It’s been a long time.
Four hundred and fifty-three trillion kilometers is quite the journey, even for me. Here we are, at the edge of nowhere, desperate to see for ourselves if the promises were true, if there’s still hope for our worlds. But for now, that can wait—looking out of the small window of our lander, it’s simply overwhelming to finally see something other than the deep, eternal darkness of space. Just seeing the soft plume of gray, featureless dust caused by the landing is a welcome sight.
Outside, a moon untouched for eons gazed back at me through the wispy veil of suspended dust and sand, and overhead hung a large green, blue and white planet—from here, it looks like it’s the moon, and not the other way around. Has it really been 970 years of sleep? To think… Almost a millennium of time that never was. Oh, the dreams I had! I would almost do this trip again, if only for a millennium of vivid dreams.
Rodhir was already up before me, and I can see him eat a small cube-shaped packet of the food reserve. As I look at the silver food wrapper, I can’t take my eyes off its wondrous shine, a glowing white ball that shackles my attention. Delightful. Why would I need to do anything else? The light… the light… is far too luring, too inviting for me to pull away. I can feel a dull ache start to spread inside my mind.
The pull of the light ceased for a moment. By the edge of my sight, through the window, many small and shiny objects caught my attention—Right, there were supposed to be eight pods total on this mission. Come on, Danbir, think.
This is damned strange. Why is it so hard to think? I can’t even keep my thoughts steady. Can’t… think clearly. What in the three hells is happening to my mind? Maybe overexposure? Overexposure to the cryoarcane preserver. The magic. It might have. It might have what? What magic? What—
“Danbir, catch,” shouts Rodhir. I whip my head around to see a tube fly towards me, almost weightless. It gently smacks my right cheek, and gracefully floats down to the floor.
Rodhir has quite the concerned look, and looks straight into my eyes before adding, “Remember, you have to eat all of it quickly. They told me stories of failed Explorers who forgot to eat it within ten minutes of waking. Ten minutes! Can you imagine that? Numb for the rest of their days, their minds were. True story, I’m telling you, I met some of them myself. Shells of men, really.”
How long has it been? I can feel my heart drop down to my knees. Has it really been more than ten minutes? It isn’t just my mind; it feels like my soul is withering away, slowly, like heat escaping a once hot ember. I dart for the tube just before it hits the floor, and without thinking, the cap flew off, and I’m squeezing the ruby-red jelly paste into my mouth. The taste is peculiar, to say the least; some kind of hybrid between liquid innfruit and a hint of crushed lymegrass, with the skin. Smooth, sweet and dense. Leaves a zestful fire in your throat as you swallow it. My entire body feels warm now, although my head is starting to feel like tiny sharp needles are pricking it all around. Only moments after taking the jelly paste, a painful thunderstorm violently circles inside my head.
“Rodhir,” I groan, and furiously rub my face, “this feels worse than sticking your head in a water tank full of hungry litners. And I have done that, when I was younger, and… wiser,” I almost howl as I close my eyes. Deep breath. I wonder if the inventor of this miserable paste had ever tried his own product. Unlikely.
“It’ll be over soon, you’ll thank me for it. I bet you would have forgotten to eat it if we had the old solo pods, and then you would have looked out the window, been obsessed by the pretty colours until the others pried the doors from the outside and your lungs popped,” said Rodhir. Always full of charm. I don’t quite remember our emergency protocol at this moment but that surely cannot be it.
It’s starting to get a little better. Think positive, Danbir. I hope moon lives up to its promise. I remember that training mission on one of the small moons of planet Victus… frankly I do not understand how I still remember that agonizingly boring and dreadful affair—I almost quit the Explorers after that one. Oh, I was so young! Years used to have meaning back then. And now? Where does time fly?
Finally, my head doesn’t feel like it does after a day riding the sandstorms of planet Torohol.
“Hey Rodhir, do you remember when we rode the sandstorms on Torohol? Gods be praised, you had to have the smarts of an astrophysicist and the sanity of a robot to pull that off. Flying in front of the wave of sand after drinking a bit of Sero was something I will never forget. Thinking back, being a Sero tester for the System was truly a stroke of luck… That one small vial they allowed us let me feel such incredible magic rush through my body. It was like a separate, mighty bloodstream—what a feeling! Alas, it wears off too quickly. That was the only time I ever tried it, but I cannot shake the feeling of wanting to try it again.
“The details of this mission… hmm… hold on. Don’t remind me. No, really, don’t—I need a self-esteem boost after that affair with my mind. This moon, ‘MAQS’ if I recall the name correctly, is the only celestial body in this part of the galaxy that has Sero, other than one of the moons back on planet Selsteil—and believe me, recalling anything is still a bit of a challenge right now. Of course it does, why else would they send Explorers? Daetrite-seronotium, unrefined Sero ice and daetrite sand fused over millennia with notium dark matter under the Boklon force, spawning curious pitch-black crystals, oh how wondrous!”
