Father used to say I spent too many hours as a kid laying in the backyard hammock, watching the night sky. Mother used to say I was born a millennium too late, or too early; she could never quite make up her mind. I have what people on my planet Osiris call a celestial soul. They say that children conceived in outer space will always make their way back to outer space, just as surely as turtle hatchlings will crawl back to sea.
For as long as I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a Galactic Explorer. Granted, nowadays Explorers were just glorified real estate agents, auctioning off new colony planets to the highest bidder, but I still remember when their mission was pure and admirable: to find alien life. All those nights in the backyard hammock, I wasn’t waiting for meteor showers or tracing constellations I knew by heart. No, I was wondering if, light-years away, there was another kid staring back, also wondering if I was here.
Galactic Explorers took only four new recruits each year and yet ten thousand people still applied, which proved that my graduating class was a bunch of delusional, optimistic idiots. Myself included. When that didn’t pan out, I took the next best job as a delivery spaceship driver. At least I could fly something. At least I could escape gravity. I had already decided I would apply to be an Explorer again the next year, blatantly ignoring the fact that they hadn’t accepted a repeat applicant in four decades. My parents referred me to a research job back home with better pay and a cubicle office, reminded me that they immigrated here so I could live a good life, not risk death every time I reentered the atmosphere. I stopped returning their calls. They didn’t understand. Becoming an astronaut was practically my birthright.
I spent about two months driving the delivery ship, going back and forth between the neighboring planets, staring out the window counting stars, when the Captain attacked and stole all my cargo. With my engines destroyed and the Captain holding me at gunpoint, she only spared my life because I convinced her I was familiar with the trade routes so I could help her intercept more ships. I was just trying to save my life. I didn’t know anything about the trade routes and I definitely didn’t want to be a space pirate, but what was I supposed to do?
It was only later, after the Captain’s ship, the Borealis, blasted off out of Osiris’s orbit, did I realize having my ship capsized was the single greatest blessing I’ve ever received. Watching my home planet shrink smaller and smaller as we flew further into the unknown, it felt like destiny fulfilled. Sometimes if you’re lucky, when you aren’t paying attention to where you’re going, a notorious space pirate and her rugged crew will take you hostage and the adventure you’ve sought your entire life falls into the palm of your hand.
When I joined the Borealis, Amos was already there. We were the only two captives aboard, so we had to stick together. Out of necessity, not out of anything remotely similar to comradery, as Amos was prone to point out. We didn’t particularly get along in the beginning. He had been a soldier in the Orion War and he was an Anti-Imperialist who thought we should stop expanding and exploring the universe when we could barely keep the colonies from killing each other as it was. I was a devout Believer who was willing to swear by every deity in the history of existence that there had to be other life out there, somewhere, waiting for us. People like Amos failed to see the magnitude of extraterrestrial life and the lack thereof. In his defense, people like me never fought in interplanetary battles either.
He was a prisoner of war and I was a celestial soul finally returning home. Two nomad souls traversing the galaxy aboard a spaceship against our will. Eventually, somewhere along the way, it became beautiful.
Once, he turned to me and said, “We’re going to be trapped here. Forever.”
The Captain had decided to illegally mine for gold, zigzagging across the asteroid belt. The Captain and her crew were outside, bouncing around on the giant rock in their space suits, scanning the surface with nano-detectors while Amos and I were ordered to stay inside the Borealis.
“That’s not true,” I replied. If I didn’t disagree with Amos at least five times before breakfast, it was an off day.
“Then let’s leave,” he said.
It would’ve been so easy to flee; the Captain was preoccupied and surely wouldn’t have noticed our absence until we were already a safe distance away. But what then? We find refuge in a nearby planet? We settle down and we get jobs and we return to being functional members of civilization?
After a few months of sailing through space, that idea became unthinkable.
Yes, I watched the Captain commandeer other ships, steal from space stations, and kill innocent lives. Yes, the Borealis left a trail of lawlessness in its wake. But between one crime and the next, I would stand by the windows and watch the endless expanse of outer space drift by—supernovae and nebulae, every star that ever was, every star that ever will be. Life was out there and we were so close. I could feel it in my bones. I reached out and wrapped my fingers around that almost tangible thing, but grasped only empty air.
“See?” Amos said. “We’re never leaving this ship because you’re obsessed with the stupid stars.”
“I’m not obsessed with the stars,” I said.
He shrugged, as if it was all the same to him.
“Well why don’t you leave?” I countered. “What’s keeping you here?”
He said nothing and looked at me with warrior eyes.
Amos never liked to talk about his time in the Orion War. He had been sent on a recon mission when the enemy battleship struck him down. The Borealis showed up just in time and the Captain saved him before his ship exploded. No one knew why the Captain wanted to save the life of the lonely stoic soldier. I figured she must have had a reason for keeping him around, and for keeping me around too. Maybe we were penance for her sins.
