An epic space opera of Pluto, drugs, and final frontiers.
Today's Terraform is something a little different—today, we're doing space opera, our way. Or rather, Grant Maierhofer's way. This epic is unlike any other I've read—it will get under your skin as it drives you towards the deepest reaches of space, asking the too-often unasked questions about such journeys: questions of ego, of experience, of what then constitutes as hallucinatory, from beyond it all. I've already said too much, so I'll add just this: Buckle up, load this on a tablet, and drop out. Enjoy. -the ed.
“I am burning myself up and will always do so.”
― Jean Cocteau
Our ship was supplied sufficiently to last beyond the touched reaches of our solar system. Beyond that it was anyone’s guess. Klimt used the word “touched” when talking about his exploration vessels as he wanted to feel some connection that none of us fully understood. This was implied in the literature sent with Klimt’s proposal in the early days of what became our mission. My interest grew and there were few moments of doubt before departure. My life had hit a standstill, perhaps. I was vacillating between indifferences. A figure like Klimt proved a slight intoxicant then, I guess, and though I’ve never given myself over to cultish figures I let myself rest a bit in the certainty of his mission.
Klimt was strange, erratic. Some of us knew Klimt the captain and others new Klimt the father and others knew Klimt the all-knowing Oz. We had left earth happily under his guidance after his exploration systems had proven themselves and private exploration beyond earth became a far more realistic prospect than any of the orbiters and landers the state had managed to establish. I’d dabbled with these previously and only found bureaucracy and mining missions. Whatever one might say of Klimt his sense of the artful and grandeur in our efforts was never lacking. He’d already written such a compelling narrative of what would become our journey that half of our initial conversations were Klimt rambling. Whatever I could gather changed so frequently after the fact that I simply stopped trying to gain a sense of the entirety of the mission and focuses more acutely on my own.
I’d never been so far and from what I could tell would be surrounded by similarly earthbound company. I’d heard arguments leaving beginning interviews about the viability of Klimt’s vision, the sustainability of such a project, the origins of our journey, its funding. Some insisted Klimt had connections to various European governmental figures and thus his explorations weren’t entirely private, but subterfuge seemed an essential aspect to our endeavors. Some knew certain things, but no one save Klimt knew entirely what any of us were doing.
My position, as it was handed down piecemeal over the course of six weeks of intense preparatory treatment—a phrase Klimt preferred to “training,” as part of his spiel was based on the organic study of the cosmos, and treatment for introduction to a new environment or malady made sense to Klimt where training simply sounded militaristic—was to do with fungi and other organic matter that had been discovered on Klimt’s vessel located just beyond the orbit of Pluto. It rested there, unable to proceed in either direction as it would lose contact pushing further and dry up heading home. Klimt had noticed a strange growth on the vessel near its pod bay and had organized my payment based on grainy photographs and a sense that it was time someone touch beyond the movement of Pluto. I’d stared at those images for countless hours by the time we left. I’d attempted to take them in and process them in as obsessive a move as I’ve felt. The rooms we worked in on earth were scattered with workers and yet conversation almost never happened. If nothing else we’d seemed to all inherit a mania from Klimt, a desire to see something through and to make something of our touch beyond. I enjoyed those weeks of wallowing in it, and so when packing up to go I’d only seen those grainy pictures.
When Clyde William Tombaugh discovered the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930 he and those who heard him treated it as a planet. Klimt talked about Tombaugh almost daily in the preliminary stretch of our journey before our good rest, and seemed obsessed to some extent with vindicating Tombaugh’s legacy since the shift in understanding around 2006. I had spoken with Klimt alone one morning over cereal and rationed jugs of liquid shot through with vitamins against every known oddity out there. He seemed determined to vindicate Tombaugh’s research on UFOs, his sense of the cosmos as a terribly vibrant thing back in 1930 before the dropping of the bomb and the slow ensuing decay of our earth. I nodded along and appreciated what he said as you do over breakfast but had no idea of the extent to which his mania ran. The fly-by of the early twenty-first century had been the stuff of myth to Klimt’s grandfather who’d worked for the still-functioning NASA before it stripped itself establishing Martian and Lunar colonies until being bought out by Klimt’s competitors.
“Their interest was only ever human. Their goals were only ever that of man. When Tombaugh followed Percival Lowell’s efforts and searched for Planet X he struggled in a frigid observatory analyzing dot after dot of information and sifting through asteroids pocking up plates of images until suddenly he hit his mark. His mark differed from what they’d expected, an entity too small to influence the pull of Neptune, and yet there, pronounced enough to warrant a name given by a small child in England. Pluto. Magnanimous, whose realms profound/ Are fix’d beneath the firm and solid ground. A god of the underworld and an entity beyond what was previously thought possible. Beyond human. A pock of infinite potential at the reaches and Tombaugh’s frigid suffering alone in Arizona eventually connected him to the cold touch of this. Our work then is a continuation of our ancestors. Our work then is a journey beyond any underworld. Our work then is a journey within the heart of us, we will find some freedom.”
Klimt had a nasty tendency of spitting when he recited thus. I’d always been a fan of my father’s ramblings about the stars and it’s this and a nagging obsession with the Tardigrade’s indestructibility that let me to pursue extraterrestrial mycology. My focus was fungi and the possibility of organic matter, anywhere. My graduate thesis focused on Europa and the readings discovered in 2074 of tarry black streaks beneath its sheets of ice. I’d made a living since analyzing toxicology reports from the colonies’ watering systems and plumbing and Klimt had discovered me a bit of a wreck before a screen in a basement room. I hadn’t spoken with humans save my contacts on the colonies for several weeks and thus his preamble and recitation of the Orphic Hymn to Pluto struck me as an hallucination. I welcomed it.
