The Mystery of K/463

K/463, a small, rocky planet, almost lost among the great gas giants which circle the star systems in this arm of the galaxy, is a mystery, a puzzle in the history of interplanetary exploration. It is ‘Off limits’ to all ships, even to go into orbit is now forbidden.

In the archives of the Supreme Council of the High Governors at Central Communications lie an extremely full and complete set of records, reports, and films. There’s also a pile of sample boxes labelled K/463 although they’re empty. If you could go back into the past and ask the authors of those reports to tell you more than what you’d read there, they’d say, ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about those reports. I’m sorry, that’s all there is, I can’t tell you anything else.’  Indeed a paper in the last file makes that explicit statement: ‘We can tell you nothing more.’

One hundred years ago a certain archivist, the last of the men involved in those reports, and the only one who hadn’t forgotten them, put together an account in which he attempted to bring together what was known about K/463, but even he couldn’t explain the mystery of this world.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

 Over the years, several Survey ships had come across K/463, and having activated their sensors, had made reports of its breathable atmosphere, suitable climate, topography and so on. All their reports were in the archives, but that’s where the strangeness began. Although their reports were there and freely available to anyone who cared to search them out (the planet had no name yet, only its code number) none of them contained any further information. Some contained the captain’s decision to send Rangers down to the planet’s surface to conduct a fuller survey, and gave the date and time of their descent, but there was nothing more. Every single one stopped short at that point.

Since it was an insignificant planet in what was becoming a fairly busy sector it was quite some time, in fact twenty years or so after the last report, before a clerk in Central Communications noticed this anomaly and drew it to the attention of one of his superiors. The officer assumed there had been some carelessness in the filing of the records and demanded that a search be made for the missing tapes or discs, but nothing was found, even when the search was extended well beyond the normal “First In” sections.

However no urgency was felt as yet, and so it was left for some further months, before the clerk, Temas, thought he should bring the matter up again. He took it to another and more senior officer. He chose well; Pentick was something of a perfectionist, and missing reports offended his sense of what was right and proper. This time the search was more thorough and much more organised. If Pentick and Temas between them had anything to do with it, the reports would be found!

But they weren’t, not even when six more clerks had been drafted in to help. What did come to light was more strange than they could have imagined: no less than eight different Survey ships had all made identical long distance reports from orbit, six of them having sent their Rangers down to the surface to make detailed explorations of what seemed to be a perfect planet for a new colony. The remaining two, on their way to a further destination, had intended to return at a more convenient time, but for no discernible reason, had not done so.

The mystery was deepening, and in Temas’ and Pentick’s minds suspicions of all sorts began to raise their ugly heads. Was the planet being used by space pirates? Was some system ruler or warlord making illegal use of it, and if so, was corruption now spreading among the Survey fleet? These were very serious questions, and the matter could not be left unsolved, so Pentick took it further up the chain of command.

Vice-Admiral Kortriff (an ex-Survey man) agreed that a full enquiry must be made into the situation. 

   ‘It can’t be pure coincidence,’ he muttered, and looking up at Pentick, where he stood at attention before his desk, continued, ‘In all my years in Survey and since, I can’t remember any planet being visited by eight First Survey ships! That’s nonsense to begin with seven of them must have known it had already been surveyed!

   ‘Right, Pentick, let’s start with the ships. Make a list of them, their commanding officers and Ranger Sergeants, and where it’s possible we’ll have them in and ask some questions. If they’re out at the moment, we’ll talk to those who’re within range, and if anyone’s well out of range we’ll wait until they’re on their way back.’

   ‘Yes, sir! At once! Do you want to do the questioning yourself, sir?’

   ‘I think I must. This begins to look ominous, but you must be part of the enquiry, and we’ll fetch that clerk in what did you say his name was?’

   ‘Temas, sir. He’s a good man, efficient, the noticing kind.’

   ‘Yes, Temas; he can record all the sessions, and make sure that nothing goes missing from them! In the meantime I’ll have to bring this up at the next meeting of the High Governors. Secrecy can be more dangerous than anything else, and clearly there’s been a fair amount of it already.’

 ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Two weeks later a group of very puzzled men sat in Admiral Kortriff’s office reviewing the results of the various interviews they had made. To start with, none of the people who had viewed the discs here at Space Control could tell them anything about them. 