By the time the Orion war was over, around the time I first joined the Borealis, the population from both sides of the war had been decimated. Amos’s entire battalion was gone. His entire hometown was gone. He had nowhere left to go. That was why he despised me so much, I think. I had a home in Osiris and I had a family and I would leave it all behind in a heartbeat, blindly chasing the next horizon.
“You Believers and you Explorers,” he said as he walked away. “You idiots will be the ruin of us all.”
Soon, the Captain wandered back inside the ship with her metallic asteroid spoils.
“What happened, darling? What did you and Amos fight about this time?” she asked. The
Captain always ignored me except when she got drunk, because then she would refuse to leave me alone. And the Captain was an alcoholic.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” I told her. “He called me an idiot for believing in aliens and blamed people like me for every war in the last century and probably every war in the next century too.”
“Don’t mind Amos, darling,” the Captain said. “The universe needs stubborn, close-minded people like him.”
“To balance out people like you. People with faith.”
But the Captain was wrong. Of course I believed there were other forms of life out there, yet this belief had nothing to do with faith. This had to do with the fact that it would be both vain and terrifying to assume us human beings—us cruel, ungodly creatures—were the single most advanced life form our universe would ever create.
We found the dog when we made a pit stop in New Europa. He peed on Amos’s foot and then walked over and rested his forelegs against my knees, giving me a conspiratorial glance as if waiting for my approval. I loved him immediately. I named him Fermi, after the famous physicist and his paradox.
Amos obviously didn’t like Fermi very much but the Captain also adored him, so Fermi stayed. I miss those good old days with Fermi. The Captain and I would take him on walks around the corridors of the Borealis and he would weave between our legs until both of us fell like a pair of drunkards.
The Captain was a mystery to everyone. She was fifty years old and never married and no one knew her story. The crew said she simply showed up one day at a port in the Andromeda Galaxy, asking who wanted to join the Borealis and hitch a ride to the Milky Way. We didn’t know where she came from, we didn’t know her past, and we didn’t know how she ended up a space pirate either. But she was a good person. In my gut, I think I always knew that. She had laugh lines around her mouth and eyes, but I’ve rarely ever seen her smile. It meant she used to be happy. I’d like to think all criminals used to be happy.
I found the Captain crying alone one night. She had had a bottle of wine or two or three and sat before the large window, watching the stars go by, hugging her knees. She always wore her long curly hair down, like a fierce mane that commanded your attention when she entered the room but now her hair fell limp across her shoulders like a shield.
“Darling,” she said, “come sit with me.”
I sat beside her and declined when she offered me some wine. “Captain, is everything alright?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about that. You can’t change the past and you can’t change the future and we’re drifting aimlessly through space all alone in the universe. So, just sit with me.”
News came that the Explorers found another inhabitable, Earth-like planet. There was always an influx of visitors from around the galaxy whenever a new planet was announced and that was prime market for piracy. The Captain set the coordinates and the Borealis blasted off in that direction. She was always more vivacious when we had a mission.
I scrolled through the pictures of the new planet while we traveled. The entire planet was a giant body of water with hundreds of islands interspersed throughout. But the ocean was a bright blue, the air had more than enough oxygen, and its proximity to the Carina Nebula gave it the most breathtaking night sky I have ever seen.
“It’s just begging to be a vacation hotspot,” the Captain said. “And that means a continuous stream of tourists. Just you wait, fellas. We’re going to be rich.”
I sighed and Fermi nudged me with his nose.
“Isn’t it curious, Fermi?” I asked. “We keep finding more and more inhabitable planets, but where are the inhabitants?”
Fermi didn’t know. Fermi the physicist didn’t know either. Perhaps we will never know.
The new planet was just as amazing as the pictures made it out to be. We parked the Borealis and walked on the pristine beach. Amos shoved me into the water and Fermi jumped in after me, paddling circles around me as I floated on my back. I basked in the light of the twin suns and didn’t want to leave.
“Can’t you see yourself living here?” Amos asked when I finally climbed out of the water and laid down beside him on the warm white sand.
I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. Waking up to this view every morning, taking a swim or two, eating the fresh fruit that would surely thrive in this climate. It was perfect. But it was a vacation like the Captain said. Sooner or later, I’d get tired of it. The curiosity hunger to explore would not be subdued forever. It constantly ate away from the inside out, hallowing me out like a parasite.
I opened my eyes and looked at Amos. “No.”
He frowned at my response and I could sense another argument brewing. It was going to be the old argument we always had. Same song, another verse. Practically routine. But the argument never came because the Captain started yelling and it was too late. The police had arrived and surrounded the Borealis. We were all arrested, even Fermi.
