By Bhoomika Tiwari
12 April, 2200
I am sitting in the spaceship and we have long moved beyond Earth’s gravitational pull. And now as we move away I am awed by my planet. It looks nothing short of magnificent from up here. And I can now believe it. That I’m finally going on this trip. To Paradis. I’d always dreamt of this. Maybe not all, but some dreams do come true! I’m told we’ll also catch a glimpse of Strafanstalt Isle on the way. I shudder at the very thought of that place...Anyway I won’t think of it. This is a strictly fun trip!
Robin was ecstatic to be finally going to Paradis. She’d slaved at the Government embassy as a diplomat for ages. She’d enjoyed her work, had done good work and was proud of that work. But lately she had been feeling suffocated. By her work, by the system. By the way things were being run and the people around her. All of them so complacent. So pleased and satisfied, feeling as if they had achieved all there was to achieve, had done all there was to be done in life. Robin had made great achievements too. Her position at the embassy was one to be envious of. But it was now time to move on she felt. To set her sights on something different. Something that would challenge her, bring out the creativity that had been lying dormant for a while now. But before that she would go on a vacation. She deserved one. She’d earned one. Plus it would give her the time to think and ponder over what she wanted to do now. And she had saved enough funds over the last few years to go to the one place that she’d always wanted to go to. Paradis. Paradis was a small but beautiful planet that had been one of the two accidental discoveries more than a century ago. With atmospheric conditions much like Earth and the availability of water, it was perfect for human habitation. Over the last three decades or so some people had moved to this planet but it was still largely untouched by habitation and technology. And with lush green trees and plants, the exotic flowers and fauna it had developed into the perfect vacation spot. Robin had seen a documentary of the planet as a kid and since then she had been very keen on going to Paradis. And now she was going she thought again with a smile. She felt like hugging herself but didn’t for fear of appearing a little off to the people around her. So instead she turned to the window and looked out and was again struck by the view. Millions and millions of stars all around...Her expression must have conveyed her amazement for the lady next to her asked.
“Quite something isn’t it? I was awestricken too the first time. Still am in fact.”
Robin turned to her and smiled, “Yes it is. I never thought it could be this unbelievably beautiful. Have you space travelled before?”
“Oh yes,” the lady answered, “This is my second trip to Paradis. We are thinking of building a small vacation home there. I just can’t get enough of that place.”
“Oh that’s great!” Robin said with another smile. They got talking and exchanged many tit bits of information. Jenna turned out to be a most interesting and engaging person and told the most outrageous tales. She kept Robin entertained till dinner was served at which point they both realised they had been engaged in their tête-à-tête for over three hours. They laughed at themselves and dug into their meal. With their appetite sated, they soon drifted into sleep.
Robin woke up with a start. The whole ship was shuddering and making odd sounds. She looked at Jenna who had a panicked expression on her face and seemed to want to say something. People around her had similar expressions. There were loud inquisitions as to what was happening, and those who had given in to hysterics were crying and screaming. Terror gripped Robin’s heart. She looked down at her trembling hands and gripped the armrests of the seat with all her strength. The Captain’s voice filled the chamber.
“Please keep calm. We are caught in a planet’s gravitational field but should be able to-“
His voiced was drowned by the shrieks and screams of the passengers as suddenly the ship pummelled into a free fall. Robin must have screamed too. But she couldn’t be sure. A large empty barren looking land came into her view before zipping out again and as they hurtled towards the ground the only thought in her mind was I’m going to die. And then her world went black.
Robin came to with a groan. It seemed as if her entire body had been hit by a large vehicle and then flung off a tower. Her left arm seemed to burn and her ribs ached. And it seemed she was strapped to something. She opened her eyes with great difficulty. They felt gritty and her vision was a little blurred. She looked down at herself and realised that she was still strapped to her seat. The wrecked ship was at some distance. Smoke rose above it in a vicious black cloud and tiny flames still licked parts of it. The ship was completely trashed, she thought in dismay. Her seat must have gotten dislodged and flung out of the craft. With great difficulty she somehow managed to unstrap herself and crawl out. She got up on shaky legs and moved towards the pile of metal that barely resembled the ship. She went round it and was greeted by the sight of charred bodies and the smell of burning flesh. She turned around, fell to her knees and emptied the contents of her stomach. Oh God. Oh God! They were all dead. All of them. Burnt. Except her...She moved away from the horrifying sight. A sob rose in her throat but she quelled it. This was no time for hysterics. She couldn’t give in to this. Wouldn’t. But what was she going to do she thought with despair. Her arm hurt like a bitch and was still bleeding, every breath she took was pure agony, and not to mention the multitude of bruises that surely marred her aching body. She was dirty, her clothes torn, the disgusting taste of vomit in her mouth made her feel like throwing up again. And she had no idea where she was, she thought with a sinking feeling.