Sitting over breakfast with the man on a ship leaving any reach I’d experienced before I felt the same. I welcomed him.
Research on the phases of Pluto’s moon Charon seemed most significant to what they’d need from me. The assumption had been that Pluto existed as a sort of half-meteor-half-planet, constantly being reduced and belittled in the press as moons like Europa gained favor and the Martian and Lunar colonies solidified themselves so migration could begin. Charon and Pluto, however, existed in a binary configuration not typically seen, their tidal potentials linked. The imperceptibility of the Kuiper Belt and Pluto’s relationship therein meant that some potential existed. Something existed. Something to be touched according to Klimt. Something fungal according to imaging. I was endlessly curious.
Anytime, however, an orbital system exists, the possibility of tidal systems exists. From the scarred surface of Europa to the engraving of Shackleton’s ship on the sheets of Antarctica, the presence of frozen liquid and the pull from Charon meant that some form of change, growth or otherwise, might be possible.
“There’s a sense back home of need. The children, future generations, they need us. They need farmers, they need mechanical engineers. They need bodies in the colonies. However when I sent the first research vessel out here I did so for something that escapes need, something larger. The growth discovered, the paradoxical readings, the sense of activity out there amid all this dead light, it needs us. We are attempting to answer a question we don’t entirely understand, the pieces connect while others wither or elude. You’ve been brought because of your determination in rounding out an answer. You’re here because together we write the question.”
This is, to hear him tell it, how I fit into Klimt’s puzzle: his insistence on the moldy black on the husk of Orpheus 1 and the prospect of growth in the pitch black and cold of Pluto’s touch. My assumption based on what I’d been shown was that growth had been possible in Pluto’s system based on orbit and proximity, or that a material similar to the tardigrade had been scattered via meteor and latched onto the vibration or variance in light of the vessel.
Neither of these required much confirmation from me before the good sleep as Klimt paid for everything; and my own curiosity into Pluto’s system and the iterations and evolutions in our understandings from Tombaugh on made this journey a valid use of the remainder of my familiar life on Earth. I had a dog, two siblings, but both of them were on Martian hours or Intermediary Mean from work on private station satellites. I gave my dog to a young family and ate a final feast at a small synthetic sushi restaurant in San Diego. I said goodbye to what I’d known as we ascended, held fast to my seat I stared out at the blue and rotting landscape. I felt myself escape the world and heard Klimt’s overhead message with a comfort I hadn’t felt in years: “We are making our way past the atmosphere, moving now. We’ll reach an acceptable speed, after which each of you are encouraged to eat, commune, and rest. We’re moving farther than anyone before. We’ll exchange data with the colonies and then bid them farewell. We are moving now, still.”
Klimt’s approach utilized a modern take on the Project Orion experiments of old. His father had worked in munitions and the family became incredibly wealthy trading repurposed nuclear weapons initially slated for disarmament and disposal. The law did not require their disposal if put to use beyond the touch of war, and thus a condensed journey by way of an orbitally-generated super ship—the Orpheus 2, called affectionately the Cocteau—would follow the course carved by the original Orpheus with good sleep induced in each of us but a select handful of mechanics and navigators who’d catch a month or so of induced coma between fields of each previous endeavor’s debris.
Human hibernation as Klimt’s people had developed it was an extreme take on rendering the brains among us comatose though fidgety for small strands of electric tape that kept our muscles from degeneration. This technology was first developed for the Exile program before it came to fruition, a sort of death penalty/research ape hybrid wherein the worst of the dregs among the burning earth would be jettisoned from humanity to make observations of their trek before dying sucked into the hell of Jupiter. I was nervous when I put on the wetsuit I’d be kept in, uncomfortable at their insertion of various needles and catheters for processing nutrition. I was in a small black pod in a room with green light and I would be put under and woken up intermittently throughout long enough to ensure my body’s state. A row of rooms underneath the captain’s housed each of our sleeping bodies and would sustain us for the duration with occasional sounds we’d chosen to remind us of home in our rest. Though it had largely been disproven Klimt retained these quirks from missions of old and it comforted me. I chose the sound of waves in San Francisco’s bay and the hum of my home computer. I recorded a meditative bit at Klimt’s prompting where I repeated “calm, warm,” over and over to notes of Glenn Gould’s playing and mumbling stretched and distended to such a degree they were more vibrations than music. In the end going under felt rubbery and awkward. I closed my eyes.
At velocities that rendered much of the interim a clouded blur we were made to sleep for the number of years as best we could. Our stomachs dwindled and became ragged things. Any waking I did between to wander or think was overwhelmed by the vibrating light. We were each encouraged to our solitude as discussion and cohabitation and development and questioning and the like were non-conducive to the project of propelling a body of human animals from one point in the cosmos to another. It wasn’t so much a question of the intervening zones and planets touched, the abrasive bits of detritus from the first Europa missions or the Russian research satellites on Jupiter and all its moons. It was more a question of the body being put to a sort of rest and witnessing nothing in the interim. The body being made to forget its past and be reborn a sort of sopping wet anthropod with ragged limbs and needing endless reassurance as to the state of things. Lines of light then and darkness then and a rotten taste in the air then and no sky but ever-expanding consciousness of dark and movement and the sense of things deteriorating around you until the final stretch of sleep. Three long stretches of imposed sleep and comatose dreaming of childlike things and fairs and the color of the burning in the Pacific Northwest in America the mountains on fire the lot of Idaho on fire the lot of Washington on fire and nobody safe to live anywhere receding to islands to Canada to frozen vistas like Pluto to frozen plains on earth and in the heavens and we’re moving and I am not awake and I can feel my limbs being shocked in dreaming and as soon as we arrive my limbs are deflated my body is a pale dehydrated fruit I watch a blinking green light within my resting place for nineteen hours before attempting to move my limbs and before I can move my limbs they’re moved and the medical staff on board has filled a room with us and is slowly reviving us and I can see the bodies of us near me I can see Ember the botanist I can see Terrence and Ivan the mechanics I can see Klimt I can see Esther the nurse and Kim the ex-military and Martin the ex-military and Sarah the ex-military and the room is limbed in light so I am free to sleep and sleep again until the hours melt.
