These are the voyages of the Starship Corrugated Cardboard, its five year mission to seek out, somewhere in the illimitable vastness of space, the Planet of the Crumpled Jesuits. This is needle in a haystack stuff. Unless you have boldly gone across the universe yourself, aboard one of the other starships, you really can have no idea just what a palaver it is. So, some sympathy please.
When I was called in to Starship Command, four and a half years ago, all I knew was that I was going to be made captain of a mission. What I did not know was the nature of that mission. I was excited, for this was to be my first captaincy. I had plenty of experience as a bo’sun and a crow’s nester on both ships and starships. I had done the so-called “milk round”, delivering bottles of milk to far-flung space colonies such as New Jaywick and Far Distant New Isle of Muck. I had served my time plying between the dismal little planetoids of Galaxy 14, eradicating the bindweed and setting up diversity outreach initiatives. I had even been to the furthest and most distant planet of all, the one with the weird voodoo-rastafarian belief system and giant Cyclopean turtles and sweet-smelling marsh gas. But none of these voyages had prepared me for the mission to find, somewhere in the illimitable vastness of space, the Planet of the Crumpled Jesuits.
The story goes that several hundred years ago, on a mere whim, a gang of Jesuits grew tired of earthly ways and set out in a secondhand spaceship to find a deserted planet. There they would establish a Jesuitical paradise, if one can imagine such a thing. They, quite clearly, did. But what they cannot have foreseen was their gradual crumpling, which began shortly after they landed on their distant world, and proceeded apace, with ghastly consequences. Now every single Jesuit on the planet was a picture of almost unimaginable crumplement. Paradise it might have been, but a paradise tinged with crumples.
This much we knew from radio reports picked up by a space scooter. The news caused something of a hubbub when it reached Earth. Certain members of the Interplanetary Council were livid, others more sanguine. But the livid ones won the day, and it was they who insisted on sending a mission to find the planet. Because of the space scooter’s on-board radio scrambling system, it was an unfathomable mystery from where the stark and crumpled messages had been sent. I did ask Starship Command what I was meant to do after I found the planet, and was given an envelope marked “Further Instructions To Be Opened Only After The Planet Of The Crumpled Jesuits Has Been Located And That Location Confirmed”. I kept the envelope tucked into a pocket of my Starship Captain’s Smock. It’s a fine smock, modelled on the ones worn by nineteenth century peasants in rustic English backwaters.
“Rustic backwaters” is as good a description as any of the many and various worlds we have visited during the last four and a half years. We have seen incredible things, most of them involving potatoes, hay and space-straw, but to date we have not encountered a crumpled Jesuit. Uncrumpled ones, yes, on certain other planets, a list of which I maintain in my log book. Most planets, after all, or at least most of the ones that support life, have a Jesuit, as they have an alderman and a town crier and a haberdasher and a man whose job it is to club seals. My crew and I have gained deep and penetrating insights into the basic patterns of the known universe.
And we have taken tea with the voodoo-rastafarians of that most distant of all planets. It was our first port of call. Knowing that some members of my crew would suffer from terrible homesickness, I decided to ease their sufferings by the simple expedient of so arranging things that for the bulk of our voyage we would be heading Earthwards. In a roundabout way, of course, but generally with the starship’s nose cone pointing towards home. As a result of my captainy wisdom, morale has been high. Where the average starship voyage is a purgatory of lassitude, grumpiness, longing, and weeping, the Corrugated Cardboard is a jocund ship, with piccolo recitals and flower-arranging contests and jousting tournaments and games of quoits and monkey divertissements and all sorts of other recreations. On Sundays I prance and skip about with a fairy wand. The only tears are tears of happiness.
Yet for all that, there is mounting tension. With only six months before our scheduled landing at Starship Command HQ at Clacton-on-Sea, we are all too aware that we are in danger of failure. There has been so sign of anything even resembling the Planet of the Crumpled Jesuits. Our daily prayers are not helping, even though we say them in Latin, and wear vestments. The envelope in my pocket remains unopened. I know I cannot ask for more time. For one thing, the fuel will run out. Also, the emergency boosters packed up after we had to make a quick getaway from a planet in sector 9 which turned out to be inhabited entirely by starving, befanged and ferocious giant space-donkeys. The chief engineer, a dour Scot like all good starship chief engineers, has been faffing about with the boosters day in day out, but they still make a horrible creaking noise and sputter out. Or perhaps it is the chief engineer who makes the creaking noise? He may be more elderly than I had been led to believe. Or the space-time continuum might be playing tricks on us. I have heard rumours of such things.
But we must keep our peckers up. Today is the feast day of St Ignatius Loyola. We shall continue on our voyage aboard the starship Corrugated Cardboard with hope in our hearts. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the gravitational field of the Planet of the Crumpled Jesuits.