“Yeah, you’re back to normal, whatever your ‘normal’ is. I’m going to go unpack the suits and check if everything is right with them; can you go start the MPCS? We’ve fucked up our landing a bit, the main landing site with everyone else is about a kilometer away,” Rodhir let out a sigh.
I made my way to the MPCS: the Metasolar Pod Communications System, a true relic of the first solo Explorer pods. If it gets the job done, don’t improve it, I guess. Concentrate, Danbir! In the other room, I could hear Rodhir whistle the high notes of his home planet’s anthem. Forty-seven light-years away from planet Selsteil and he is still as cheery as a pet deever. Funny, I was born on a planet closer to this moon here than Selsteil. I remember the day I decided to move to a more exciting planet. Homesickness still hits you the same, regardless if you measure it in kilometers or light-years. Rodhir’s whistling in the other room abruptly stopped just as I turned on the MPCS.
Our Pod lit up with a brief intense flash of light. Looking out the window, I could see a bright purple and fiery orange burst, a massive explosion expanding around the horizon. Perhaps it was some kind of exotic comet, or asteroid? The flash of light is not where the other Explorer Pods are. Oh my. It could be the Backup Construct.
It was supposed to land two kilometers away from the main landing site as an additional safety measure, so it is about a kilometer away from our Pod. I wonder if the other Pods could see it, it would barely be at the edge of their horizon. The Construct has no explosive or flammable material, no compressed gas. This is puzzling… I wonder what happened. Maybe I am still dreaming? Could this just be another random lifetime in the extended cryoarcane sleep? A voice from the MPCS made me snap out of my ponderings.
“Hey Danbir, it’s Steiya, one of the System operators, if you’ve forgotten me after your long sleep. I hope you’ve eaten the Innly jelly after you’ve woken up. Memory loss is a real possibility with these missions.”
“Waking up was not my decision, it was determined by the System; I would have enjoyed a few dozen more dreams, if it were up to me.”
“You should have been online half an hour ago, but because you’re a shit pilot, you took a moment to land almost kilometer away from us.”
“I did not pilot the thing, it was the System! And I will have you know—” Oh, forget about her, Danbir. “Nevermind. I just saw something interesting happen near the Backup Construct,” If it is a dream, she should reply with something that does not exactly match with what I saw.
“The Commander and I are seeing some strange data coming in here as well. Zaria has been waiting for you to get online so she could brief everyone. Sit tight.”
Well, I presume that would be an adequate response. I really do wonder what happened to the Construct; it is our backup to return to Selsteil in case our Pods fail. Not that we are expecting them to fail… Did something hit it? This moon is in an active comet zone, I think I am just not used to seeing large comets slamming into lunar ground. I am sure Zaria will clear up the confusion, and start this mission. Hundreds of billions of lives back home are at stake, after all.
There’s only sixteen of us Explorers, but I am sure we can do some important work. We have two sustainability specialists (the food growers), two exoengineers (the fixers, Rodhir being one of them), two medical specialists (the space doctors), two astrophysicists (the stargazers), four System operators (the robot lovers), Zaria being one, and the group I belong to: the four exochemists (the smart ones).
“Hello, can everyone hear me loud and clear?” The MPCS sprang back to life with the new voice. “This is Zaria Kolna, Group Commander and System operator speaking. We have problems, and a casualty. To be specific, two problems and a casualty,” she declares. I could feel my blood run cold. A casualty already?
“First, Jorana Ghortal, one of the astrophysicists, didn’t wake up after she was released from the cryoarcane preserver by the System. Even though we’re here for Sero, it can be a dangerous son of a bitch, so never forget that. She was a very capable Explorer, and an outstanding person. Her journey ends; may the gods guide her.”
“Her journey ends; may the gods guide her,” everyone says in unison.
“We’ll need to do an analysis to figure out what happened,” Zaria adds, “but this leaves us with one astrophysicist on our team for the duration of the mission. The cryoarcane preserver, as you all know, has had instances of failure in past cases, however small the possibility. The loss of Jorana will complicate our mission. I am certain Norak will handle his responsibility as the sole astrophysicist.
“I know some of you are from Boltorra, some from Torohol, but for most of us from Selsteil, mourning isn’t part of our tradition. Nevertheless, those of you who wish to mourn, come visit my Pod within the next two hours.
“Next, we aren’t receiving any signals from the Backup Construct, and we believe there was an explosion that originated from inside it. Rodhir and Foltar, suit up and go inspect what happened. Steiya, stay in my Pod and sift through any faults the Backup Construct may have experienced. Finding out what happened will be our priority before we start exploration on this moon.