Klimt said to us overhead on arrival: “when people discuss the Voyager vessels they’re mostly concerned with what evidence might be returned. They want certainty of some beyond. I think of the Voyager 1 and I’m mainly concerned with the sounds of whales or waves crashing on shore, the grandeur of Mozart and the comparatively crude technology in 1977 that made things possible. They wanted to send a message to this beyond. In 1977 they wanted to greet the universe and say hello. They wanted control out here. They wanted the cosmos to know we human beings had existed. What evidence they’ve returned has been questionable at best. We’re out here to right that wrong. We’ve assumed life didn’t exactly exist within our system as we were looking for human life, or something comparable. The golden record, then, ought to have been a message to us over anything else. The crashing of waves, the material that went into the record, the sounding of whales. We need to embrace nonhuman forms of living, communicating, if we’re going to survive and endure what’s to come. If we’re to engage the climate we’d do better to think like the sun, a flame, or mercury. If we’re to engage hunger we’d do better to think as foliage, as growth, as mold, and skip the question of our bodies. The Voyager vessels served as a precedent for what we’re doing out here if only because they’ve amassed inexplicable materials on their hulls through decades of movement. The growth is what we’re concerned with, then, and the prospect of understanding something in non-earthly terms. I thank you all for joining in this endeavor, and I welcome you to come witness our new place.”
The meals furnished by Klimt’s organization were better than anything I’d ever eaten state-funded. I remember eating a large breakfast and sitting and staring as the warmth of it filled my stomach and the bodies hovered around me variously eating or waking up or becoming adjusted to the surrounding scape and I felt the sleepiness that comes from being overfull after months and months and more of regulated metabolism and though I could’ve vomited I steeled myself against retch and hunched over to stare at my still-wet feet in sandals. Eventually I raised my eyes and saw there the face of Klimt, excited.
“What do you think of it?”
“What do I think of it.”
“The Kuiper belt. The furthest touch of man. We’re a fraction of the way toward the hydrogen shell the Next Horizons have discovered. We’re closer to vanishing off the edge of history than any living thing. Isn’t it marvelous?”
“I think it’s marvelous. I agree with you that it is marvelous. I’m incredibly tired, though, sir. I feel more tired than I’ve ever felt, an inner touch reached.”
“It’s wonderful... I’m feeling exhilarated. I cannot wait to pass Charon and settle next to Orpheus 1. This trip is special,” and now Klimt rose to address the sleepy lot of us, “and we are uniquely positioned to share an experience of god with those on earth and the colonies. Things previously thought a sort of divinity will become as palatable and present as your breath. I want to thank you for joining me, as I couldn’t be out here without each and every one of you. En route we’ve had further reports back from the robotics on Orpheus One and made note of fungal characteristics and variations in weather. We’re overwhelmed with data at present but we’ve got work for everyone as soon as you’re ready. Those of you responsible for further data acquisition and analysis will be up first, and we’ll settle into our living out here ASAP.”
What I felt then and near constantly after that on our ship was a sense that Klimt was hovering just outside of each of our levels of comprehension. I don’t know a better way of saying it and that frustrates me. Klimt’s language frustrates me. The ornateness of each sentence and every word pulled from disuse to be utilized for intergalactic naming, all proved constantly confusing and evasive. I remember speaking with a mechanic on lower deck whose job was maintenance of a board of computing hardware that sent out and received radiowaves. His name was Harold and I’d known him in graduate school, at some remove. He talked about the board and only the board in front of him and his purview seemed so limited that he hadn’t registered the masses of planets hovering around us. Neptune on the vague horizon and Pluto directly in sight and even Charon and the misshapen husk of Hydra and the glint of Styx and each of them looking like they could sweep through our ship and the Orpheus 1 without stopping to note abrasion. It was horrifying to see Harold staring thus. I’d seen it in everyone, however. In cooks and pilots and ex-military. Our tasks were reduced such that overlap became not just an impossibility but a nonconcern. I would monitor samples of fungi and various outgrowths of organic matter and find myself lost in that hypnotized state, not registering the rays of color emanating from Pluto and the Orpheus 1 blurred just beyond her shoulder. As we approached the Orpheus 1 the look in Klimt’s eye was unnatural, despotic. The ship was larger than I’d remembered or had been able to gather from imaging. The ship was just a hair smaller than the Cocteau and its mechanisms glowed bright against the total sleep and slow Newtonian movement around us. I felt myself surrounded by this massive cradle of dead civilization or never civilization and the movement of it all as we approached the gray steam-shooting mass of Orpheus 1 was almost too much.
The glow from distant stars and our sun were so faint at the edges of each orb staring out that the light from 1’s robotics glared aggressively. The ship was attempting to maintain itself as it had been programmed and witnessing the system first hand was strange, like walking in on somebody planning something hellish in secret. Those of us concerned with growth and movement watched and listened to Klimt’s mumbling overhead and attempted to take the machinery in. The area where I’d be sent receded into shadow on the far side of a massive gray frame. I realized after a time that the ship’s robotics were attempting to clean and stimulate the hull section by section in a sleepy manner. It reminded me of the shocks in our long good sleep and I was briefly hypnotized by its repetition. Finally seeing it seemed to shake something within those of us who stared. I found myself touching the pads of my fingers against my thumbs in swirling gestures that came to mirror the awkward spindling and reaching of the 1’s robotics. I listened as Klimt mumbled through the overheads and wanted to sleep just then.