She looked around her. “Caught in a planet’s gravitational field” was what the Captain had said she recalled. Which planet? Paradis? No. No this barren, hellish looking place couldn’t be Paradis. Then what? Where was she? An unknown planet? Stranded on an unknown planet, she thought with a harsh laugh. Stranded. The tears fell and this time she couldn’t stop them. How had her dream turned into this nightmare?
When the last of her tears were spent, she felt drained. She wanted to just lie down somewhere and never wake up. But she couldn’t do that. She’d survived the crash. Heavens knew how but she’d survived. And she would survive this too, she thought determinedly. But first she’d have to look around and see if she could find something, someone, preferably not an animal or alien she thought with a shudder. And best way to start was by moving forward.
And so she trudged on, limping and stumbling, her limbs aching. Her arm which had stopped bleeding still throbbed with pain and her ribs still ached. The sun which thankfully had not been strong was now going out and she seemed to have reached nowhere, the endless land continuing without any change in topography. She looked up again towards the horizon, and for a moment her heart lifted. She could see smoke rising up in languid swirls as if from a chimney. And then her heart sank again as she was filled with trepidation. What kind of people would be there? Did they even fall within the category of ‘people’? Well only one way to find out, she thought with false gumption and started walking again before her imagination got ahead of herself.
Soon she reached the border of what looked like a ghost town. Shabbily built structures lined a dusty road, if at all it could be called a road, on both sides. But it wasn’t deserted, she noticed. People who appeared like humans were going around. No one had noticed her though as she was now standing in the dark next to a house. Some sort of dwelling then, Robin thought. But what sort of people were they. Dirty, drunken looking men loitered on the street. They made loud obnoxious noises. The women too were in a similar state. She could hear them grunting and swearing and also caught sight of a couple indulging in sexual activity against a wall that looked like it was just about ready to collapse. What is this place, Robin thought. Her eyes scoured the area and she caught sight of a board. It read...It read Strafanstalt Bar. Written crudely with spelling errors but that’s what it said.
She felt chilled to her very being. Strafanstalt. She was on Strafanstalt Isle. It would have been better had she died. Who knew what would become of her on this godforsaken planet! She was ceased by terror. Strafanstalt was the prison planet. The other planet discovered with Paradis but with none of its beauty. The conditions here were harsh, most of the land fallow, and few sources of water. This was where the convicts from Earth were exiled to. Rapists, felons, and all sorts of criminals were deported to this place. It was the worst kind of place known to humans. A hell created by mankind itself for society’s rejects. It was even rumoured that some of the criminals here had turned to cannibalism. Bile rose up and she forced it down. She moved deeper into the shadows to avoid detection, her mind searching for possibilities, for something to hold on to, some idea to get out of this situation. Then she felt someone’s breath on her shoulder and for the first time in her life knew what fear tasted like. Her breath stopped and she turned slowly to face a drunken looking brute of a man. His hair and beard so long and matted with dirt and God only knew what else. The stench coming from him would have made anyone gag.
“‘Ello lovey,” he said in an undistinguishable accent and bared his teeth in a smile.
Robin would never truly understand why but the sight of his yellow and brown broken teeth with stuff stuck in between propelled her into action. She pushed him with all her might and took off into the night. He followed. She knew he was behind her and she ran, ran with all she had in her. The land rose above in front of and then sloped down. She slipped; she screamed and then went rolling down. She got up, waited only for a moment to catch her breath and then ran again as if the wolves of hell were at her heels. A shack came into view. She looked back to see if the man was still behind her. Not seeing him, she wrenched open the door of the shack, dove in and bolted herself inside. The man must have given up the chase because she hadn’t seen him. But that didn’t slow her thumping heart. Her breath came short, her ribs flared up with pain, and her wounded arm was bleeding again. She moved to the corner of the room, slid down the wall in exhaustion and lost consciousness.
