THE EDICT OF THANATOS
January 21, 2022
by Carl Taylor
Free on Planet Spiro
I asked them to bury me alive.
Big heaps of purple mud that smelled of the flowers and grasses it would nourish. Back home I always thought the soil smelled of death, of rot. Ours is an old world. Now that I’m imprisoned on Earth, what I wouldn’t give to be shipwrecked again on Spiro. If only the sand in the hourglass could defy gravity. If only time wasn’t a one-way street.
“Do you see?” the Spirians shouted. It was important to them that I believed as they did. I knew I couldn’t submit too easily. There, as on Earth, inclusion must be earned, demonstrated. It’s a visual society, masculine.
“Not yet,” I said, my mouth caked in that fragrant dirt. I remember my body was tingling all over, like a pulsing orb.
“More,” they shouted in unison. The master of ceremonies pushed a square button and another load of thick, granular mud slopped onto my shoulders. I barely felt the impact, buried as I was.
I knew that above me they were gathered in a geometric pattern, fencing me in with arms locked and giddy expressions stuffing their faces. It was hot under the mound, perhaps one hundred and twenty degrees. They promised this was the last ceremony, my final ‘rebirth.’
Already I had been burned, drowned, hung, dropped, poisoned, and electrocuted. Their intent was not to take my life, but to edge me close enough to the abyss that my mind might open to their brand of mysticism. Do not judge them harshly. I had asked for this, begged to become a formal part of their society.
I kept it a secret that I had more tolerance for physical pain than they. What must have felt like a nice jolt of electricity to their systems seemed like mere static to a human body. They dropped me from a height of four feet. Even while buried, there was no more than fifty or sixty pounds of mud weighing me down. It almost felt therapeutic.
“Do you now see through the eyes of Thanatos?” the MC asked. Why Thanatos?—perhaps I should explain.
Upon reaching maturity, each member of their community is assigned a personal spirit guide. They assigned me Thanatos, a three-eyed crustacean who lives in deposits of sand and is fluent in every language, known and unknown.
“Yes,” I said, I gasped through the detritus. “I now see through the clever eyes of Thanatos.” (I chose the adjective ‘clever’ because there was no quality they held in higher esteem.) My lips butterflied as I spoke, trying to brush the mud away. My arms were tangled underneath me like a mess of cotton candy.
“What does Thanatos say?” the MC asked, her voice tunneling down to my ears with a rattling hiss.
“Thanatos says you should unearth me now,” I murmured.
“Very well,” said their leader. Our leader. “Remove the human, who henceforth shall be guided by the three noble eyes of Thanatos.”
Chains rattled, and soon I was dislodged from my mulchy grave. I was met with approving howls, big-throaty cheers, and neutered pats on my ankles and shins. The denizens of Spiro are small, averaging a height of perhaps three feet at maturity. On Spiros I quite enjoyed everyone looking up at me.
I was led onto a platform where the MC waited with a broad smile. “Commence the bath,” she yelled. As on many planets, on Spiro water symbolizes life. A giant hose made of reeds and dried mud blew aromatic water at my face and all over my purpled torso, washing all the grit off while I held onto the ceremonial dais to steady myself.
“Hands off,” the MC growled. “Riolte says it’s bad form to touch the sacred.” Riolte was the name of her spirit—imagine something like a cross between a rattlesnake and a feral cat. Every spirit was unique, one for each member of their society. There were literally thousands of these entities.
The MC wore an elaborate scarf that covered most of her skeletal frame. The material delicate and bright, orange as their rusted oceans. When I removed my grimy paw the MC resumed her smile, and I closed my eyes as the jets of honeyed water cleansed my aching body, forever sore from my crash landing.
The slap of the water reminded me of the gurgling sound my ship made as it dropped from the infinite black. All that money and time invested, all derailed by something as simple as the storage temperature of frozen ammonia. My, the way the coolant lines snapped and danced in the inferno. After the crash I wrongly assumed the ship was too damaged to analyze. I was the sole survivor from a crew of seven. Despite my best efforts I just knew somehow I would be found and returned to Earth.