So far as I know none of us were made aware of Klimt’s promises before we’d arrived beyond the furthest reach. On arrival we were made aware of Klimt’s promises one by one as we were shown the surroundings and our anxiety reached its height in each of us. My own anxiety came on staring at Charon and realizing the shift in light and its dwindling wasn’t going to be altered or modified, it simply was. The stars were beyond us and our sun was so far behind that the light of this point in the galaxy was simply less. There was less light to be given out. This meant that the computers and servers within the ship were the strongest conductors of light and so surrounding us were blinking haloes of red. The promises were necessary as the mission was indirect for each of us so all of our understandings were already multiple and Klimt seemed to prefer it this way. The engineer thought the first Orpheus needed technical attention. The botanist wondered about the flora. The soldiers worried over invasion. The pilots readied themselves to turn both ships around and return home. The medical staff prepared for any emergency and extremes of climate and disorder outside the walls of the Cocteau. I picked at a bit of skin on my big toe that looked as if it might begin to blacken. I fussed over possibilities of growth and the implications thereof. I worried. I thought about my GI tract as a row of growing mushrooms in the window of some alien species. Their influence might already have attached to us without our knowing and this might’ve been Klimt’s ambition all the while.
So we had the promises. The medical staff received promises of awards back on earth for their discoveries. The soldiers received promises regarding the vanquishing of our greatest foreign enemy. The engineers received promises of great technical disorder and their chance to fix it. This, like any other reason, became a way in which I didn’t fit again. Klimt made me promises to do with my family, my father, and communication with some beyond. The growth on the side of the initial Orpheus became a sort of portal, a godlike substance through which my questions might be answered. Klimt seemed convinced of this even as he imbibed draughts of liquid made up of variants of cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, etc. He paced his quarters with me seated there late into the night proclaiming victory over matters of time based on his initial interpretations of the substance. I asked him what all of it meant.
“Our sample data of this substance melded onto the Orpheus One seems to indicate a connection to most known diseases back on earth, and their curing in turn. Not unlike our use of vaccines made of fragments of the diseases themselves, this substance seems to simultaneously engage both poison and antidote without anything lost in between. The common streptococcus pneumoniae exists alongside a vanquishing dose of antibiotics and neither cancels the other out. Time does not exist within the substance and thus sickness and wellness rotate in perpetuity and I’m certain what can be extracted from this is a perpetual engagement with our own lives and their transpiring alongside the transpiring and living of all those lives who’ve touched our own. I’ve seen early iterations of the HIV bug swarm antiretrovirals in microscopic footage that shouldn’t be possible, shouldn’t make sense, and likely don’t for their insistence on a languagelessness of pure disease, pure cure, pure disorder and pure panacea. It’s an endless loop. It’s an ouroboros of bacteria and fungi and you have the opportunity to engage it and likely change our view of these concerns for all time. This is what I promise you.”
While I had wanted a promise from Klimt as I’d heard of them being handed around the ship since we’d settled in, I had hoped for a sense of clarity on our arrival, a task that I could complete and earn my place, some work. Klimt’s use of drugs had raised concern for each of us in turn, and there were rumors that he’d been making attempts to modify himself on our long journey out here. What became clear to me just then was where we were. A ship that far from contact, from opportunity, from difference, functions as a sort of prison. The piecemeal knowledge of our efforts served as the tight schedules kept in prisons and the emphasis on the here and now. Klimt wanted to obliterate a sense of time. Klimt wanted to create a drug that functioned as its own infection in turn. There were rumors of this sort of thing emanating from a hundred private research vessels back on earth and in the colonies. Medicine had hit a standstill on earth when war became the foremost concern and thus high-minded men and women were determined to advance our ability to vanquish disease and disorder the moment we left our atmosphere. I wanted to be comforted by Klimt’s promise, I wanted to feel whole again, less tired and twitchy. I felt anxious at Klimt’s promise, like a world had slipped beneath my feet. He paced and paced and sweat poured from him.
I had spent the first days of our arrival staring out at the Orpheus 1 and its hulking frame, and the small glint of activity discernible within the mass Klimt seemed so fixated upon. It showed in muted blacks and grays with specks of light or shine occasionally beaming back and creating the illusion of movement. Klimt’s insistence seemed insane, and I wondered about the promises he’d made to all the rest of us and what they’d left out of their descriptions to me. My father had died when research into Leukemia was reaching its height, and as a result had opted for natural death compared to entry into one of the Lunar Colonies’ drug trials. They’d achieved some levels of success utilizing extraterrestrial materials mixed with old variations of chemotherapy and osteopathy, but their projected timelines always reached so far away that my father couldn’t bear the thought of enduring them. He was old, and aging, and though everyone around us seemed fixated on the possibilities of other planets and their atmospheric levels in terms of treating this or that disease, my father held fast to his associations with earth. I had heard of astronauts experiencing godlike premonitions regarding dead loved ones, especially those who’d visited other planets, but my father had barely ever ventured beyond earth’s orbit, so Klimt’s revelations felt a bit obscene as he proclaimed them from some drugged mania.