“As for the last issue, it’s minor. The rest of the System operators and I have noticed a glitch in the Automated Artificial Explorer robots that arrived here before us, roughly forty Selsteili years ago. The glitch in the AAE’s is something I haven’t seen before. I don’t know if it’s just a case of bad parameters, but the bots are mass producing bridges on this moon from native material. I know how ludicrous this glitch sounds, but they were indeed supposed to build a system of bridges from the native moon rock. Three hells if know why, but they have been repeating this task without respecting the strict parameters set to control where to build the bridges, which would normally be over fissures or chasms so we could preserve our limited liftpack fuel. So, we have these AAE’s building these bridges for over four decades now, and it’s becoming a serious case of ecophagy. They’re essentially eating the environment and shitting out bridges, to put it another way. Good news is, the rate is slow, but if we had landed a few decades later, this moon might have been just a patchwork of ugly rock bridges. Whoever was overseeing this program, if they monitored it at all, was a complete and total dirdun, excuse my language,”
“We’ll work to find out what’s causing the glitch, but it’s not compromising the mission at this point,” Steiya replies, “I’ll take a detailed look at the Backup Construct data.”
Zaria continues, “In any case, once we harvest enough Daetrite-seronotium and refine it into pure Sero, we’ll go ahead and keep expanding our reach on this moon. If we cannot find an adequate amount of Sero, or none at all, we’ll need to use our reserve Sero in our Pods, and blast any of the asteroids and comets that could threaten us with pulses of magic. There’s no way around drinking the stuff for that type of brief power, so it’s not a decision I’ll take lightly. Norak should keep you all updated on comets and asteroids that—” a small buzz of static interrupts her, “—your suits, meet me outside my pod and we can get started by getting our sea legs on solid ground.”
Coming out of the MPCS room, I noticed Rodhir was sitting on the ground, with his back against the wall of the spacesuit storage unit, and tears were running down his face. The suits are still inside. In his hand, I can see him holding a photo. I remember it well: his wife, Senna; his daughter, Vitana, and himself back in their home city on planet Selsteil. I remember the joy it gave to him when he taped the photo to one of the interior Pod walls before lift-off. The memory that photo brought to him was probably more valuable than a nitric oxide supply tank on a lifeless moon. I remember meeting Senna once, what a complex woman she was! With Rodhir, I could usually figure out what his thoughts are and actions will be, but with his wife, I had no such privilege. Vitana was a small girl back then, but just as adventurous as her father. That was a thousand years ago.
The last time I saw Rodhir cry was when he was rejected on the first application to the Explorers. I dedicated my free time to ferry him into the Explorers, even though a few regulations may have been broken along the way. But that’s what friends do.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him, even though I knew what it was. It’s why most Explorers don’t have families. Rodhir looks at the photo in his hands, and lets his head fall onto his chest. I can see he is holding back more tears in his eyes.
“I remember looking at this photo when we left the Selsteili system, feeling like I was walking through the memory, feeling like a time traveller. No such luck today,” he tries to smile, and the tears trickle down the lines of his face. “We’re separated by an ocean of time, this photo and I. Everyone I’ve ever known is gone. We slept through 970 years in deep space, oblivious to everything that actually matters. Everyone’s gone, man. Everyone! All the people that we’ve known, all of our friends back home living normal lives, centuries have passed since they’ve died of old age. Their children’s children would have already passed away.
“My beautiful Senna, my shining star in the abyss, gone… Vitana, I’ll never get to see her smile again. By the time we return to Selsteil, the disparity in time will be so vast… you know Danbir, I’m afraid even all traces of the people I’ve loved will be gone. When we return two thousand years later, no one else in the entire universe will even know that they all existed. If death had a face, it would be the lifeless face of a clock.”
As I look and listen to Rodhir, I know what is happening: Explorer Sickness. People realize the sheer volume of time that passes during the journey, its implications, and of course, the mind isn’t so resilient when it comes to that kind of pain. Though we spent many long hours studying this phenomenon in our classes, I thought it would be the least of my concerns as an Explorer. Still, the sickness manifests quietly, can come and go at any time, and it can be devastating inside our small group if it spreads. It was forbidden to bring anything along with us that could trigger memories for this very reason. How Rodhir snuck that photo in is beyond me; I completely forgot how dangerous it could be when I first saw it. I crouched down and sat beside him.
“We have a useful saying back on my original home planet, Boltorra. Actually, we have more sayings than we ought to, but here’s one that might connect with you: We fill our lives with dreams, and our dreams with lives. We’ve slept for so long that I feel like I’ve lived dozens of lifetimes in my dreams. I’ve encountered thousands of people, died hundreds of times, and been to more worlds than I can recall. The people of Boltorra say we can only populate our dreams with the faces of people we’ve already met in the real world. This means that your wife, Senna, and your daughter Vitana, could be in your dreams, living with you for hundreds of years, dream after dream. On our return trip, you will see all of your loved ones and your friends more times than you can imagine. You will feel the dream world to be as genuine as the real one.
“And you know, I have been where you are right now on my trip to Selsteil from Boltorra. That trip was eleven light-years in length, or 865 years in Selsteili time with the crude technology back then. Even though I am a man of science, the world of dreams is the only thing that has kept me sane through all these unseen years. You will find them again in your world of dreams, Rodhir. I promise you that. Now, let us get those spacesuits out, and start being Explorers.”
I could hear Rodhir quietly whisper something to himself. After a moment, he looks at me and puts the photograph back on the wall, pauses for a moment to gaze at his young wife and little daughter, forever frozen in time, and helps to unpack the suits in a somber silence.