Incarcerated on Planet Earth
Those seasoned in mendacity know that one must always coat the greatest fabrications in a shell of truth. I suppose the same is true of great storytellers. The first time I discussed my case with my court-appointed lawyers, I told them that the Spirians had stuffed my former shipmates and placed them in a primitive taxidermical museum. This was true. My shipmates’ long journey culminated in the highest of Spirian praise, being stuffed and displayed along with other specimens the Spirians considered unique: aliens from the Blue Zone, giant ice-age type beasts with curved spines and ruddy fangs, assorted rodents (which were actually quite revered on Spiro), and the skeletal remains of other homo sapiens who had found their way to the Spirian desert over the centuries. I laid it on thick, because I figured if my own lawyers didn’t believe me, then they wouldn’t work as hard on my pro bono case. Even lawyers are humans, after all, or so I’m told.
“Tell us more,” the lawyers said. “Tell us more about Spiro.” So I did.
Free on Planet Spiro
Six years ago (or so I believed), I was marooned on a planet not my own. One populated by exceedingly polite little people who claimed to speak directly with spirit gods. Not that I’m complaining, mind you—the odds of landing on a planet with (some) potable water and air was incalculable. Especially in the Rouge Galaxy. That is a distant part of the solar system, one not yet fully charted. And even if the Spirians had possessed the technology to send me back, I didn’t wish to go. I knew that back home I’d just be the captain of a failed mission, or worse. I wouldn’t be able to go a single day without people reminding me of the crash. Even then I assumed I would end up court-marshaled, turned into a scapegoat to deflect from the money the government wasted on our mission, the purpose of which was dubious at best: to investigate conflicting reports of large asteroids made of gold. Even if they could mine such an asteroid belt, the value of gold would have plummeted by such a vast haul. Madness all around. Madness, and I her captain.
The inhabitants of planet Spiro had no vocabulary for failure. Not once did I hear them argue, although their spirits gods were not always aligned. The Spirians’ simple way of life suited me just fine.
After my spiritual ‘rebirth,’ which made me an official citizen of Spiro, I was guest of honor at a large feast. We gorged ourselves on large casseroles made from the abundant cacti-like vegetables that grew in that place. The dueling suns provided plentiful sunshine on Spiro, but as we ate, both stars descended over the dome-like horizon. On Spiro, night always came over you like a blanket. Excessive cold could replace excessive heat in a matter of minutes.
“You’re one of us now,” their leader G93 said. And I felt it, I felt at peace with myself and with their community.
I had been staying with G93’s grouping since my crash landing. I suppose at first they kept me around as a mere novelty, but I like to believe I earned my keep. My height was often an advantage, and I even made myself into a serviceable carpenter. They built with reeds and sand on Spiro, so their structures often sagged and had to be restored. Despite (or perhaps because of) their limited technology, the Spirians were genius in the marshaling of their resources. They did so much with so little, whereas here we do just the opposite. I became quite enamored with their way of life.
A partial list of some of the services I performed on Spiro: I retrieved pet rodents that got stuck in trees, I helped their children learn how to swim in tide pools, I tied loyalty bracelets on the roofs of their houses following grouping ceremonies. Given their diminutive wind pipes and the ruffage of their diet, on no less than four separate occasions I performed an abdominal thrust to save a life. I was so good at their native sports that their gods soon suggested I cease playing. Is the above not a form of community service, the expenditure of many hours for which I have not been credited? Are these really the actions of the “Most Selfish Person in the Universe?”
Although the local climate leaned toward draught-conditions, they made good use of irrigation to produce sufficient fruits and grains. A staple crop of theirs was an edible bark-like mush that grew symbiotically with a wild millet grain. They called it Tsthero, and the first year I was there I refused to eat it, thinking it might prove poisonous to the human genome.
“My spirit Wola says to ‘stop being so spoiled,’” G93 said, “You must learn to eat what we eat.”
So I did, and you know what?—it was delicious.
Even though many now suggest that it never occurred, I’ll never forget the night of my formal initiation into their society. After a seven course meal that culminated with an appetizer and commenced with dessert, I indulged in albenroot, a pungent mushroom-type substance that seemed to produce slight psychotropic effects on them, but unfortunately just left me feeling slightly woozy.
Far off in the night sky, under the haze of a golden moon, I observed what appeared to be a shooting star pirouetting in the sky. For some reason the blaze of light made me feel cold inside. Frozen and impossibly distant, even from myself. My teeth chattered even though the weather was arid and warm. There, at what was supposed to be a new beginning, my body felt infested, rank with the moldering rot of endings. “You stay away,” I shouted at the shooting star, that which I already knew was not a shooting star. “You stay the hell away from here!”