His assertion, so far as I could gather, had to do with the notion of time as it related to the growth of organic matter on earth, and what difference might be required for organic matter to grow and persist beyond our atmosphere. Studies had been done about the types of flora that might be put to growth in lunar scapes, or Martian ones; but these were typically done in such a way that fragments of atmosphere were introduced to already thriving plants—based on earth’s composition—and the majority of them died or wilted quickly or immediately. Fungus, oddly enough, proved the most promising, and it was this that brought me on this trip along with a botanist—the thinking was that my own education into these matters would slightly alter my understanding in comparison with our botanist’s, which made sense to a certain extent. Fungi are compelling for their makeup, their contrast to flora that exist as distinct parts making up a whole—a root, a stem, a bud, etc. Fungi, in many cases, carry similar makeup from their stem throughout and even on earth will alter considerably depending on their exposure to the surrounding air. I’ve stepped on mushrooms in rural Wisconsin that immediately changed to a mush of yellow and then deep blue in quick sequence. I’ve eaten mushrooms that altered colors in a similar manner in controlled studies while a graduate student. I’ve used salves of mushroom to heal everything from poison ivy to extreme coughs that won’t let up. Hearing Klimt talk about them in such a way, then, wasn’t nearly as surprising as his association with real instances of time—beginning, middle, end—and the ways in which this growth might alter our conception entirely. The psilocybin mushrooms I’d eaten reminded me of the mushrooms that altered their composition because of my work analyzing fungus, not because of some inherent connection. Klimt seemed convinced that cause and effect were more directly linked, and that the color-shifting fungi on the forest ground in Wisconsin had a direct relationship to the mental experiences one could encounter having ingested psilocybin.
I sat down alone in my bed with the curtain drawn so as to avoid any potential correspondence with anyone who’d then experienced the extremity of Klimt’s mindset and our objectives. I lay there staring out the window at Charon’s and Pluto’s relationships and watching their slow progressions against one another and the discernible differences and movements between the two of them. Neither shone particularly strongly compared with the lights of the Cocteau immediately outside the window, but both seemed to communicate in a compelling binary relationship I felt obligated to parse. I stared at the growth again on the Cocteau 1 and felt myself pulled into Klimt’s story, his narration. An ouroboros fit strangely better than most genetic models for materials discovered outside of earth’s orbit. Organic compounds found beyond our atmosphere often related to one another constantly rather than one existing and rendering the other inert. The gases that made up Jupiter for instance didn’t render the mass of Europa perpetually frozen, but both seemed to require one another to create the massive composite system and the extreme pull of Jupiter that made in-depth exploration impossible. Europa, however, could be explored, and we’d inferred from years of analyzing both that there had to be connections between its makeup and the makeup of Jupiter in turn. One a frozen orb of possible organic matter underneath, nagging at our satellites and telescopes until we’d landed. The other a mass of poisonous air allowing not just orbit but engagement, binary communication between its moons that we could then experience in morse waves.
The argument, then, would be that the Kuiper belt created a similar organic tendency or makeup that allowed for growths like those on earth, but with variation in terms of one thriving and the other dying. Disease was just one possibility, I gathered, that Klimt could’ve focused on in analyzing the material. A variant on the hepatitis C virus, for instance, could just as easily have been the successful growth of spores in various caves in North America. Both required circumstances in which to generate and regenerate, and both would collapse outside of these zones. Klimt’s assertion, though extreme, wasn’t entirely implausible, then. It took some mental stretching, but I wanted to believe as he did in the possibility of organic compounds simultaneously existing with their opposite as it had been established on earth. The promise of these compounds existing together in deep space or on Pluto’s surface even would imply an entirely new relationship to disease and growth, one wherein harmful or prosperous materials wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of one another, but could instead mean an unforeseen relationship we still needed to figure out.
When you’re tasked with evaluating materials further away from your home planet than any previous human body had touched, the process of leaving can seem far too quick. Klimt wanted me exploring the exterior of the Orpheus 1 as soon as we had settled and had medical evaluations, and though I dawdled as much as possible so as to mentally adjust myself for whatever might be happening, I still felt rushed and strange, nauseated and expended. Klimt spoke to me alone as we sat in lower deck staring at image after image of photographs sent from the small orbiter pods the Orpheus mission’s vessels all utilized after loss of human influence. At times the material latching itself to the exterior looked like mounds and caverns on some near moon, at others they simply looked like smudges of dirt, and occasionally they looked like scrapings, the influence of some alien vessel barreling into its ribs.
“What is apparent to you in these images?” Klimt asked.
“It looks like mold, sir. It looks like a sort of mold, an unwanted growth. Something.”
“Are you prepared to analyze it personally? Face-to-face? Are you prepared?” Klimt’s bottle of cocktail never left him at this point, and nobody quite knew what its contents were, and nobody quite cared. He’d reached a sort of tyrannical status on the ship, and wended his way throughout like a snake with secrets. He’d ask questions and forget he’d asked them. He was fraying.
“I’m prepared, sir, though I’m not sure what to make of my efforts. I’m not sure what you think it is I’ll do. The ship’s robotics might’ve cut a sample years ago if I’m honest. What are you seeing that I can’t?”
“Sometimes vulnerability is necessary to fully understand substance. I’ve chosen individuals for this mission capable of a certain kind of vulnerability, and yours and our botanist’s will perhaps prove the most essential.”
“What kind of vulnerability exactly? I’m prepared to accept an alternate sense of time out here. I’m prepared to witness a disease and cure in simultaneity, but beyond that I’m interested in growth alone. Fungi are communicative as a scab is communicative. Whatever language they have could’ve been transmitted via sampling.”
Klimt took a long drink and stared down at a reflective glow in the corner of the room.
“I am, as ever, skeptical of the human influence, the presence of the human. To me, then, our work out here is about transcending humanity. Machines have been essential to become certain of our efforts out here, but little more. If we’re talking about disease, if we’re talking about time, if we’re talking about unwanted matter, we’re talking about them through the lens of our experience and thus—preferable though it might’ve been—a human touch will always rank slightly higher than purely impartial mechanical analysis. Our point was to come out here, to be out here, and to experience things that the Orpheus One has only ever hinted at, sent back home with broken pixels and artificial light. I need you vulnerable as prey on earth is vulnerable. I need you present as an insect under threat. We have to be here, and touch this place, first hand. Nothing short will suffice,” at this Klimt stopped pacing in front of me and sat at chair nearest the window and looked out. Sweat dripped from his forehead and his eyes were mad. He looked at me as if profoundly disappointed and turned away. I returned to my quarters and sat in repeated red light blinking. I stared out as Klimt stared out and watched the impossible churn of Pluto.