Then six experienced and reliable Ranger Sergeants who all had unblemished records, and some, medals for service in situations of extreme danger, had denied all knowledge of planet K/463. And when shown the existing reports of it, which Temas had copied, were quite unable to explain them. In a variety of words they had assured Kortriff that there must be some mistake. The last man had said, ‘I’ve never heard of it, Sir, never mind been there. Are you sure someone hasn’t been making things up as a joke?’

Their commanding officers hadn’t been any more help. When shown the reports, thumbsigned by themselves, and marked with their personal security codes, they’d agreed they must have made them, but they couldn’t explain what had happened to their Rangers’ reports. 

B’lindel, the oldest and most senior of the still serving captains, had been seriously upset and disturbed when he came in to be questioned. ‘Sir, you know me!’ he’d looked at Kortriff in some distress. ‘I served with you in the old Starspray, back before the first Sector War. I’ve never lost a report, and I thought I could’ve told you every planet I’ve ever surveyed. I must have made this report – it’s in my style, I’ve clearly thumbsigned and coded it – but I don’t. . . .’  his voice trailed away into silence and he sat gazing at the floor. Then, after several moments, he looked up again. ‘Perhaps it’s time for me to think about retirement, sir,’ he murmured.

Kortriff had been horrified by the look of hopelessness and despair on the man’s face. Even Pentick and Temas, unemotional administrators, were moved. And it was true, B’lindel had served under the Vice-Admiral for many years before gaining his own ship, and Kortriff had been relying on him to give them the truth about this strange situation; and yet he could shed no light on it.

   ‘Retirement? No, B’lindel! Absolutely not!’ he’d replied. ‘If I’m certain of anything, it’s that the fault in this doesn’t lie with you.’ He’d paused for thought. ‘Hold yourself in readiness,’ he continued, ‘I think you and I will be travelling together again, in a few days’ time. I have to make my report to the High Governors, and I hope they’ll allow me to go out there and find the truth for myself. And if that’s so, I want you in command of the ship, and your best Rangers with us.’

   ‘Thank you, sir, of course, sir, right away, sir!’  B’lindel had exclaimed in huge relief, and hurried out to begin the necessary preparations for the mission.

So it was that a week later they had blasted off in search of the answer to the mystery of K/463.  Temas and Pentick had been amazed to find themselves included, and had received some extremely hurried basic training.

   ‘I don’t want too many people involved in this at the moment,’ the Vice-Admiral had explained to them and B’lindel at the briefing, ‘and I do want those who know as much about it as there is to know. One of the larger Patrol Frigates has been notified to be available in the area, in case we find trouble, but they’re not going to come in close unless we call them.

   ‘We’re taking the very latest and most sophisticated scanning, surveying and recording equipment with us, and I want Temas to work with three of the crew to make full records of everything as it occurs, and to make sure it’s all backed up and security protected.’

Turning to the clerk he asked, ‘Did you have enough time to acquaint yourself with the scanners and recorders?’

   ‘Yes, sir. And I’ll have time to train the crewmen during the trip. We’ll be working in pairs, as you suggested, so that everything is verified and locked off by two people.’

Pentick was to work as a liaison between Temas’ team and Kortriff, and be a further back up by making independent reports which would be signed off by Kortriff himself, who would then forward all the reports, under a Supreme Council coding, to Central Communications twice every day.

   ‘We don’t know what kind of trouble we might find,’ Kortriff had continued, ‘but whatever it is, and whatever may happen to us, it should be recorded for the High Governors, who can decide if any further action is needed in the matter.’

Once the ship was locked into a geo-synchronous orbit above a central portion of one of the northern continents, a shuttle was sent down with a crack team of Rangers aboard. Two Sergeants each led a patrol of three Rangers, and both of them were using the new equipment. This meant that everyone on the bridge could see and hear all that was going on, and Temas’ two teams were receiving and backing up their reports as they came in.

   ‘We’re on high moorland,’ came the voice of S’Fant, the First Sergeant, and he turned in a circle, filming the wide, rolling expanse around him, while his Rangers collected samples of rock, soil and vegetation. ‘There’re high mountains North-east of us,’ continued S’Fant, ‘and some valleys running away towards the West. No sign of habitation or native life, but they’d be more likely to live down in the lowlands anyway. I guess it could be pretty bleak up here if they have a winter on this place.’