The Infinite Black
They say that a good captain goes down with the ship. I went down all right, but the impact didn’t kill me, just everyone else. The disaster bequeathed me a bad back and a deceased crew. It’s a funny thing how the destinies played out as they did. Here we call it irony, another concept the Spirians have no language for.
We never should have been out in that galaxy anyway, circling those giant golden calves.
Free on Planet Spiro
I continued to track my ‘shooting star,’ across the horizon until a week or so later it dared land on Spiro. Every rocket is equipped with various tracking devices, so I wasn’t shocked they found me. After all, it’s unlike this government to let well enough alone. They will gladly justify spending billions of dollars to investigate how millions of dollars were wasted.
The captain of the intruding rocket was a middle-aged woman who walked with an earnest comportment down the rail, as though she were some mere ambassador from a simpler era. Behind her, a youthful astronaut whose hair seemed too thick and heavy to fit in her helmet. Last, a man of thirty-five or forty, who winced in the harsh rays of the twin suns. Looking at him felt almost eerie; it was like looking into some funhouse mirror of my former self. He walked with graceless erect precision, his eyes stern and calculating. He was pale, oafish, self-important in his barring. It was quite evident that he had not yet endured any great loss in life, and therefore he was a half-formed mush of a person. As I tell my legal team, true wisdom always inures at the margins.
It was immediately apparent that no gods whispered in the ears of these strange new tourists.
“You can take off your helmets,” I said, “the air is fine.” It felt odd to speak my mother tongue.
“We’ll await the calculations from our instruments,” the captain said. She flashed a grave smile while observing the purple-tinged land. Behind me, a few Spirians gathered, solemn and non-committal, as they had been when I first met them following my crash. I motioned at them to stay out of sight.
“I’ve been here six years running,” I said to the crew, “and I’m still breathing just fine. But sure, go on and await your instruments.”
“You’re captain Pederson?” the youngest asked.
“The one and only.”
“Any other survivors?”
I shook my head.
Their captain stood between us. “We’ll need confirmation, of course.”
“Habeus Corpus. Proof of the deceased.” She turned to my doppelgänger. “Doctor,” she said, “Ready the tools to perform autopsies.”
He shook his head.
“Professor Almine,” she said to the youthful astronaut, “Prepare your instruments to perform an accident reconstruction.”
“I believe frozen ammonia was the issue,” I said. “But the bodies of my shipmates were incinerated in the fire.”
“We’ll look into all that,” their captain replied.
I wiped some sweat from my brow. “Only the three of you, huh? You run a real bare-bone crew.”
“Fair enough, captain” she replied, “but your crew happens to be bare bones.”
“Wola says you must get rid of them,” G93 whispered later that afternoon as the astronauts poked around our grouping hut. “Now.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “But humans can be a bit…stubborn.”
“Of course I understand your predicament,” G93 said. “But my guardian Wola says there is danger if things persist in this manner.”
“Danger for whom?” I asked.
Neither G93 nor his personal god ventured a response. Not for the last time, a real chill gripped me, body and mind.
They never removed their helmets.
“The air here isn’t quite stable,” the doctor insisted. “Insufficient oxygen.”
“That’s nonsense,” I told the mediocrity, that hateful twin. “I’ve literally been here for SIX years.”
“Maybe time doesn’t work the same here,” the captain said. “Your ship only crashed four months ago.”
“Complete nonsense,” I said, for I thought it was. “How would you even put together a rescue mission so soon?”
“This isn’t a rescue mission, we’re a reconstruction unit. And maybe we just happened to be in the area.”
“Listen, if you think—”
“Describe the aliens again,” the captain said.
Free on Planet Earth
As a child, I much preferred to be alone. My parents were outgoing—real society types. They simply couldn’t understand why I preferred to spend my hours building model rockets in my room, and were even more perplexed when upon assembly I would immediately destroy the ships. I would burn the little models, or drown them, or sometimes dissemble them piece by piece by piece…
There were other hobbies too, but always of a unique and personal nature: marbles, painting, ornithological taxidermy, birdwatching, backpacking, foraging, primitive attempts at magic and alchemy. In a way, I suppose I always felt like an alien, even when I was with other humans. Especially then.
Free on Planet Spiro
The great mechanical claw of time rumbled forward, impervious to my silent prayers of absolution. For a while, the three strangers kept their distance. They slept and took their meals in their rocket ship. Sometimes I saw them huddled together, aloof as an osprey eying fresh fish, talking in hushed tones I could almost decipher. Other times they stalked the wilderness, wielding their state-sanctioned power and gossamer-thin integrity as they collected mineral samples, as they rooted through the cadaver of my once-great ship, as they pecked and pecked and pecked around the edges of Spiro like the crummy little intruders that they were. I assure you, despite the musky smell of these interlopers, despite the radical nature of their workings, I did not hazard a cross word.
