2946-10-23 - Tales from the Inbox: Brand's Badlands

Nojus would have paused at the ridgeline to catch his breath and admire the view, but under the watchful eyes of his camera-drones, he thought better of it. Beneath his feet, the dark basalt hills sloped down to meet the golden sands of the desert beyond. The unnamed world was arid to the extreme, but not quite as hot as he had been hoping when he had seen pictures of the place; in fact, the temperature since he’d landed had never exceeded thirty Celsius. Not even a reasonable amount of exaggerated exertion had drawn enough sweat from his brow to compensate for the unexpectedly mild temperature; there was no concealing from the watchful eyes of the drones that his hike from the landing site had been only slightly more strenuous than a tourist’s hike through the Bradagan Foothills on Planet at Centauri.

The view that Nojus wasn’t able to stop to appreciate was spectacular from horizon to horizon, but not because of the brilliant golden luster of the local desert sand, or the stark contrast it made with the deep, chocolate-brown volcanic rock that made up most of the hills. It wasn’t worth admiring because of the brilliant scarlet pinpricks of bulbous local flora which populated the margins where the hills vanished into the sand, or the pair of moons visible in the hazy slate sky. The detail that tempted the veteran explorer to stop and stare was the very detail that, when he’d seen it in still images, had convinced him to come to an unnamed, unknown world, where no dangerous life had ever been encountered.

The titanic skull half-submerged in the brilliant sand was easily ninety meters long and thirty high. Where the dry air and unobstructed daylight would have bleached Earthly bones white, the skeletal deposits of local fauna oxidized in air, forming a deep blue patina. It was, Nojus thought, a most perfect emblem for the desolate world: a darkly lustrous sapphire set on the edge of a vast golden wasteland.

Without delay, Nojus configured his Reed-Soares Portable Survival Utility into a hiking pole and started the descent toward the long-dead titan’s remains. The Naval Survey Auxiliary pilot who’d given him coordinates and still images of the world had been disappointingly certain that the towering remains dotting the desert were those of an extinct species, perhaps the giant cousins of a scaled, amphibious apex predator living in the world’s few scattered oases and wetlands, itself already a beast of unusual size and ferocity. While he intended to take his camera-drones into the marshy habitats of such monsters before he left the planet, Nojus had decided to follow up on a very different detail of the Survey pilot’s account first.

Picking his way down the rocky hillside, surrounded by his modest flotilla of automatons, Nojus saw little wildlife. A sort of scuttling, chitinous creature lived in abundance among the rocks, but their skittish nature defied his best attempts to sneak up on them with his drones. A fast-moving flier, the same slate color as the sky, darted down in pursuit of the skittering things, but its speed was such that Nojus doubted that his drones were getting a good recording of its hunt. He fervently hoped that the pilot’s story was true; otherwise, one of his three days on the wild planet’s surface would be wasted.

As the rock below his feet gave way to the bright sand, Nojus began to see more wildlife. A small herd of bumbling, portly grazers meandered among the scarlet succulents at the desert’s edge, carefully nibbling the soft, blood-red flesh between scabrous upwellings of acrid-smelling, toxic sap. Both the herbivores and the slinking, feline shape which shadowed them paid the explorer and his drones no mind, but they did provide Nojus with some footage and an excuse to emphasize how a human would be killed by the toxins the desert herbivores ingested in a single bite. Most of the plant life on such an arid world was forced to guard its hard-earned biomass carefully, just as Earthly cacti shielded their soft flesh with a hedge of spines.

Passing beyond the stand of crimson growths and into the open sand, Nojus headed directly for the huge skull. The darkness inside its cavernous eye sockets loomed menacingly, and though he had no feeling of apprehension, Nojus knew that his audience, seeing his destination, would be more invested if he did. As he approached, he wove a few subtle hints of unease into his demeanor, for their benefit.

When at last he stood in the long shadow of the great fossilized skull, Nojus sent his drones up for wide-angle shots while he reconfigured his survival multitool into a spearlike weapon. Having no means to direct their movements personally, he had to trust in algorithmic photography to adequately capture the scene, as usual. For once, he doubted that even the best automation software would be up to the task.

When the drones returned, Nojus counted them, and noticed that one was missing. For the first time since he had set off from his landing site, he smiled. It was evidence that the Survey pilot had been telling the truth. The leviathans of the planet’s ancient past were dead, but their weathered bones had come to shelter those horrors that yet lived.

“I wonder who lives here.” Nojus muttered for the benefit of the cameras, feigning ignorance. What he’d been told about the creeping ambushers who hid from daylight was precious little, but if even half of it was accurate, his audience was in for a treat.

For those of you who follow both this text feed and Mr. Brand's vidcast episodes, you will probably recognize today's account as being the prelude to his most recent installation. You will probably also know that Mr. Brand barely survived his first day on this recently-surveyed Frontier world; he fared badly in an encounter with with some sort of furred, serpent-like predator, and nearly became extinct along with the titanic creatures that once roamed that world.

Obviously, Mr. Brand survived, or we wouldn't have his account or the video episode he published. Badly injured, it took him almost two whole days to drag himself back to his landing craft, and though he is recovering well from his injuries, it is my understanding that this is the closest that he has come to losing his life since his infamous 2939 run-in with a hive of blade scarabs on Barsamia.

Mr. Brand tried to persuade me to also run a Tales from the Inbox episode describing his agonizing return trip, but I will spare this audience the excruciatingly detailed account of how Nojus covered twenty-four kilometers of alien badlands after being partially disemboweled by a predator that fortunately disliked the taste of his foreign biology. It is sufficient to say that he is in good spirits about the incident, and plans to return to work as soon as his medical team allows.