What I saw communicated feeling more than bit or blip of information. We were in this place, beyond what’s known. Within the Kuiper Belt and experiencing things according to a new god’s definitions and demarcations. I never stopped being tired on the ship. The months and more of coma had pushed me to some wit’s end and I never stopped wanting to fall over and sleep for good. I wanted to rest. I wanted to feel myself asleep. I wanted to pull the blankets up and over my face and fall to sleep. The ship’s mechanics hummed and warmed against my moods, and I wanted to lean into them for rest. The engineers had bickered our first awakening about the materials onboard the Orpheus 1, sure throughout their speech that if we wanted to we could push on into known planets with healthful atmospheres and leave behind the stuff of earth. This troubled me, perhaps more than Klimt’s antics troubled me. Klimt was determined to make this particular image, our status amid the moons and Pluto astride these two ships, into a sort of masterpiece all its own. A reaching out to some figure that future generations might use as a linchpin to human progress throughout the cosmos. This felt alright to me, and he’d sold me on as much when I agreed to come along. These engineers, though, and certain medical staff whose names flitted by as all of them were hung in beams of red and shadow, they seemed determined to make this trip a perpetual one, and I wasn’t sure how to explain to them the vitality of this particular organism compared with any vision they’d imagined.
What I saw transcended talk of movement. What I was able to discern about the material from looking at these images and noting numbers communicated back to us via the Orpheus 1’s still-functioning hardware was organic, it moved and seemed to grow or weep according to the positioning of Pluto’s lights and flits and this alone was more significant than anything we’d seen communicated back from planets as far as Neptune in as many as a hundred years. We were always searching, as a people, and those of us near to our profession especially so. You don’t develop an ability to analyze fungal growth beyond breath without also considering the history that’s brought you here. From Tombaugh on to the first successful colonies I’d understood that a shift in destiny seemed inevitable. As earthbound beings attempted to account for the possible swallowing of the sun or the burning out of all our living, those of us who looked outward and into the possibility beyond had to remain convinced that our search could prove a base, profound instinct correct, an optimism we couldn’t shake for any ream of data that our living did not finish with our time on earth. What I saw, then, seemed to communicate the possibility of growth in an area previously thought barren and cold as the husk of Europa. Klimt’s theories didn’t have to be proven right to make this a fundamental shift in our understanding. The existence of even the slightest tinge of organic matter could shift all thought possible thus far.
I equipped myself slowly in the pod bay while Klimt ranted to me about his hopes. He was chewing on nicotine lozenges and grinding through several at once. His eyes looked like he hadn’t closed them in weeks. His hair was frenzied. His hands were cold to the touch as he assisted.
“I’ve put us here in the face of this with the body of humankind in mind. I’ve put us out beyond the reaches with the body in mind. I’m worshipful of all possibility out here. Do you feel the strength out here?”
“I feel the cold out here, Klimt. I feel the dark out here.”
“That cold, though, that absence of sun, is the host of everything out here, the endless potential. We have to wait and we have to ingest this world out here. The obsessives who discovered this place knew we’d someday reach it. The minds that put the code together for our journey knew we’d see it. We have to be open. We have to be vulnerable. We have to welcome the cold. You see these masses. These growths. These growths became thus despite the absence of sun. Everything back there, the colonies, all of it has required at least some glint of sun. These seem to have grown in shadow. Their timelessness could only occur thus. We are witnessing growth despite the absence of sun.”
“I don’t disagree, Klimt. I need my time with them is all. These growths. If so, I need my time with them is all.”
“I believe that you are a child of the stars. I believe that each of us are children of these stars. Most look at what I’m doing out here and see a mania. They see an individual of earth, of earthly things. I am trying to reach beyond our earth, our earthly concerns. I have no use for them anymore, and we are safe out here to be, to wonder, to float. You must hold onto this hope and trust it. It’s all that ever got us outside of our own heads.”
I had suited up then and sat down on a small bench that sat between Klimt and the exit. We’d had a strange stretch of weeks and I remained tired. My eyes were always bloodshot and my hands were always cold. I had spoken with those responsible for kinds of analysis and I had spoken with Klimt and I had wandered around feeling glum and strange but settled, the tiredness always there. My hands felt strange in the suit and I could feel the wave of anxiety that came with leaving. The small space I now occupied felt like something significant. Klimt was always in my ear trying to clarify what was happening. I was tired and confused, dazed. Regardless of circumstance, always some anxiety. I remember retrieval missions orbiting earth to accumulate the garbage and wreckage of past decades and my palms sweating so heavily I thought my gloves would slip from their mounts and I’d be sucked to freezing immediately. I remember leaving earth’s atmosphere and the strange dip sensation in my skull as I looked out. I always felt this to at least a small degree. I wasn’t necessarily cut out for this but we lived in a time where that didn’t matter or change a thing. We had to leave. The alarm bells were sounding for our humanity and we had to escape this place. This was merely one of hundreds of small last ditch efforts being undertaken by would-be saviors of humanity in the face of burning out and all that feeling seemed to well up in me as I prepared to leave the comfort of the vessel.