On the night before I left Spiro for good, I spent a quiet evening with my grouping. G93 and I nibbled on albenroot, and the vented skylights above us showed an ageless and unforgiving sky. What is each star, if not a dream of the past? What is each soul, if not a suspended moment in search of some brighter future?
“G93, they’re going to take me away from here,” I said.
“I know,” G93 said through gritted teeth, teeth thick with the black tar of albenroot.
“They’re going to take me away, and then they’re going to execute me.”
“That seems to be the way of your kind.”
“Aren’t you going to help me out?” I demanded. “I’m one of yours now. We can forge weapons—we can easily take care of these three aliens.”
“The most noble thing one can do,” G93 said, “is to make a sacrifice on behalf of others. The gods will certainly favor you leaving with the other humans, or so I hear. If you remain on Spiro, they will invade our land and destroy our people. If we take their souls, more of your kind will soon appear.”
“Surely,” G93 said, “Thanatos must have advised you it is wise to comply. We must always remember, just because we communicate with gods, that does not make us deities. Matters of life and death belong to the seers alone.” He placed his palm to my hip. “My Wola tells me you must return to your planet. It is your personal destiny.”
“Oh come on,” I said, feeling betrayed by my makeshift family. “I don’t communicate with any three-eyed crab.” I waved my arms around, a bit frantically I must now admit. “I don’t hear the voices of any gods, G93.”
“No,” G93 said, his eyes heavy with the effects of albenroot. “Of course you don’t hear the voice of gods.”
“Because I’m a human? Because I’m not a pacifist?”
“No,” he said with a delicate laugh. “Because none of us do.”
He mashed up some more of the albenroot. “Of course,” he continued, “we prefer not to talk about it.”
The Infinite Black
The exams all said I would be a good fit for space travel. A psychological profile such as mine—a loner with a high intelligence—is apparently well-adapted for space. On our final mission, I never once missed being around other humans, not once. If anything, the six I shared the cabin with often seemed far too many.
Black despondency is the idea that everyone has a death wish. It’s the feeling people get when looking down from a mountain top. Just jump, some voice from somewhere inside says, tickling our ears with some hidden agenda. Wouldn’t it be something to fly?
The state’s psychological exams attempt to root out such instincts in people seeking a career in aeronautics. But the psychological exams are only as intelligent as the humans who create and administer them. Someday they will wise up and allow robots to draft all the questions. Robots know far more about human nature than humans ever will.
On our modern spacecrafts, digital thermal control systems pump various liquids through a series of pipes. Liquid ammonia is used to carry out waste, thus cooling the solar panels. If there is a leak, because of a technical failure, or, for example, if someone sabotaged or ripped out the tubing, then it would, in time, lead to an overheated system, and the likely spread of fire. And fire on a rocket ship is a real problem, of course, because there’s not exactly a fire exit while you’re suspended in space. For the life of me, I’ll never know why they didn’t enclose that series of pipes. It’s almost like they were daring one of us to commit foul play. There’s a word that lawyers use to describe such circumstances: entrapment.
They say guilt is an island. And so it is, one with an endless coastline. Even now I can’t help but think of my shipmates and wonder if maybe things could have been different. I know that I am forever marooned in my own tower of pity. But some good comes from every disaster. There are even times I think I am owed a debt of gratitude from our government. After all, now they know that coolant lines should be encased, particularly on sustained space missions.
Free on Planet Spiro
The next morning their captain tracked me down as I was wading in a spartan tide pool along the desert’s edge. She leered down at me with her stupid chunky helmet on her head, and her silver uniform encasing her body like some ancient fossil.
“We found your shipmates,” she said. “I would suggest you not say anything more until we return to Earth.” Then she recited some legal jargon from a pod scroll and made me trace my finger along its digital spine. The other two stood behind her with crossed arms, their heads astern, their expressions slack-jawed yet unyielding.
“Would somebody please explain what the hell is going on?” I said, trying to find the right tone of inconvenience mixed with anger.
“They’re stuffed,” the captain said slowly. “All of them—your shipmates—they are….stuffed.”
“Well sure,” I said, “but that’s easily enough explained. The Spirians did that.”
