Forbidden Utopia

Julianna Bustamante, Follow Your Heart. Watercolor, acrylic, and pen, 2024.


By Sophie Nyunt

        Cedro wiped a greasy glove over his forehead, black oil smeared across his face as he huddled under the vent of The Black Clover. Just two weeks after departing on a mission to collect samples of unknown life sources, he’d heard soft screeching coming from the air ducts in the ceiling. It didn’t strike him as odd–his spacecraft was limping on ten years of space travel, but he didn’t want to take any chances. Cedro had been on enough missions to know when something was awry. His third mission, and the one he’d never forget, ended with his partner floating into space, her soft features turning into a pale blue as frost covered her face. He shook his head at the memory and set down the rod. 

        “Stats, Clover,” he said aloud. Within a couple of seconds, a female-like voice ricocheted through the walls of the spacecraft. 

        “Oxygen levels are at 95%,” the voice said. 

        Cedro hummed and closed the air duct, tightening the bolts before shoving his dirty gloves in the tool box. 

        “Location?” He asked.

        “Two thousand light years out from Earth.” 

        He walked through the Black Clover, past his bunk bed, only one bed inhabited now, past his pod and suit. He stopped in front of the control panel–a circular table with a holographic screen showing him the reports. His green eyes scanned the information and he nodded to himself, pleased, until his eyes landed on the map. Clover had been correct; they were indeed two thousand light years away, except something was wrong.

        Very wrong. 

        Cedro ran to the small window across from him and practically shoved his head against it. The spacecraft floated next to a bright iridescent planet, one that called to him. He felt it in his body, his toes, his fingertips, his soul. 

        “Clover,” he rasped, “stop the ship.” 

        “I do not follow, sir. We haven’t reached our destination yet.” 

        Cedro didn’t understand. He’d traveled two thousand miles before and never once caught a glimpse of the shining orb. There was a possibility he’d been dragged into a wormhole– a black twilight zone of sorts. But he would’ve known—The Black Clover would’ve known. 

        “Just do it,” he demanded. 

        He felt the air around him squeeze at his lungs and he held out an arm against the wall to steady himself as the spacecraft’s engines shifted. Silver flames encompassed the planet, whirling in the reflection of his blinded eyes. It could be a star, Cedro thought, but the chances of another star as big as the sun were low, almost impossible.

        “Would you like me to send out a message?” Clover asked.

        Cedro shook his head. This was meant for him. For his eyes only. With this kind of discovery… The possibilities were endless. 


        Warm sweat dropped from the palms of his hands, and he noticed how hot it was in the spacecraft. Without warning, he felt an excruciating amount of pain thrust through the hand he’d pressed up against the window. Cedro cursed and pulled his arm back, but the damage was already done. His hand shook as he turned it over, a sick twist in his stomach forming as his eyes met the red, blistering skin on his palm. 

        “Shit,” he hissed, running to the medkit hanging on the wall. With his good hand, he tore it open, tearing open the gauze with his teeth. He wrapped it tightly around his palm, wincing as the scratchy cloth met his open wound. He pulled it tighter until his wrist was purple, the blood flow making his already burning cut feel hotter. 

        He stepped into his suit, latching all of the switches and knobs until it was securely snug around his figure. The windows of the spacecraft were coated with a thick, yellow layer of what seemed to resemble pollen or dust. Not knowing how much he should trust the air on an undiscovered planet, Cedro attached the heavy, clear helmet over his head and waited for Clover’s clear voice in his ears. 

        “Landing in T-minus ten seconds, sir.” 

        As the spacecraft slowly lowered onto the ground, it was obvious that it’d taken too much power to travel through the atmosphere surrounding the planet. The ship groaned and let out multiple mechanic cries. Cedro thought the Black Clover would give up on him right there, but he felt the rocky landing beneath his feet and let out a sigh of relief. 

        “Doors opening in 3, 2, 1,” Clover reported. Cedro’s heart sped up as he imagined the outcomes. He could’ve just landed himself on a hell, a stormy planet full of monsters of his worst nightmares…but something in his chest told him that wasn’t right. And as the doors opened, warm sunlight shined on his face, he knew he was right. 

        Grassy fields and yellow-tinted skies surrounded Cedro in every direction. He stepped out of the ship, feeling the soft, moist dirt under his boots. A refreshing breeze rushed through the tall, stick-like trees that lined the forest floor, each one a different shade of black. It was almost like Earth. 

