Werner Herzog in Space

April 20, 2020 / / Short Fiction

The old filmmaker watched from the terrace as a shadow flitted across his darkened back lawn and disappeared through the archway below. Werner transferred the Beretta from his boot to his belt and went to see who this visitor was that shunned the front door and the light.

A man wearing a gray woolen robe ascended the stairs. His head was hidden deep inside his hood. Werner transferred the pistol from his belt to his palm, and transferred the safety to off.

The stranger reached into a pouch slung over his shoulder. Werner aimed the pistol at the shadowed face. “Show yourself,” he directed, his voice leathery and uncompromising, accustomed to addressing the darkness and calling forth its secrets.

The visitor raised his hood and uncovered the visage of Elon Musk, a face full of childlike wonder and alien cunning. From his pouch he produced a model aeroplane with an unfamiliar teardrop design. Elon reached the top of the stairs and looked at the wall.

“You scoundrel,” Werner said with a relieved chuckle, his Bavarian accent conveying warmth as easily as it had just conveyed death. He turned on the safety once more and lowered the pistol. “Why are you sneaking around? I almost shot you.”

“Maybe you still will,” the inventor-oligarch quipped. “I have bad news and the messenger always gets shot. Jeff Bezos is sending Michael Bay to Saturn to film a Superbowl commercial, with Coldplay accompanying him to provide the music.”

“Excellent,” Werner said. “Good riddance. Nobody can survive such a journey. Maybe they will cannibalize each other.”

“They also plan to set up an interplanetary movie studio system specifically for superhero movies.”

Werner aimed the pistol between Elon’s eyes and squeezed the trigger, but the safety was on. Scowling, he shoved the weapon back in his pants and walked over to his keg to pour two beers. “This is unacceptable. We must sabotage them. We must use all of our cunning.”

Elon drank from the stout he was handed, thick as mud. “I have prepared something much better than sabotage.”

“Of course you have. Tell me.”

Elon handed the model plane to Werner. It was shaped like a teardrop with wings, featuring a big window in front looking into the cockpit. A tiny figure could be seen at the tiny console, with a face identical to Werner’s own, with his serious sparkling eyes.

“If you leave tonight you can beat them,” Elon said. “They plan to stop at Mars and visit several Jovian moons before reaching Saturn’s orbit. You must be the first film director to document our solar system. This ship uses a top-secret propulsion system and answers only to a Bavarian accent. But I must warn you, because of fuel constraints it’s a one-way trip.”

“There are no other kinds. I shall name this ship The Heraclitus.”

“Jeff Bezos will be super pissed when he finds out we’ve beaten him.”

“Bezos is a bozo. He makes one web page and he thinks he can conquer the solar system. I don’t think so. But who will make the soundtrack? I doubt we can rouse Ernst at this hour.”

“We tried to convince Trent Reznor to accompany you, but he declined. So we kidnapped him.”

Elon put his fingers in his mouth and let loose a bird call. Soon two more figures ascended the staircase: a pale elf-woman hauling a leather-bound man wearing a leather mask. She tugged on his chain and he dropped to his knees before the director. Then she unzipped his eyes-holes.

Werner put the model plane beneath Trent Reznor’s chin and lifted it up to look in the slave’s eyes. “He’s washed up. I was hoping for Hootie and the Blowfish, but I suppose this will do. I have no quarrel with Coldplay but I cannot allow Michael Bay to do to Saturn’s moons what he did to The Transformers.”

“There’s no time to waste,” Elon urged. “Press the button on the bottom of the model to summon the ship.”

Werner pressed the button and within moments a light hum grew into an undulating thrum. A much larger version of the vessel landed on the back lawn. A team of engineers appeared out of the darkness with stencils and spray-paint to inscribe the words, “The Heraclitus” onto the shimmering blue hull, quick as a pit-crew, then disappeared once more.

“The ship is equipped with the best audio and video recorders,” Elon explained, “as well as a wide variety of synthesizers and effects for Trent. There’s enough food to get you to Saturn.”

“I have one request before I leave this world,” Werner told the billionaire. “Once I’m gone, go into my basement and destroy what you discover there. Do not ask questions and tell nobody what you see.”

Elon’s brows rose in intrigue but he offered a pert nod. “Of course.”

Then Werner took up Trent’s chain. “Come slave,” he said, and together they descended the stairs. Elon and his elf-queen watched from the terrace as the filmmaker and the musician entered the sleek craft. Then it lifted into the air.

In the cockpit Werner was surrounded by video screens showing a full 360 degrees. Further back Trent was fiddling with knobs on a rack of analog synths and effects.

Werner turned on the audio and video recorders, which also transmitted their feed to an earth-based server.