His voice continued to comment on everything he saw as his team moved towards one of the nearby valleys. It was a deep cleft between the mountains and the moorland, filled with a rich variety of trees and other vegetation. Many falls cascaded downwards like silver veils, and a river ran through the depths between green lawns and mossy boulders. The valley sides were not impossibly steep, and so the Rangers descended carefully, recording as they went.

    Over the next month all the main regions of the planet were explored. Each day the recordings were made available for the crew to study, no matter what their rank; and the richness, beauty and variety of  what was found made a deep impression on every member of the expedition. Twice daily, copies of all their reports and visual records were sent back to Central Communications, and Kortriff was notified of their safe arrival by Wendol, the High Governors’ archivist.

At last they completed their survey, but before they prepared to leave orbit Kortriff called a meeting.  Temas, Pentick, B’lindel, S’Fant and Minthor, the Second Sergeant of Rangers, together with the Chief Science Officer and the Chief Engineer were all present.

   ‘Well,’ said the Admiral, ‘I don’t know exactly what you expected when we set out. I know I was worried that something was amiss with this place; but from all we’ve found it seems to be an unspoilt paradise, and there have been no signs of habitation on any of the continents or main islands. Does anyone have anything particular they want to say before we close and seal the last report, and send it home?’

   ‘I know I’ve been here before,’ said B’lindel quietly, with a puzzled look on his face. ‘I know, because I’ve read the report I wrote last time. But all I can say is I don’t remember it. I’ve watched every recording made in the last month several times over, and it’s all as if it was for the very first time. If anyone can explain it for me I’d be more glad than I can say!’

  ‘Yes,’ Temas responded. ‘We know there’s no one here making use of the planet. Our fears about pirates, warlords, secret bases have been proved quite groundless. We’ve completed a very thorough survey, but it’s still an unsolved mystery, and nothing we’ve found so far explains it.”

   ‘Grenthall,’ Kortriff said, turning to the Science Officer, ‘have you found anything in the samples which might have an effect on minds or memories? Any new or unexplained elements, or even low level radiation? Anything at all?’

   ‘Absolutely nothing so far, sir,’ Grenthall replied. ‘We’ve  put everything through the spectrometers and the new scanners, and it all seems to match up with elements we know already. That’s not to say that we might not find something when we get the samples into a bigger lab back home. But nothing jumps out at us at the moment.’

   ‘Alright, then. We’ll make sure all our samples are thoroughly checked when we get them home, and I recommend we all have a psych-check myself included to take care of that side of things.

   ‘We’ve concluded the survey, but not the whole mission. However, may I assume that if we solve the mystery you would all recommend K463 for colonisation?’

   ‘Sir,’ said S’Fant, rather hesitantly, ‘If you’ll forgive me for saying it, sir, Minthor and I would like to have it recorded that any colonisation be restricted to those who will care for this environment. All of the Rangers agree we’ve never seen a more perfect place than this, and we’d hate to see industry and so on come in and destroy it. We’re hoping you’ve got the authority to put restrictions on it.’

For a moment the Engineer and Science Officer looked offended, but then they nodded slowly. ‘He’s right, sir,’ said Grenthall. ‘There’re plenty of planets fit for industry. This one should be protected.’

   ‘S’Fant, I agree with  you entirely,’ Kortriff smiled encouragingly at the Rangers. ‘I will make it a priority. Fine, let’s make ready for departure, please. Captain, when will we be able to turn for home?’

   ‘Give us a couple of hours, sir, and we’ll be on our way.’

~  ~  ~  ~  ~

As the ship’s engines boosted it out of orbit and set off through deep space the inhabitants of K/463, together with the larger fauna, shape-shifted out of the woodlands and meadows back into their usual forms and released the illusions with which they’d hidden their homes, but as they went about their accustomed business one small boy, filled with anxiety, said to his grandfather, ‘They’ve taken so much away! Are we safe now? Will they come back?’

The old man smiled down at him, ‘It’s quite alright, Trop, their boxes are empty. And yes, we’re quite safe, we’re well protected. They won’t come back; even now they are forgetting.’

(This was originally a homework set by the Whitehaven Writers, the title being, ‘Forgetting’.)

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