POTENTIALLY HABITABLE PLANET NUMBER 603
JUSTIN LAWRENCE DAUGHERTY
Cyan looks to the crash-landed space ship, a shattered egg dropped to the ground. She thinks to remove her helmet before she tests the atmosphere for oxygen, to feel the rush before the moment of life or death. She looks to the hills of machine parts all around her, the roving bear-like robots devouring metal. She looks to the sky to see if it burns yellow or purple from the chemical reactions she does not understand. She presses her hand to her rib, to her chest, to her shoulder, tests for breaking. She speaks into her recorder, shudders, then starts: Potentially Habitable Planet Number 603. I’m about to find out if I can breathe. If there are no other recordings—even though this will never reach you—know that I did this for you. She decompresses the suit, unlatches the helmet, removes it and drops it to the ground.
She inhales, waits for her bones to explode.
Cyan floats through the caverns of ruined steel. She makes notes of the lifeforms. She comes to a city built in the wood of god-sized trees. She wonders how far away from home she has wandered. She thinks of all the space between her and him. The robots in the city do not try to kill her. They speak and she does not understand their languages of want. She befriends a fish being and they go to the fish being’s home and she eats something she cannot name, but tastes vaguely of cinnamon, flour, and potato. The fish being gives her a room to sleep in. She records a distress call that is not distressed. She tells her lover to come rescue her, to find her at the edge of the universe. In the movie version of this story, she might long for home, looking to the stars through the window, trying to find the blue pearl adrift in the sea of night sky, searching constellations for atlases.
Cyan is mistaken for a wanted interstellar criminal. She flees the city in a stolen spacecar. There is freedom, she thinks, in fugitive. Robot hunters pursue her to the edges of a wasteland. A metal sand worm swallows her ship and inside is a sunken city. In the city, everyone is a prophet or amnesiac. No one can tell her if his hands thread through another woman’s hair, if he writes her letters he puts in rockets sent to locate her. She plots her redemption, counts on the universe’s inclination toward balance. She tells an amnesiac, he’ll be 1,000 years dead when I reach him. She lays on her back, listens for the worm’s electric heart. She listens for the mechanic opera of everything’s humming.
Cyan escapes through the mouth of the worm, heads in a direction she calls northwest. She lingers in the comfort of being followed. In an ever-burning forest, she encounters the rebellion. She asks them to define justice. She wants to know how they plan to remake the world. A woman brings her a wounded reptile-bird. She cries for its slowing. The woman hands Cyan a shovel, asks her to dig until she forgives.
A towering wolfman tells Cyan she is chosen, that she will depose a space king, that she will save the universe from the heat death, that she will find love again. She tells her secrets to the recorder, deletes them. These were never meant for you. She drowns the recorder in a sea of oil. What she leaves behind is a failing heart, is a white dwarfing star.
The villain reveals himself. The villain breathes through a machine, is drowning in his water-filled lungs. A space witch tells him of Cyan’s future glories. He dispatches his best assassin. He watches the planet from the top of his tower. He knows the loneliness of pursuit. He receives visions of his possible deaths. In all of them the feeling of sinking in water, of envying ocean-bound beasts and their organs better suited for life.
She is supposed to be searching for a planet to replace her dying one. She is supposed to save her people. Her words no longer reach the ears they’re supposed to and recording her findings is like burying a healing thing alive. She makes notes on the richness of oxygen, the fertility of soil. There is an assassin in pursuit and yet all she knows is how to tell her world that there is something here for you. She records. Remember when we talked about me leaving? How long ago that was. I’ve seen enough now to know what I want. You’ll never believe how hard the universe tries to avoid sustaining life. How unlikely it is that we find anyone like us. I know you’re there, skywatching. I want to tell you I’m not coming home, but not because I don’t want to find you where I am.
The assassin is blue-tongued and purple-skinned. The assassin is the very best at what he does. The assassin stops for food only when he needs someone to talk to. The assassin wants to know if he is valued. The assassin tracks Cyan and learns where she is but purposely delays the meeting so he can savor the waiting. In a diner, the assassin eats a blackbird pie and tells his server, I was destined for greatness once. He tips well and cleans the table of crumbs. He finds her, they battle. She defeats him, turns his head so he may watch the dawn. This is so nice, he says, this is the best I could hope for.
The end battle does not matter. The space king loses and there is a rising of birds into the sky; or, a fresh rain falls to wash away the old; or, a newborn animal rises from its nest, opens her eyes for the first time, spreads her wings. What matters is this: she is hurt and alone. Cyan heals her broken body at the edge of the universe and there is no way to tell anyone she knows that she is alive, is ready, that if he’s still waiting, she will stay where she is and make a home until it is time to leave.
Cyan avoids the celebration or the planning of better days. She makes a home in the countryside and lives quiet away from the ruins. She records to tell everyone back home how great things are here, how inclined toward growth and reproduction. She takes a walk into the hills. She names the plants and the hills and the animals around her. She walks until she finds ocean, until water stretches to meet sky. She makes castles in the black sand. Here, too, she finds shells on the beach in which she can hear the waves. She wonders if this works the other way, if the ocean hears the world outside it when it listens to seashells. She whispers a secret—something about him, or home, or something inconsequential, or something so important that whoever listens will be filled with life. She hurls the shell and returns it to the sea. This is the place, she thinks, and she knows the words will never find them, but she hopes anyhow for the thought to speed through the universe, fast and determined as light.