1.1: "The Lost Astronaut"

Written by Carl Coetzee

Edited/Narrated by Zak Zaidi

Scored by Carl Coetzee

 transcript (Scroll down): 

"The Lost Astronaut" by Carl Coetzee

There was a time, back home, when I couldn’t wait to get here. You’d probably find me in the evenings looking towards the stars, counting down the days until I left. And if you asked, I’d tell you I already knew my purpose in life: to discover the unknown, to extend our reach across the infinite universe. Anything else was irrelevant. So when they told me this expedition would take me farther than anyone had ever been before me, I could hardly wait.

I still spend my evenings staring at stars. But these days, I’m looking for something very different. I’m not sure I’m going to find it.

 

I run my hand across the smooth, cold brass of my pocket telescope. It’s funny, really- I arrived on this planet with hundreds of years’ worth of space age technology, and in the end I’m using Captain Hook’s spyglass. What a waste. At the same tim e, though, it’s a stroke of luck I even have something like this -- most of the telescopes I brought shattered on impact along with the rest of the cargo in the lower hold.

Holding it up to my eye, I turn the spyglass up towards the horizon. With my other hand, I hold down a faded looseleaf map of the stars, stopping occasionally to consult it and reorient myself. Using both the map and the telescope, I search the night for any sign of rescue -- a ship, a supply drop, a message. God, anything capable of getting me off this blasted rock. After some time, though, the strain starts to take a toll as the back of my eyes start throbbing and my vision goes blurry. I try to power through, but eventually can’t ignore the pain any longer and set down my tools before falling back in defeat.

 

It’s been nearly four months since I was due back at the outer station, and still no sign of contact. I don’t understand; a rescue ship should have arrived long by now. One of those newer ships with the Model 12 engines could have gotten here at least three months ago. Come to think of it, even a Model 3 could have gotten here a month ago with a half-decent captain. It doesn’t make sense. Did they even send anything? No- someone has to be coming. What are they supposed to do, leave me? The Fleet wouldn’t abandon a pilot, especially one with my experience. Someone’s bound to send a ship. They wouldn’t desert me. But what in the world could take them this long? I mean, I’ve been stranded for months now without any sign of aid -- no rescue ships. no supply drops, nothing. Just an empty sky above and dwindling supplies down below.

 

Someone is coming, I tell myself again.

 

I put down my telescope and walk across the dry, dusty crater back to my living quarters. Stepping inside, I take a ration of dried beef and corn from the shelf along the back wall. Grimly, I notice that this is the last serving of beef in the supply. This isn’t surprising; most of the meat rations these days are either gone or running very thin.

As I reach for utensils, I trip over a heavy container with “LONG-TERM” written on it in bold red ink. It’s been gathering dust along the wall for some time now; A few packets of seeds and a thick manual are knocked over the side. I collect the packets from the floor before putting them back and irritably moving the container further out of my way. Had I not been stranded, I would have used these supplies to establish a more permanent life here. But it’s all useless to me now-- I have no intention of staying anymore. And there’s no time to settle down; I need to focus on watching the skies. They’ll be coming for me any day now, I know it.

 

         .

I hardly taste the last of my beef rations as they vanish from my plate. Instead, I let my eyes grow dull in front of my console, zoning out in front of the screen. My thoughts begin to circle themselves. How many days have I been on this cursed rock? And how long would I be here? Where in the world was the Fleet? They should have come ages ago- what was taking them so long?. Did I miss them? Did they miss me? Was I not vigilant enough? Were they coming at all? What would I do if they didn’t? Would I be stuck here forever?

 

Suddenly, something whizzes across the night sky. Jolting awake, I stumble to the window and see the last trace of an unknown object disappear over the horizon. Although I get a brief glimpse, it’s impossible to make out exactly what it is. Most likely, it’s just some debris crashing through the thin atmosphere of the planet. Some celestial rock or something. It’s probably too small  to be a ship. Way too small. It’s definitely smaller than a Model XII, and those are the smallest ships they have. So it can’t be a ship. Probably not. Maybe. Again, I didn’t get a good look.

I clean off my desk and bring my empty plate back to the kitchen. On the countertop, I notice the cover of the manual that fell from the box earlier. It’s tightly bound with a light blue cover and a title printed plainly in bold text. SETTING UP FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE. I haven’t seen the title of this manual in a long time. An uneasy feeling starts growing in the pit of my stomach.

My thoughts shift, recalling the fleeting image of the flying object from earlier. I shut my eyes tight and try to focus on any details I could remember.

SETTING UP FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE. The title jumps out at me again. I’ve probably seen it over a hundred times, but now it feels like it’s mocking me. 

I continue working at the memory of the flying object. It’s still too blurry to make out -- the most I can remember is that it was something fast, greyish, and big. Probably just debris. 

I look back over at the counter. SETTING UP FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE. The uneasy feeling in my stomach bubbles over into anger; I turn away and try to focus.

Greyish, fast, and big. Greyish, fast, and big. Big. The object had to be very large. So come to think of it, could it really be debris? No, I don’t think so. And if it’s not debris, what is it?

SETTING UP FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE. No, that couldn’t have been debris. Greyish, fast, and big. It might’ve been a ship, actually. No, it must’ve been. That must’ve been my ship. What else could it be? Right? 

I turn around again and catch one last glimpse. PERMANENT RESIDENCE.

 No, I’m sure. I saw it clearly. It was the Fleet. They’re here for me. They’re here, and I need to act quickly.

 

It’s obvious the ship wouldn't be able to see me in the crater. The base is too low down, and the shadows from the canyon walls obscure it all during the evenings. It would be hard enough to see a base this small on the planetary surface-- but down here? Forget it. They’d pass right over.

