The sand and rocks shifted under the sole of his boot. He found his footing, and his suit remained uncompromised. He knew it would but there was always something about zero atmosphere and low G that made him nervous. He paused for a moment and looked back into space, its ominous, empty void seemingly staring back into him, almost taunting him. He didn’t like that about this place, no stars that is. No rotation, no atmosphere, and a generous, nearby sun made it impossible to see the stars from here. This only amplified the subtle sense of unease that had been creeping over him since he landed. For a moment he began to wonder what he was doing here.
He certainly had the gifts to be doing something else. He had the mind, the health, and the physical stature to have done well in normal, practicable life. Yet here he was, wandering around an alien moon, searching for remnants of an ancient civilization that, in all likelihood, never existed to begin with.
His gaze now wandered to the planet hanging low on the horizon, surrounded by its disquietingly pale green aura: SR-388. It had been the focus of so much hope for his people, so many beautiful dreams, now it was little more than a symbol of sad, inadmissible, disappointment.
He was just old enough to remember life before the portals. His planet had established a manufacturing and research center on their own moon and even began colonizing one of the nearby planets in their own solar system, but they could go no further. Then, one day, they built a working portal. A “portal” was, in essence, a super-powerful particle collider that could create tunnels in the fabric of space itself. The great advance with the portals is that they could be controlled, directed, and that objects sent through these portals could be retrieved. At first the could only transport inanimate objects. In time they discovered that organic matter shielded, or contained, by certain alloys could pass through the portals as well. His planet changed practically overnight.
The moon base and the off world colonies which were once distant and remote became immediately accessible. Soon more colonies popped up everywhere like old wild frontier towns following the steam engines. Within a few years they had explored and sent satellites to all the corners of their solar system. Scientific mysteries long pondered by astronomers were revealed and the spirit of discovery swelled as does a rising tide. It did not take long before the true potential of this technology was realized and the greatest of all scientific dreams seemed a very, very real possibility.
He was in the middle of his advanced studies when the search began. It was also during this course of study that he met her, and, he now thought, he took the first steps on the path that led him here. She was beautiful, but not in the idealized way typical of popular culture. Her eyes, her smile, on the rare occasions one was elicited, her general dignity, were all alluring in ways that could not be described. Sometimes he felt like an insect being drawn in by a predatory plant. The physical attraction was only the bait. It was her mind that was the real trap. Her sharp wit and practiced aptitude for observation and analysis made her stand out and above all others. Apparently he had had a similar effect on her. Initially they had mistaken their intial feelings for ones of rivalry not affection. But in time they found the truth. These were halcyon days for him and for a time there seemed to be no future that was not bright and warm. But people change with time and as their studies intensified, their final proposals loomed, and the prospect of uncertainty began to raise its ugly head, the two had found themselves unable to adapt. During a particularly stressful period they rather messily and cruelly parted ways. The worst pain was that he knew there was no fault in their relationship that could not have been repaired with even the least amount of care and compassion. It was only their short-sightedness and arrogance that had destroyed the relationship. He knew that his loneliness was not inevitable.
It was around this time that his whole world was to experience a great disappointment. The ultimate goal of the portals, the whole point, was to discover and meet intelligent extraterrestrial life. The highest of goals, the dream of scientists since time immemorial. There was a brief, rabid search when the idea was first proposed. People debated not whether or not to go, but where to go. All sides of all values and all politics had heated debates, proposing one goal over another. These debates were brief, though, as the real astronomers quickly remembered a long forgotten world, a pale, blue dot nearly 800 light years away. It had been designated SR-388 and to the casual cosmic observer it held little appeal, a tiny, rocky planet in the inner orbit of a medium, mundane star. But to his people it glittered like a sapphire. What spectrometry they could muster showed that it had water. It existed in the “golden zone” where that water would be liquid, and it had enough mass to generate similar gravity to their own planet as well as trap the atmosphere necessary for life. This had to be the place, and now was the time. While in the past the vast distance to this world made it little more than a mote of dust, with the portals, it became giant. Before they could only speculate from afar. Now they could go there. So a mission was organized and an observation satellite was sent on a preliminary reconnaissance mission.
The probe returned in one piece and with its data intact which was a great success for the portals. The analytic results were a tremendous heartbreak. What was known as a sweet blue paradise was now a sickening pale orb. The vast oceans had turned green, the lands lay barren, and the white clouds had become yellow and pink. Spectrometry showed toxic levels of Sulphuric and Nitric acid, as well as high levels of Methane in the atmosphere and tremendous levels of heavy metals in the oceans. Something terrible had happened to SR-388. Not surprisingly many people abandoned the idea of a manned voyage. What was the point? Still a few die-hard scientists and dreamers believed it was a worthy investment, if only as a test of the portals. Using this ultimate pragmatism a mission was arranged. All they needed now was a pilot. Which is why he got the call.