The binary of Pluto and Charon made settling into my status strange. I was tethered to the Cocteau with quicklock straps holding me to the Orpheus 1 and the masses of Pluto and Charon completely disoriented me. Everything seemed bound up in these two hulking figures and their pull of one another. I remembered the ancient images attempting to prove their state and the small specks around them like tumors in the bloodstream. The distant Styx shone in constant movement alongside broken Nix and further out in the strange binary orbit I thought I might see Kerberos and Hydra, but for all my staring I really only noted the two massive binary orbs and attempting to rein in my thinking to the task at hand. The material on the exterior of Orpheus 1 looked a bit like globs of ash, as if a child had packed small towers of wet black sand into structures resembling toadstools and houses in the forest. I removed a radiation surveyor from my hip and scanned over them, sending back yet more data to the Cocteau. I ran a finger along the corner of them and felt initial shock on realizing how firm the material was, as solid as any chunk of marble in earth’s atmosphere. I removed a small scraper from a pocket at my calf and attempted to slide it beneath the material only to scrape a bit of silver from the husk of the Orpheus 1 in the process. Klimt sounded in my headset and discouraged me from further trying to excavate the material.
“That’s enough of it there. You don’t need any more of it. Encase it and bring it back.”
I wanted to continue exploring and didn’t understand Klimt’s certainty and discouragement from further testing this material. I ran a hand along the bulk of the growth and noted the firmness and apparent differences in makeup from one side of the material to the other. I lifted the small sample to my face to further look at it and felt the horror looming as Charon overwhelmed my vision just above the material. I felt a sinking in my stomach I couldn’t explain and then the slow tug of my tether returning me to the Cocteau. I unlatched my quicklock straps as fast I could and held the small container encasing the material under my right arm as I turned to face the Cocteau and Klimt’s manic visage emanating from a small sphere in the pod bay. I felt sick.
On my re-entry I was quarantined briefly and shot head-to-toe with pressurized air and bleach and I saw Klimt staring at me outside and he was smiling. The smear of black on my gloved fingers reacted to the bleach and spread and had the cleaner not moved quickly I might’ve lost the flesh beneath. I reached out my hands and I looked at Klimt and attempted to meet his smile but he was laughing slightly. The porthole coated in steam at the gasps from his mouth and I turned to the cleaner to settle myself. The container was on the floor and after a nod Klimt reached in to grab it and I sat there gasping for some time after. A small room opposite the door Klimt quickly shut contained a shower and I stripped off the remainder of my gear and went inside. I needed to sit down and I needed to collect myself. The black on my gloves made me uncomfortable. The water felt good over my skin and the dark felt good and the environment felt visceral against me and I welcomed it. I couldn’t see Klimt anymore and I didn’t care. I prepared myself mentally for the analysis I’d set to after getting some rest. I wanted to put my feet up and eat something unhealthy. I still felt sick and I could see Klimt laughing still. I held my stomach and attempting to ignore the world as the shower steamed up and the room remained a warming dark against my flesh.
I woke up later to blinking red light and the noise of Klimt clearing his throat overhead. We were told to come and meet with him. I’d slept and everything felt heavy. I’d dreamt of my father and it felt like the air was pressing me down with warmth. The blinking light became hypnotic and I stared and stared until I heard Klimt’s voice again. I rolled onto my stomach and felt the weight. My hands were stinging and my heart was beating slow and pronounced in my chest and I stumbled against the walls in standing. I didn’t want to think of what Klimt needed. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep. I hadn’t thought about time after the first several weeks and I had no idea what precisely was happening. I’d been able to sleep much longer after the good sleep in our travel and it seemed like days might’ve passed. I exited into the hall and similarly sleepy people were making their way toward his voice and stumbling. Klimt continued to mumble to himself and I heard the tink of glass as I approached a looming light and his voice moved from overhead to in front of me and pressed my chest as everybody milled about in some concern. The red lights continued to blink.
“I remember when I was younger my mother showing me the films of Jean Cocteau. As a young man I’d been interested in the poem, and we’d watched the Disney iterations of The Beauty and the Beast and the like. I was at least a bit familiar with the French sense of creation and art. My mother was passionate about these things, obsessive about her children and a wider sense of things. It wasn’t until she showed me Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy that I understood something about our place within the cosmos. Art, and creation, in these films, is treated not as something merely to entertain, or to distract from living, but as a reaching into the very marrow of living. Purposeful, Cocteau’s artists are based in myth and history. The black and white never bothered me. Even as a youth I was quite fond of looking at old photographs, looking where we are now. I was captivated. I took this to extend to all creation. Every moment a human animal takes a set of materials from the world in front of him and says it must be turned to something different, a fundamental part of our living is enacted. That’s why I’ve attempted to extend our reach out here, our touch, into this underworld. That’s what I think of when I think of these ships. And that’s what I see, now, in the generation of this material gathered by our resident fungal obsessive,” with this Klimt held high the container I’d used to store the material from the exterior of the Orpheus 1, the room was lit dimly with lamps meant to emulate the effects of a candle on the walls of a log cabin, so as to calm the human beings therein, “what this represents, is an eternity. What this represents, is our enduring. Like Cocteau, each of us must spread our interests wider than the generations previous. We must be vulnerable. Each of us must open ourselves to the possibility of the beyond, of the great god of dark Pluto, and the endlessly sleeping world we’ve left behind. Still. The blood of a poet burns within this container, and it’s fundamental now we take it into ourselves to wake.” Up until that moment everyone had fidgeted in circles emanating out from Klimt. Some of us felt off, I think, but all of us were dead tired. Something might’ve been wrong, but we’d begun to witness Klimt as a sort of theater. We’d all grown accustomed to Klimt’s meandering thought processes and decided to accept them along with the manifold vagaries of this endeavor. We had to accept it, like so many other things on entering the world of Klimt. We would’ve lost it otherwise. This, however, I doubt if any of us had considered this.
Klimt raised his hand holding the container and brought it down to the metal surface in front of him to smash it open. The container was made of modified glass meant to endure any changes in temperature or surrounding material, but on impact it shattered and fairly quickly a smell emanated from the case like burning fuel. The ash fungi I’d pulled from the hull of the Orpheus 1 shot outward in waves of smoke and light, and the room seemed to stand still in shock as we gathered ourselves only to witness Klimt writhing on the floor with black foam pouring from his lips. He seemed to smile. Those of us awake enough could barely stare, all of us felt weak in the face of it, all of us wanted to simple curl up then and weep.