As they ascended Trent Reznor played one long note, starting as a simple tone which slowly built into a haunting chord, and beyond this into a triumphant cacophony of distorted reverb.

Werner narrated:

The Earth disappears below me. The acceleration is surprisingly mild as it pushes me down in my chair like a comforting hug. The engines are running smoothly.

The lights of American cities sparkle far below, growing smaller and smaller as I join the stars above. I thought I would feel a sense of loss but instead I feel giddy like an escaping convict, but also nervous that my jailers might recapture me.

My control panel informs me that we have escaped the Earth’s orbit. Now that I can see my planet in its entirely I can tell it what I really think. Earth, you are a carnival of horrors. Your children are all monsters and I loathe their cruelty. And yet, I miss my friends.

Reznor’s chord dropped to a tragic key and went silent. He mumbled into the sound system, “Herr director, we have a bogey.”

Werner sighed. “I can read my own screen, slave, thank you.”

The radar showed a red dot approaching them at a dangerous speed, but not on a collision course. Werner cycled through the craft’s many cameras until he caught a blurry image of the object pursuing them. It was a flying saucer with a steel brim and a glass dome. Through the transparent dome he could barely discern the stony visage of Michael Bay at the controls and Coldplay jamming behind him.

“They will overtake us and beat us to Mars,” Werner lamented. “Their spacecraft is superior to our own.”

“This machine is obsolete,” Trent said, wiring up more synths and effects on the rack.

“You are not here to offer lyrical redundancies,” Werner scolded his servant. “We have to torpedo them before they overtake us. But we brought no torpedoes. We will have to launch you at their flying saucer and hope your body slows them down.”

“Too late,” Trent Reznor said. “They've already launched their torpedoes at us.”

The cameras showed a volley of MTV Movie Awards flying on an intercept course. “Evasive maneuvers,” Werner said, punching controls to change the vessel’s trajectory. They missed the bulk of the volley and several of the awards passed the vessel to join the stars. But one Best Action Sequence Award for Armageddon (1998) hit The Heraclitus’ fin and sent it spinning out of control as Bay’s shimmering saucer blasted past them in the blink of an eye. Werner caught a quick glimpse of Bay’s smiling face, but Coldplay was giving him the finger. Then they were gone and The Heraclitus corkscrewed madly, its spin too chaotic for the ship’s systems to autocorrect. Blinking lights and blazing sirens filled the cockpit.

Werner found himself too dizzy to work the controls. The stars spun past so fast he felt like vomiting. “It cannot end this way,” he said. The ship's spin was still accelerating. “I cannot be defeated by the accolades of philistines. Yet I have always known this would be my fate.”

The spin was so fast that the director was losing consciousness. But he saw Trent Reznor, chained to his synth rack, tearing open the ship’s walls and rerouting wires and circuitry between the ship’s systems and his electronic instruments.

“I think I can correct the spin with a low frequency oscillator,” the audio engineer explained. His iron-hard muscles struggled against the centrifugal force. He bit the wires to strip off their casings and twisted the metal together, then slowly tweaked knobs on the effects pedals until the spin diminished. The stars rotated slower and slower until they finally stopped. Stabilized, the ship’s autopilot corrected their trajectory so they were aimed at Mars again. But Michael Bay’s flying saucer was nowhere to be seen.

“We survived,” Herzog said joylessly, “but now we will never catch up to them. We live only to witness our own defeat.”

“Maybe not,” Reznor countered mildly. His chains clinked and rattled as he connected the ship and his sound system in an ever-deepening electronic symbiosis. The acceleration increased dramatically. Within seconds Werner saw the flying saucer in his screen. Soon they would be passing them.

“We must have vengeance,” Werner intoned. “What can we launch at them? I need you alive now to operate the ship. I may have to launch myself.”

“I have just the thing,” the musician said with the slightest smile, tearing open yet another panel in the wall. “I’m taking control of our radio transmitter. We’ll show these hacks the true power of music.”

He turned up the reverb, distortion, and feedback, then hit a dissonant chord on his midi controller. It made no sound in The Heraclitus, but on his video screen Werner saw that the flying saucer’s occupants had received the radio signal. They all clamped their palms over their ears and opened their mouths to scream uselessly. As The Heraclitus whizzed past the saucer, Chris Martin’s head exploded like a pumpkin, splattering brains and blood all over his horrified shipmates.

Werner laughed in triumph. “Now they know who they are dealing with. They will think twice before attacking me with their phony awards. Even if they defeat us in the end, we have given mister Bay the most exciting sequence of all his films. Thank your mister Reznor. You have saved my life and my dignity. I will remove your chains.”

“No,” Trent responded. “They make me happy.”

