The Rituals We Observe

January 10, 2021

When we first landed on this planet we knew that we were pioneers, and as such our lives were going to be tough. Some of my colleagues – those who could trace their ancestry back to the United States of America – drew strength from the idea that their Old Country was built on that pioneering spirit. (Never mind that such ancestry barely stretched back into the final years of that dying country!)

Me, with my roots in the United Kingdom – should I have drawn on some ideas of Empire? Even, dare I say it, colonialism? Maybe that would have helped me. Except that, for a start, people who look like me were more likely, back then, to be colonised than colonising; to be getting ‘civilised’ and brutalised than swanning around in a sedan chair or whatever it would have been.

The real struggle here started about three months after we’d arrived to establish our little bubble of Earth in this fantastic environment. To look outside our pods was to see an exotic landscape of trees and flowers, like – yet so unlike – Earth’s rainforests.

We never saw anything we’d consider an ‘animal’, but the place looked… comfortable. Yet, sadly, the atmosphere here is toxic to humans, the vegetation no more nutritious than the geology underneath them. And so we stayed indoors, or ventured out in sealed suits to do our Science.

And then something on this planet seemed keen to throw us back into space. One-off comments among the crew about a ‘string of bad luck’ evolved into jokes about Murphy’s Law, and then a curse. The laughter triggered by talk of an ‘angry deity’ was a little too uneasy, forced. ‘Forbidden Planet’ felt like more than just a reference to an old film.

Electrical storms fried out radios and set our outposts alight. Flash floods washed away our temporary camps. These micro-events stretched barely metres beyond their ‘targets’.

A few of the team took this very seriously; worryingly so. When things went well they tried to remember how they had gone about their day. Had they left through the aft hatch? Had the darkest-haired gone first? They uttered silent, and later not so silent, prayers to the Invisible. If their trip went unmolested, they did the same thing the next day, until they’d built a suite of rituals.

I for one couldn’t see a pattern in their successes, and everyone had their own variations that they swore by. I wondered whether to intervene, to put a stop to this idiocy. But in some ways it was a useful idiocy – if it allowed my team to go about their duties without fear.

I said I couldn’t see a pattern, but one thing did start getting to me: I came to fear a meteor shower, which occured irregularly every few months. It took out anything we left unattended near Base Camp, except the ship we would use should we need to leave the planet.

This ever-impending disaster, and the planning needed to ‘fool’ it into missing our equipment, gave me sleepless nights. And that was before I noticed that it always occurred on Friday 13th, as we reckoned it.