Returnal

In  by September 22, 2023

It’s March again, and with the drizzling grey comes the thirty-fifth anniversary of the return of our vessel, the Pursuant. I’ve grown old in the years since, and as I gaze out my window at a world caught between the death of winter and the renewal of spring, it feels important to write down some words about what happened, while I still remember them. Although I have nothing new to say about the mission that has not already been said, I pray this time it finds purchase.

Mission. The word seems insufficient for the gravity of what we sought. It was planned on the advent of a new technology; one that transformed the fabric of space, bringing distances closer to us as we travelled toward them. Describing the mechanics of it now would be ironic, given the disbelief we were met with upon our return. Suffice it to say that it was a hallowed discovery that sobered humanity, focusing us toward a collective search of the heavens.

In eight years, we built the ship and the drive that powered it. It’s hard to overstate what a colossal achievement this was amid the turmoil of that time. Bloodshed and devastation raged everywhere, on scales never before possible. Then, a miracle of engineering emerged. We were suddenly met with the ability to seek answers in the cosmos. It was as if, while drowning in our self-annihilation, a lifeline had appeared ready to pull us into a new era of civilization. We devoted everything to its manifestation.

The clarity was short-lived, though. In the months that led to our launch, old conflicts erupted among the various capitalists and imperialists involved. Nations committed acts of unimaginable violence against each other as they unleashed new engines of destruction in what came to be known as The War of Discovery. By the time of our launch date, the fighting had killed twenty million people.

On the eve of our undertaking, our commanding assembly—a chosen group of representatives from what was formerly the United Nations—charged us with a single directive: find consciousness amongst the stars and seek their counsel. If this was surprising, it was only because of what was left unsaid. No planet, habitable or not, could save us from ourselves.

It took us a month to reach the edge of the solar system, where we were scheduled to turn on the drive and leave behind any possibility of communication with the rest of humanity. Many of us turned to religion to deal with the coming trauma. Ceremonies of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other orders became increasingly common until we finally reached our send-off destination, where we received one final transmission from Earth: Fly home to new worlds.

Once into the breach of space our collective anxiety seemed to ease, and we took to our mission with an almost fanatic zeal. We were driven by a holy, universal quest to find a cosmic saviour.

We began our search with the worlds that scientists had deemed most likely to contain life. We scoured solar systems with multiple planets, some with multiple stars, and even some with no stars. And although we found only empty, lifeless places, our optimism remained high for some time.

Two years into our four-year mission we approached another threshold. The nature of our drive distorted our experience of time such that after this point it became virtually certain that anyone we had known on Earth had now passed. Our pace, and the laws of probability, predicted another five years of searching in order to reach the number of worlds required to statistically guarantee finding intelligent life. If any existed.

So, we went on. Pushing past the vision of humanity’s greatest lenses and into the absolute unknown.

We found nothing in the oblivion that followed, and it wasn’t long before the darkness of deep space found its way inside. Paranoia, and eventually madness, spread through us like a disease. The resulting infights nearly ruined us. When the violence finally ceased, two-thirds of the crew were lost. Seventy-two lights of humanity extinguished into the void.

The survivors vowed to hold true to our goal, though we came to know a somber kind of harmony in each other. It bound us together through what was ultimately a fifteen-year mission; eleven more than had been originally planned.

In the end we found nothing: no intelligence, no consciousness, no life at all. The despair of this was immense, as incomprehensibly large as the universe itself. Twelve of our remaining forty crew members jettisoned themselves out the airlocks and into the abyss.

The few of us that remained saw no choice but to return home. The trip would take us another year and a half, extending our total time away to three hundred and forty-two years on Earth. We set a course, though we did not know what, if anything, would be waiting for us.

Returning to Earth, we found a solar system teeming with signs of life. Probes, satellites, and even shipping cargos buzzed between planets. Technological advances had granted humanity the means to extend its boundaries, though it seemed to have lost the kind of engineering that had sent us to the stars.

Various sensors alerted the world to our presence much sooner than we anticipated. We scrambled to send a message, but the temporal gulf between our machines was too great. We were fired upon by interplanetary batteries before we could identify ourselves. The attack decimated our ship, killing nineteen members of our remaining crew.

The history of the subsequent events has occurred within living memory but is worth repeating. The nine  surviving members of The Pursuant were captured after our blazing crash into Earth’s atmosphere sent pieces of our interstellar home streaking across the skies of both hemispheres. We were branded immediately as heretics for telling our story to a world that had forgotten us; we were interrogated, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately—when no satisfactory answers to the mystery of our appearance could be ascertained—released into exile .

In the decade that followed, several of us were assassinated after attempting to refute the occultist fantasies that originated upon our return. Acolytes raised altars around sites of wreckage from our ship and prayed to the cosmic deities they imagined had cast us out.

It wasn’t long before the scientists and engineers of this new era began collecting pieces of our ship to reconstruct the technology they had lost. In the last decade, they have apparently made great strides in this effort, and now the leaders of our world announce that humanity will soon embark upon a new voyage into the stars, to find the life they claim we have hidden from them.

For this reason, I have emerged from my exile to herald a warning, as the sole living member of that mission. There is nothing waiting for us in the empty vastness of space. There is no great and wise consciousness to which we can turn for answers to the questions that haunt us. There are no beings that can help us escape our own destruction.

The life we seek in the cosmos is here.

Copyright © 2023 Ben Lockwood

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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Ben Lockwood

Ben Lockwood is an ecologist at Penn State University. He’s also a socialist, unionist, and prison abolitionist. Ben’s fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in Tree and Stone Magazine, Creepy Podcast, Black Hare Press Metastellar, and others. You can find Ben wasting time on Twitter and Instagram (@brlockwood), and on Mastodon (benlockwood@fediscience.org).

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