Robin sat huddled in her corner hidden by firewood piled up there. She’d been up for a while and had been about to move out of the corner when she’d heard someone trying to open the door. And so she’d curled up in the corner and prayed whoever it was would just go away. The person on the other side was now rattling the door but it still stood sturdily in the frame. Was it the same man, thought Robin or was it someone else. The owner of this shack perhaps? Her body was trembling now, both with fatigue and fear. She looked around the room for a way out but there was none. And just then there was a loud bang and the door swung open. The silhouette of a tall, burly looking man filled the door frame. Oh dear Lord. If this man tried to attack her there was no way she would be able to defend herself. No, No she mustn’t think this way. She would do all that she could and more to fend off an assault. The man appeared to be carrying something. Firewood, Robin thought with growing alarm as he moved towards her to dump it on the pile behind which she was hidden. He kept glancing around in a suspicious manner. Of course he was suspicious. His house had been bolted on the inside. The man would be a fool to not smell something fishy. He was close, so close. If he but glanced down, he would see her. Robin prayed he wouldn’t. Please, please let him not see me. He dropped the wood and turned and Robin exhaled the breath she’d been holding. A little too loudly she realized belatedly when she found herself looking into the man’s glittering eyes, who’d turned the moment she’d made the noise. He lunged towards her and swept away the pile of wood that stood between then. Robin stood up, her legs shaking and stumbled backwards only to find herself trapped by the wall. He caught hold of her injured arm and pulled her forward. Robin cried out and tried to pull out of his tight grip but couldn’t. She looked up at him.
“Please, please, let go. I’m hurt. Please...” she pleaded.
He didn’t seem to hear her. He pulled her further towards the window, perhaps to get a better look at her in the dimming light. Robin looked around but found nothing that she could use against him as a weapon. He was still glaring down at her. Helpless now she whispered another “please.”
“Who are you?” the man asked in a gruff tone, shaking her a little and Robin cried out again in pain.
“R-Robin...Please. It hurts.” And it must have shown on her face too. Her pain, her terror, for he let go off her. Robin immediately cradled her injured arm to chest. She took a deep rugged breath and pulled herself together, and started with her explanation. She told him how she’d been going to Paradis, how they’d been ship-wrecked and how she was the only survivor. And how she came to be in his shack. He gave no outward sign of understanding what she was saying, just kept looking at her, and it made her wonder if he did understand or was just contemplating his next meal. When she finished he turned from her and went to seat himself one of the tree stumps in the shack which must serve as stools of sorts and gestured for her to take the other. She did. While they sat there Robin took the time to observe him properly. His hair and beard were unkempt, his clothes shabby and torn and places. But overall he seemed to be much cleaner than the other men she’d seen. And he didn’t stink. In fact he seemed...not bad. And he could be a psycho who was just waiting to kill, or eat or rape her. He finally spoke.
“There is no way out of Strafanstalt,” Robin’s heart sank. “Except one.” And hope soared. She listened intently as he continued. “A ship comes every six months to deport new convicts. If you get to them and tell them about yourself and the wreck maybe they’ll take you back.”
“But...?” she asked. “But,” he carried on. “The next one is due in three days. To get there in time you’ll have to pass a dwelling of a particularly...unpleasant band of men and women.”
“H-how do you know all this?” Robin asked.
“I may be a convict but I’m no simpleton. I’ve kept a record.” No. He didn’t seem like a simpleton. Seemed like an intelligent man in fact.
“How will I get there?” Robin asked now.
And he did.
They set out after getting some sleep. They walked, and walked for an age. When they were in the vicinity of the area about which he’d warned her, they stopped and waited till they were sure no one was around. They’d almost managed to get through the maze of shacks and cottages when they’d been apprehended by two men. Her companion had killed them. Efficiently. With the minimum of scuffle. It had shaken her badly. It had finally driven home the fact that he must be a dangerous man indeed to be here. After that they’d moved ahead with no difficulties.
And he’d been right. When she explained to the authorities what had happened, and they’d checked her thoroughly to make sure she didn’t wear the brand of a Strafanstalt convict, they’d agreed to take her back.
Before leaving she’d asked him his name. Fred Lamen, he’d told her.
Now she was back home. Safely back home. She’d not had her vacation after all. Instead the traumatic experience had given her nightmares for days. But she had one thing. A purpose. She knew what she wanted to do now. In principle she had always been against Strafanstalt. Now she was going to openly protest. She’d seen first-hand what it did to people and she would fight against it. She was going to make sure Strafanstalt ‘closed’ down.