Those in the room smart enough to cover their faces looked at me in horror as I attempted to gather myself and figure a plan of moving forward. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed one of Klimt’s legs and amassed what I could of the fungus to pull it all with me and dragged it to the pod bay where he’d come from. Those behind me looked sickly and a few had begun to spew the black pus Klimt had leaked behind him. I pointed at an emergency station and screamed to remove the bleach and cover the floors in it in an attempt to neutralize anything organic the material contained. I covered my face with a sleeve ripped from my suit and set Klimt on the floor nearest the door next to the writhing and decaying bits of organic matter moving there. I grabbed a disposal container and placed the discoloring limbs of Klimt inside and attempted to gather my thoughts as to the material. I looked back and the room seemed to be settling, with an engineer and soldier decaying on the floor not unlike Klimt. I pointed to their disposal containers and gestured for them to move. The medical staff tended to the remaining souls in the far corner and the bleach seemed to be working to neutralize the small remainder of material exuding from the dying’s lips and what Klimt had left behind. I couldn’t think of anything until I realized the material Klimt had smashed open had begun to dissipate and flood the air around me. Even through the security of my sleeve and the suit’s protective layers I began to feel an itch at the back of my throat and worried I’d already inhaled some of the material. The lights around me began to take on aural depths and the room through the orb looked as if it was in flames. I felt panic flood into my chest and I hurried to the shelving across the pod bay to cover myself with another’s suit and put on my mask and breathing apparatus.
Klimt had withered on the floor and I tried to keep him near me. The disposal containers slide through an encased plastic tunnel to remove them from the hall where we’d been. I could see a bit through the porthole and it looked to be settling. Faces were surrounded in glow and dark shadows and it took what strength I had to prepare for expulsion.
There’s a feeling of anxiety that’s as visceral as dying, I figure. There’s a bubbling in the chest and it seems as if every drop of bile you’ve been utilizing to break down matter is suddenly revolting against the system and your body is going to fall apart. I felt myself consumed by anxiety and the fire at the back of my throat as the lights began to overwhelm me. The room began to blur and I felt the fading breaths and murmurs of Klimt on the floor as I saw the air slowly filled with the grayblack smoke from the material. It had changed its form several times since being smashed to bits by Klimt and now it simply looked like an obscure dense vapor that seemed to want to touch everything in the room. It reached out. I was vulnerable. I felt myself losing grip and seeing images of my living and my family and my father staring at me as the room seemed wet with shadow. I heard the screaming of the ship’s remaining living and felt my chest pound and fill with rot as I saw my father next to me and reaching his hand out to me and feeling it grip mine. My father had passed far away and I’d never seen him close to his death. I’d never gotten to say goodbye to him really and never experienced the final comfort of an embrace from the man. He felt there and visceral and as real and gripping as my rotting guts and I stared him right in the eyes and felt him pulling me. I powered up my suit’s particulars and held my father close to me and stared at the writhing mess on the floor of Klimt bagged up commingling with the materials and felt myself being pulled ever further and further from myself and the ship and the pod bay until I saw the light of the orb and the way out into Charon and Pluto’s connected binary and felt my chest pound in that direction as I grabbed hold of the disposal containers and Klimt and the remaining bits of glassine material on the floor and what fragments of the fungus I could gather. I pulled it to me and held the lot of it to my heart as my father held me and I pushed my head to the apparatus on the wall that would open and remove the contents of the pod bay immediately to jettison us without tether into some beyond. I looked up and saw my father on the mounds of Charon and leaping between the skies to Pluto and breathed deeply only to further imbibe the material until suddenly the sky was thick with light and all I felt was my father’s warmth in my guts emanating as the bagged remains of Klimt pressed and bound themselves to the black pox spreading itself across the husk of Orpheus 1.
I have no confidence the remaining passengers of the Cocteau weren’t made to slowly decay from the materials on-board and whether they survived. I feel no sense of comfort gliding outward and beyond as the reach of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt pulls me and I’m made to stare at the massive white orb and its red and blue and strange hues lining the edges with light and mixing endlessly with my father and the feel of heft in my chest brought on by rot and the sad communications from the ship behind me and their speaking. I know I have become consumed by the material and I don’t feel a need to exchange this living for one back on-board the ship with the souls who will comfort me and coat me in bleach and make the light stop growing at the edges of my vision. I feel myself alone in this place and terrified a bit but still entirely connected with my father’s living and the feeling of him in my gut as it’s rotting and the edges of Pluto shift and enliven along with my limbs as they’re brought to life from atrophy in occasional shocks and the headset attempts to tell me where to go and how to breathe and how to sustain myself. I am moving and there is no end. Klimt is back somewhere decaying and bound it seems to the husk of Orpheus 1. The crew might very well have left. They might be headed home centuries after our departure to find their place and convey their information. The material might’ve brought about hallucinations such that none or all of this is happening in perpetuity. A choice between the infinite coexisting realities and the prospect of returning is impossible. I am contained within the suit and seeing the light and can feel myself growing in hallucination and the worlds around me lined with shadow as my chest swells with rot and the dying is very likely consuming me. The material is consuming me and I haven’t an idea of its contents, its makeup. I have no inkling of what’s what and my memories have grown beyond the journey Klimt dragged us on to my children that never lived and my father that never died and my living that will ever and forever emanate around this belt of hulking stones and all of it tears at me and brings me down and I am living within the history and dying within it in turn and sweltering with the heat and bound up frigid from the cold of space as the world jettisons me and I am cast ever outward into the mass oblivion and rot.