Werner studied his slave with cheerful curiosity, “Very well. Now, I am an old man and I must nap. Wake me when we reach Mars.”

Much later, Werner narrated:

I have never seen anything so unwholesome as the landscape of Mars. It is horrifying to know that these planets exist. These empty worlds hold no life and no dreams, only violence and endless cold silence. I see rocks strewn across a rolling landscape of sand, and I wonder what stupid forces placed them there. A poison wind stirs up the dirt, and the worthlessness of this dirt is repeated all the way to the planet’s barren core. This has been going on for billions of years, on billions of planets that nobody cares about. I only wish Kinski was still with us so I could abandon him here. He might give this world some personality.

Trent Reznor played a long subtle chord as The Heraclitus glided over the Martian landscape at a low altitude of thirty meters. A slow-rising smooth volcano sloped up ahead of them on the horizon.

Werner's narration continued:

Occasional volcanoes tease us with evidence that something interesting might once have occurred on this corpse. Lava once flowed, back when Mars was young and still had potential. But now that potential is gone and in its place is the same cold stupidity that lies at the center of the human heart. This is our destiny. This is our god.

I keep hoping that I might see some sign of life. Some madman who came out here to get away from the banality of civilization. I want to see what would happen to his mind. What kinds of ideas would infect his psyche? Would he remember how to speak? I envy the blissful silence of his mind. But I think he would just disappear, snap out of existence, for nothing could ever survive here.

I cannot even see this planet’s pathetic moons through the fog of dirt. I have already lost interest. Let’s move on to another empty world.

The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is a disappointment. I was hoping for more danger, dodging between a chaos of tumbling space-rocks, but the asteroids are far apart and easy to avoid. I suppose there is some majesty to their lonely vigilance. They do not know that nobody needs them, like soldiers in remote camps that do not know the war has been over for years. They exist despite our need for purpose. When they outlive us they will derive no joy from their victory.

Jupiter overwhelms my powers of description. I will let my cameras do their work but even they cannot convey the majesty and horror of this god. One day our robotic descendants might drink the storms that cover her surface, and I dread what they will uncover below.  

Trent Reznor interrupted his narration. “I’m receiving a signal from the surface of Io. I think it’s Michael Bay. They must have passed us while we visited Mars.”

An image appeared on one of the many screens. A wild-eyed Michael Bay stood within the dome of his spacecraft, his mouth covered in blood which dripped down his chin and neck. He had cannibalized Coldplay and their chewed-up corpses surrounded him like a sacred mandala in an alien ritual. Behind him, through the glass of the dome, Werner could see the landscape of the Jovian moon Io. Molten sulfur poured out through fissures in the rocks at the base of an imposing mountain of shattered yellow stone. Above it all green and black clouds flashed with neon pink lightning.

Trent Reznor said, “The isolation of space, combined with Chris Martin’s head exploding, must have pushed him over the edge.”

“I found the base of The Transformers,” Bay told his rapt audience. “They’re inside the mountain. I have to go meet them.”

“You’ve found no such thing,” Werner responded. “I beg you to stay inside your ship until we can retrieve you.”

But Bay was already donning his space suit and would not be dissuaded. “Only Optimus Prime understands me.”

“If you must go then do not forget your camera, you doomed fool.”

“I’ll get an Oscar for this for sure.”

Werner watched Michael Bay’s final moments as the director of Pain & Gain entered into the opening in the rocks and was consumed by the sickly sulfur boiling out from the moon’s innards. Then Werner deleted that portion of the video, recording only his commentary. “Nobody must ever watch this. Know only that this man transformed himself into a quixotic angel, and he wished only to entertain. He brought himself to the limit and then stepped beyond. If only I could be so bold.”

Silence followed. Then Trent Reznor began to play a tragic homage to the late director of Bad Boys II.

“I suppose I should move on to Saturn,” Werner said, though his heart wasn’t in it. He felt he should mourn longer for Michael Bay, but their food supplies were dwindling.

“We don’t have the fuel to escape Jupiter’s orbit,” Trent explained. “We spent too much correcting our spin after the MTV Movie Awards attack.”

Werner grinned sadly. “The people have spoken. We will leave it for the next generation to probe the outer solar system. For now The Heraclitus will follow in the footsteps of the great Galileo. No stone will mark our graves, but when Earth receives our video transmission it will leave a mark upon their souls. They will see that space offers only doom, and they will be compelled to confront and conquer it.

Behold the clouds that consume me. They swirl and they dance. They have been waiting for us. They cannot reject me now. Let me in you faeries, you gods! Though I will not survive you, I will die among you. This is my final cut. But for my species let this be the end of the opening act.