The ship will probably make one more orbit around the planet before heading back; this would take them around ten hours. Accounting for the time I’ve wasted already, I have less than that to make sure they can see me next time they come.

I begin to think of a plan. Firstly, I need to make myself more visible; my best bet for this would be to find some high ground. Thinking back, there’s an elevated plateau I remember seeing while I was entering the atmosphere. That would be the best place to signal them-- high up, uncovered, and visible from space. However, it’s some hours away from the base, which means I need to move even faster. There’s no time to lose. And I’ll need supplies.

Sprinting outside, I jump into a small, white rover and drive across the canyon to the scattered remains of a spacecraft. Not stopping to catch my breath, I throw open the second cargo hold and start throwing the contents out from inside. It’s live wood, and lots of it. Originally, this was material for experiments I had planned for when I got here, but it had become useless ever since the crash. Useless until now, that is. As quickly as possible, I load the wood into the rover’s cargo and drive back to the base for more supplies. At the base, I pack one of the backup generators and several canteens of water. Additionally, I throw many of my remaining rations into the cargo as well; if I get stranded out there, I’ll need food. Without a moment to spare, I jump into the cockpit and start off towards my destination.

 

The road is bumpy, shaking the rover as I drive. I see other craters, canyons, and small hills pass me by in the distance. Despite being somewhat barren, though, the planet is quite impressive from an ecological standpoint. The ground, while  somewhat cracked and arid throughout, is mostly habitable; the atmosphere, while thin, is enough to both hold air and sustain small bodies of water. It would take work, but most likely the planet could sustain life. And a more successful expedition could have succeeded in establishing it. .

 

This much was obvious, even before I landed here. As I was coming through the atmosphere, I saw from the corner of the window a chain of small lakes shrouded by a thin cloud layer. This gave me hope - since there was a developed water cycle, the planet would be able to sustain life. Curious, I wanted to get a better view of these lakes, focusing more and more on trying to get a better angle. But this eagerness proved a curse. Distracted by the view, I forgot to monitor my landing speed; needless to say, a landing came faster than expected. The resulting crash completely totaled the thrusters, long-range communication, and everything in the lower cargo hold. Without any way to lift off or contact the outer base, I had no means of escape. I was stuck. 

Not a day has gone by where I don’t curse myself for my impatience.

 

After a few hours of driving, I arrive at the base of the plateau. Carefully, I maneuver the rover over a ridge which slithers up the side of the cliff face. To a lesser pilot, this vehicle would be too wide for such a path, and I struggle to keep all wheels firmly on solid ground. After a stressful journey upward, I make it to the top of the plateau. There isn’t a moment to lose; by my estimate, I have only a few hours to set up the signal.

 

With the wood, I start constructing a large pyre at the center of the plateau. It’s slow, delicate work -- to ensure the most visible signal, the pyre needs to account for air flow as well as structure. The atmosphere is thin here, and a fire of this size will be that much harder to construct. At the same time, I watch the skies from the corner of my vision, keeping a sharp lookout for the rescue ship.

 

The hours pass, and the pyre is still unfinished.  Each second that passes brings more panic than the one before. If the signal isn’t finished in time, there won’t be a second chance. They will leave me for dead. I will be truly alone on this planet.

Mere minutes before the ship arrives, I decide it’s too late to stall any longer. I can’t miss this chance. The pyre needs to be lit, and fast. I put final touches on the structure before taking a box of matches from my pocket and lighting the kindling near the bottom. Bracing for the heat, I run backwards and wait for the fire to start. But to my horror, it doesn’t even light.

 

Of course. This is live wood. Even kept in a cargo hold for months, it will still be damp from the water trapped inside the log. In desperation, I run back to the rover, retrieving a large siphon from the boot. Using the siphon, I begin to take petroleum from the rover’s backup tank and pour it over the wood. Once more, I take a lighter and set fire to my beacon. It erupts in flames.

Using my telescope again, I watch the skies looking for the rescue ship. The pyre burns angrily behind me. Several minutes pass; suddenly, something doesn’t feel right. The ship should have passed overhead by now. Nervously, I revisit my estimates, searching for a reason a full orbit would take longer than this. My head fills with worry. But suddenly, an object appears on the horizon. Shrouded in the light of the nearby sun, I start to see the silhouette of a large object hurtle towards me and the pyre. My heart races as the object grows nearer, nearer, nearer…

I feel myself jump from the path of the object as it hurtles headlong into the cliff. This is no ship. The object crashes into the side of the cliff before rolling across the level surface. To make matters worse, it rolls into the rover, which is thrown into the fire as well. I watch in horror as the pyre, the asteroid, and the rover all burn to ash.

 

I curse myself for my blindness. It was never a ship.

 

The return journey takes nearly three days without the rover. Weak from lack of food and water, I pry open the doors to the base and scramble to the cupboard for rations. In yet another cruel twist, I am reminded most of my rations were loaded aboard the rover before the journey. Despite being hungrier than ever, I must now budget my rations like never before. I take half a ration of dehydrated carrots and eat them raw.

In the evening, I sit outside with my telescope and map, searching the stars. However, my thoughts are elsewhere. I feel like a fool. There was never a ship. I saw what I wanted to see, and acted rashly. And now I was missing most of my rations, all of my wood, and my rover. I made the same mistake twice-- distracted and blinded by something I wanted, I engineered my own downfall. It’s the lakes all over again.

I had been too transfixed with the possibility of leaving that I put my chances of surviving here at risk. I need to face the truth. Any Fleet ship should have arrived to rescue my expedition months ago. And they haven’t. 

I collapse the telescope and fold the astral map before walking back inside. I place both items in the cabinet alongside my remaining rations. On the countertop, I see the manual with the light blue cover. The title is printed plainly in bold text. SETTING UP FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE.

© 2020, Carl Coetzee