One night, seemingly out of the blue, he was contacted by an old mentor of his, a student who was finishing their advanced degrees just as he was beginning his. This old friend was now working on the exploration of SR-388. He was calling about a problem. The ship they were sending was suitable only for one person, and though the portals could send physical objects, they couldn’t carry radio signals, or any other means of communication. This meant that whoever went would be on their own. Certainly the military could provide many physically capable and trainable volunteers, but none would have the academic background or technical expertise to try and find their way back if something went wrong. They needed a real scientist who could process information quickly, comprehend the underlying principles, and think critically about abstract principles. Could he do it? Could he handle being alone?
Yes. Yes he could.
The time since then seemed like a blur. He breezed through the vetting interviews and the training. He was polite, if terse, on the publicity tour before launch. And he remained unshaken even when on the launch pad. Even through all that, he felt the loss of her more deeply than any exhilaration of discovery. Secretly he almost relished the possibility of non-discovery. He wanted everyone to feel as alone as him, to share his misery.
It didn’t help his attitude that the build up to his launch felt more like a funeral march than a celebration. The lack of expectation had dampened the mood, but everyone had known what he really was: an expendable test subject. Certainly his mission and its technology was far safer than the original space explorers. (After all how safe was it to tie yourself to a tin can filled with several thousand tons of liquid oxygen and light it like a firecracker?) Yet this time around, on this momentous quest, he was more like a guinea pig. In the pod, just before launch he suddenly felt a great deal of compassion for the vaccinated lab animals who were the first to be infected with a lethal virus.
SR-388 still hung on the horizon, its sad, pale aura reflecting his own melancholy. His gaze turned back to the empty void in the direction of his own world. He had no hope of seeing it from here, but he could not help his thoughts. Whether it was only a natural disaster, or, as some of the radiation readings hinted at, there had been an intelligent species that too quickly discovered nuclear physics, he did not know. Nor did the astronomers of home. Even on the day of his launch the planet still looked peaceful and promising through the telescopes orbiting his planet. All they knew was that a great cataclysm befell this world sometime in the last eight hundred years. He wondered what his people could see. Were they watching SR-388’s doom now? Was the light of that holocaust just now reaching them? What would they tell him when he returned? Was he wasting his time? Moreover, he found himself wondering what was happening to his planet while he was away. His gaze returned to the burned and poisoned cinder surrounded by infinite dark.
Suddenly, he felt very, very alone.
He tried to return to his mission, trekking through boulder fields, endless dunes, and bottomless craters in hopes of stumbling across something. Reconnaissance had returned with some very strange pictures of the moon. From a certain angle it appeared that there might be manufactured objects on its surface. Clues little thicker than a thread, but still the only good news from the initial voyage. Besides, with SR-388 dead and poisonous, there was no point in going there. Actually, it wasn’t that safe either. Besides, even if the imaginary people who may have lived there hadn’t left evidence of their existence on this moon, it would still be a worthy proving ground for the portals.
He was rounding the last of a series of huge boulders, his mind meandering from thought to thought as he traced his journey when he lost his footing. He fell slowly and clumsily in the reduced gravity. The fall was more disorienting and shaming than harmful, though it did take him a few moments to lift himself at least partially erect. As he dusted himself off and checked his suit for tears and holes, he finally looked again in the direction he was going. That’s when he saw it: color. It was faint, distant, but it was there, small spots of color in the far distance.
He rose slowly not yet truly understanding what he was seeing. His steps were slow, measured, but soon he began to run (at least as much as he could in his bulky suit). Each step brought him closer to this object and the closer he came, the more he confirmed what he was seeing. Each step became quicker and quicker, his heart racing more and more, there had been something here. All too soon, but not soon enough, he came upon it.
Shimmering in the bright light, there it was. A flat cloth rectangle suspended from two metal poles. And there was something else, a primitive, alien looking spaceship with legs like an insect, stranded just a short distance away. He looked back at the colorful cloth. It was a banner of some kind, with alternating bands of bright red and white with a deep, rich blue rectangle taking up a full quarter of the banner. In the blue there were white, repeating, geometric shapes with five points. What was this? He thought. After a moment he realized: it was a flag. Not just people, but nations had come here. He then rushed to inspect the ship. Obviously a landing module of some kind, it was meant to be left here by its owners. He searched the surface for any other clues and finally found, bolted to one of the struts, a plaque with pictographic characters. He activated his recording devices and took a picture:
He lingered on it for a moment. He had no idea what it said, but it was there. They had been here. Once again he looked back at SR-388, no longer a dead and toxic sewer of a world. To him it now seemed beautiful beyond imagining. Yes, they were gone, but they had come this far. Who was to say that hadn’t made it just a little further. Perhaps they were not gone forever, only gone somewhere else. And if life, intelligent life, existed here, then surely it existed somewhere else too. “They” were out there. At this he fell to his knees and wept. For the first time in a long, long time, he knew he was not alone.