        Cedro itched to take off his helmet and breathe in the air for himself, but he restrained from doing so. Not until he had more evidence. He opened his pack and pulled out several yellow bags, the word “EVIDENCE” printed in bold letters on the center. Using tongs, he carefully ripped a few strands of grass and placed them in the bag. 

        He ignored the voice in his head telling him to return to his ship and finish his expedition elsewhere. He needed to do it here. Bringing these samples home would change the trajectory of his life—it would clear his name, bring him enough money to live comfortably… He would show everyone in his unit that he wasn’t pathetic. Maybe he’d get to lead his own team over here and create a new way of living.

        Cedro smiled and shoved the sample bag in his pocket and began walking into the forest, away from the Black Clover. Away from the only means of his return. 

        The forest was painted purple and blue, with unrecognizable animals scurrying around the bushes. They resembled earth animals, but it was as if they’d been the failed versions. Cedro stepped past a critter that looked identical to a squirrel until it turned around and he caught a glimpse of its third eye. 

        This unusual shock came to him with each animal he stumbled across, but he didn’t start collecting them until the thought occurred: He needed hard, physical proof of living beings on the planet, not some puny bag of grass. He thought of the reactions from his management when he showed them his discoveries, the squirrels with three eyes and birds with no wings. 

        Cedro emptied his backpack onto the forest floor, dumping the bags of grass. With a bag in his hand, he crouched down behind a bush and held his breath until he heard something move in front of him. He peeked out. Satisfaction filling his chest–he was face to face with a squirrel. Its bulbous eyes blinked at him one after another, and for a small moment, he almost regretted what he was about to do. Almost

        As quick as lightning, his arm shot out and wrapped around the animal’s neck, squeezing until he felt it crack and go limp in his hold. Cedro dropped it in his sample bag and returned to his backpack, but he wasn’t done yet. He had to fill each bag, just to be safe. A thought occurred to him as he looked for more demented animals: He would be a god. Everyone back at Earth would bow to him. He’d have the entire planet in his hands. Cedro turned around and noticed the trees shaking.  

        A loud screeching filled his helmet, his ears. He thrust his hands up to his ears, but they met the thick glass of his helmet. Without a second thought, Cedro tore the helmet off from his head. The noise stopped. He looked around him, the trees still shaking, and made eye contact with a creature hanging off of a tree branch. Its mouth opened slowly, revealing three rows of jagged, sharp teeth, and it began to shriek. 

        The noise filled his ears once again, and Cedro urged his feet to move—to run back in the direction of The Black Clover. Despite the alluring air, he held his breath and threw his pack over his shoulders. As he sprinted back, he noticed the dark shade of red that the sky had become. Cedro angled his head towards the sun, but it was gone. A burning red sphere filled the sky. 

        “What the…” he whispered, entranced by its rhythmic motion. The screech grew louder, snapping him out of it, but The Black Clover was nowhere in sight. Cedro dropped his bag in the dirt and studied each direction, wondering if he’d taken a wrong turn and was simply lost. But as his eyes lowered to the grass, they stopped on a yellow seal. The seal for his evidence bags. 

        He bent down to pick it up, his burned hand still thrumming in pain. All of a sudden, the scream stopped.

        All noises, for that matter, had gone quiet. 

        “Hello?” Cedro called out, giving up with the trash and standing upright. 

        A thick gush of air blew in his face in response. Cedro dug into his pockets for a flare–and realized that he’d dumped everything on the forest floor. With terror, the feeling hit him: he wasn’t leaving this planet alive. He had no food, no water, no means of communication back on Earth. 

        Cedro felt a low rumbling from beneath him. It vibrated from his toes through his body. He backed up, walking cautiously away from the source of the thrumming, but a large crack opened up the dirt. It split the ground in spikes, each splinter in the ground getting closer to Cedro, no matter how fast he backed away. 

        The back of his foot hit a rock and he fell backwards, but he didn’t stop moving. His palm hit the ground and he cried out, unable to lift himself up. He was frozen in fear and stupidity. How had he trusted a planet that he’d never come across? 

        All for selfish reasons. 

        Cedro pressed the call button on his suit, hoping Clover would receive it, and as he opened his mouth, the crack began to expand open. Beneath the planet’s crust, there was nothing but a black pit. The world around him was quiet, except for the crackling of the soil. 

        Cedro accepted his fate as the planet swallowed him whole.