wish away the truth, hence why it burns.’ Hendry said. ‘It latches onto your being and holds fast, melting you in the process, turning you into it. This is why we dislike the truth. We are its puppets, not the other way around.’
Kalvin tried to kick Hendry away and throw him down the slope, instead it was him that fell to the ground. The shadow leaned over and whispered into Kalvin’s ear, ‘Your echoes travel through the long abandoned great halls of the ancestors… It is when we hear our voice that we begin to die, not the opposite.’
‘You’re not real!’ Said Kalvin frantically, backing away haphazardly, his arms and legs kicking away at the dusty ground. The shadow did not move, considering him gravely, a child misbehaving.
‘I am as real as you are. If not more so. I speak the truth after all, whilst you hopelessly cling on to hallucinations and a reality no longer here.’
Kalvin looked around and, for a moment, there was no planet, no moss, no light. There was only the blackness of space interspersed with stars too far away to bring him any comfort. Hendry’s voice sounded inside his suit, ‘I have come here to give you your last rites…’, and Kalvin found himself tumbling down a hill slope, unable to stop, Hendry idly walking beside him. The explorer closed his eyes, forced himself to recall his training, to push himself into life’s grasp. He stopped on his side, panting, losing all sense of direction. He was spread out along a vertical wall and knew he would fall from a great height. His fingers dug into the soft ground. Clouds of spores wafted into the thin atmosphere. Hendry’s feet came into view, perpendicular, defying the very laws of nature. He crouched and looked at the disgruntled explorer pitifully.
‘If you open your visor you will cease to breathe and die a quick and relatively painless death.’ He said encouragingly. ‘Fungi will take you in time. You will become a part of this planet. Better this home than none, yes?’
Kalvin nodded groggily, crying.
‘Why prolong the fear? Why prolong the pain that will come? Inexistence is blissful, only moments away.’
Kalvin got unsteadily back to his feet.
‘It will be merciful. The atmosphere will make it quick. A few painful seconds and then… nothing… blissful nothing…’
Kalvin place his hands to the side of his head. He shivered and shook, his muscles tensing with far more force than necessary. The tips of his fingers searched for the latch. He clicked it.
Kalvin’s body stopped shaking and fell forwards. A spore cloud wafted as if to greet him and then slowly settled on top of him. The moss began its relentless work. The shadow stood by his side for a few moments more, until all semblance of life had disappeared from the explorers eyes. The shadow walked calmly towards the ship, several miles away. Eventually it reached it and got inside closing the hatch behind itself. Scouring through Kalvin’s recently absorbed memories it checked all systems, then fired it up and took off. It would be a long journey, the longest it had ever made yet, a part of Hendry’s simulacra longed already for the planet it had never seen. It wondered for how long it would be possible to feel the moss-consciousness in the deep reaches of space. And what would happen when that link was severed. Whatever it hailed, it was far beyond his control. Hendry allowed his body to grow more and more, so that it occupied every available space inside the ship. The connection would be kept longer this way. He activated the coms system and sent the following message:
‘My name is Hendry P. Wallace, final witness to Kalvin Mayhall’s last hours on Narvis 347. I am returning. Tell my wife I love her very much and that I will see her soon.’
Slowly the shadow let itself drift into stasis. In time it would be home.