“The…Sprirans did it?” That whole exchange she choked out her words.
“Well, yeah,” I said, “but they didn’t mean anything by it.” By then my heart was beating way too fast, and I recall brackish orange water was slipping into my furry little nostrils.
“If that’s true, then bring us to them. Bring us to your little ‘friends.’ Because we have seen no proof of anything biological here aside from some scattered plants and cacti.” Oh that pitiless voice from above, speaking with such directness it may as well have been the very voice of God.
“Why, there’s evidence of the Spirians all around you,” I said. “Surely you don’t need me to draw you a map.”
Then my doppelgänger reached down and pulled me out of the tidepool, my legs flailing, and when he stood me up they placed a helmet on my head and I suddenly felt impossibly helpless and short.
“You ruined it,” I cried. “I can’t be more than four feet tall now,” but they didn’t answer my lamentations, because they thought them nonsense. (Which of course they were.)
“The evidence from the accident reconstruction is unfavorable,” the captain said. The other captain said, for at that moment I was still a captain too, dammit.
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for why the pipes failed,” I said.
They dragged me through my little purple Eden, boots scraping the sand; they were pulling me, gripping me real heavy-handed like if you ask me. (And none of them could meet my eyes when I tried to explain everything.)
“Where are we going?” I screamed.
“But I am home.”
“No, you’re on an abandoned planet millions of miles from home. And you’re under military arrest.”
“But you can’t extradite me,” I said. “I’m now an official citizen of Spiro. And far as I know, Spiro has no recognized extradition-treaty with the representatives from your planet.”
From across the way I saw G93 sitting on a stump.
“G93,” I called to my leader. “Please, gather the others together. Come help me!” But he just shook his head, his eyes as desolate as the newly bronzed landscape.
“You’ve ruined it,” I said, taking in the now barren desert all at once. “Where did the purple go? Where did the purple go? You killed it!”
“We have holographic evidence of what you did,” is all the captain said in response. “The ship’s backup transponder survived the crash. The less you say right now, the better.”
G93 turned his back and waddled away.
Incarcerated on Planet Earth
Every day the same. I tell my lawyers, “Because of your incompetence, I’m stuck here awaiting trial like some common criminal. I told you they would find a way to scapegoat me. Follow the money and that will tell you everything you need to know.”
Like always, the lawyers suggest I plead ‘temporary insanity,’ seek a plea-bargain, and serve my time at an institution rather than risk anti-gravity termination.
“Don’t you believe me?” I ask. “For Thanatos’ sakes, I’m your client!”
“It doesn’t matter if we believe you or not,” the Greek Chorus of lawyers say. “All that matters is whether a jury would believe such a fantastical tale.”
“And would they?”
“Do you want to know if I sabotaged the ship?”
“That’s between you and God…”
“Between me and Thanatos?”
“Between you and whichever entity you choose to believe in.”
I stand on the table, and even though my arms are shackled, the Greek Chorus of lawyers move away, as though I might again bring down death from above.
“I’m now a citizen of Spiro,” I shout. “And inside my skull is Thanatos, a three-eyed crustacean who dispenses equal part common sense and harsh truths. And if I want to insult you, I’ll just pretend it’s my personal god doing so. And if I want to lie, I’ll just chalk it up as a momentary possession from some false idol. But in my opinion, I can’t even stand trial due to a simple lack of legal standing. Not because of any mental infirmity, you see, but because I remain a citizen of Spiro. Thus as a matter of basic universal law, I shouldn’t have been extradited here to begin with. And in order to legally ship me back here, they would have had to first request the Spirians perform a severing ceremony, which never occurred. Thanatos says that if you were lawyers of any skill whatsoever, I would not only go free, but be awarded punitive damages for this imposition!”
My eyes shift from one terrified lawyer to the next. I savor it, this final feeling of power.
“And for your information,” I say to them, thundering like Jupiter, when indeed I am Prometheus, “I’ve consulted with Thanatos plenty of times, and he says that ‘death is truth, and the truth will set you free.’ So if I get the death penalty then so be it, because after all I am the sole survivor of a rocket ship explosion and a crash landing, and while on planet Spiro I was burned, and drowned, and hung, and dropped, and poisoned, and electrocuted, and still I live to tell the tale.”
Carl Taylor's short fiction has appeared in venues including the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Space & Time Magazine. Carl's short story "Vapor" appeared in the "Eros" edition of Overheard.