The police took us to Nova Omega, the nearest Justice Space Station. After years of pirating, the Captain was one of the most wanted felons this side of the Sagittarius Arm. Now that she was finally captured, there was hell to pay for all of us. Locked in a jail cell by myself, I thought of a hundred reasons why this would be the most awful way for a story to end.
But the night before the trial, the alarm siren sounded and my cell door came unlocked. I stepped outside and found the Captain waiting for me in the shadows, a guardian angel of the dark.
“Are we escaping?” I asked.
“No, the guards will be here any second. There’s no time.” Her voice was calm and crisp. I realized it was the first and only time the Captain had spoken to me while sober since the day she attacked my cargo ship.
“Captain, what’s going on?”
“We aren’t escaping. You and Amos are,” she said. She quickly pulled me down an empty hallway where Amos was waiting. Fermi was there too, struggling against Amos’s grasp. Through the window of the emergency exit door, we could see several small escape-pods docked.
“Opening the door will set off an alarm,” Amos said.
“Hopefully this one will cover it up,” the Captain said, pointing upwards where the jail lock alarm continued to ring. “I’m going to create a diversion. You guys leave, quickly.”
Guards were starting to approach. The Captain grabbed my shoulders and stared me in the eyes.
“Now listen, there’s something important you need to know,” she whispered urgently. “I was like you when I was younger. I was also an Explorer reject. I wanted to witness our first contact with aliens. I wanted to be our first contact with aliens. But Amos is right, you know. Amos was always right.”
Then the guards arrived and the Captain raced down the corridor. All the guards chased after her as her hair flowed wildly behind her and we took the opportunity to flee.
That was the last time I ever saw the Captain. I realized she knew I was lying about the trade routes from the start, yet she let more stay on board anyway. She must have seen the wanderlust in my eyes and decided to show me the stars. I never got to thank her for that.
Amos suggested going home, but I couldn’t find the heart to return to Osiris. Not yet, anyway. There was still pent-up adventure bubbling in my blood and it would be years before I got it out of my system. And so, we wandered. It was me and Amos and Fermi out against the universe. On multiple occasions, I had to physically prevent Amos from throwing Fermi out of a window into the space vacuum because he was fed up with the incessant barking.
After the third time, Amos screamed, “It’s me or the dog!”
“Are you sure you want to give me that ultimatum?” I screamed back. “Because I will pick the dog.”
Amos never brought it up again after that, even if I was only half joking.
It became apparent that we were faced with very limited options going forward. As accomplices of the Captain, we were still outlaws so we couldn’t get a regular job for fear of being arrested again. Our scant supplies were only going to last so long. It came down to survival again. We did the only thing we knew how. We continued being pirates.
We roamed the Milky Way for two years and for all intents and purposes, I got to be an Explorer after all. We flew to uncharted territories, landed on moons and dwarf planets mankind has never touched. Every so often, like a chronic symptom, the old fight would resurface. Amos would throw some punches, I’d throw some of my own, he’d call it all useless, and I’d tell him to leave. He never did. For two years we waltzed around this delicate equilibrium and I almost came to terms with the fact that maybe this was enough.
Then we found the alien satellite.
Our ship detected the radio wave and didn’t know how to decipher it, resulting in a computer system error. Amos immediately started typing away at the control panel, panicking that the ship would malfunction. Meanwhile, I was beside myself, exhilaration coursing through my veins, because this was it, this was it.
The aliens were calling.
In the end, we never figured out what the radio frequency was actually trying to communicate, but we tracked the signal and followed it to its source. The alien satellite itself was small, slightly battered, and composed of outdated technology. It was the most primitive version of a transmitter, careening across the galaxy from planet to planet, using their gravity to catapult itself from their orbits. It was evident humans were eons ahead of them, but that didn’t matter. They could be fruit flies and it wouldn’t have mattered. We had neighbors. We weren’t alone.
Every satellite had to come from somewhere. Tracking the home signal from the satellite was slightly more difficult and we could never get established coordinates, but we followed along fairly accurately. Amos was convinced we needed to contact the authorities and let them confront the alien species because who knows what type of creatures they were. They were just as likely to be human-eating cyclopes as they were to be fruit flies.
“I see your point and I agree,” I said, “but we’re not doing that.”
This was my one chance and I wasn’t about to hand it over to anyone, for any reason. I wanted credit for this discovery more than I wanted my life. It was a dangerous mentality I had back then. The Captain was right about Amos being right. It would take me some time to figure that out, though.
Because we had to constantly check to make sure the radio frequency was still there, the journey took three months. In those three months, I convinced myself so thoroughly that I was actually going to meet aliens, any other outcome seemed virtually impossible. Amos said I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I couldn’t bring my hopes down if I tried. But, what do you know, he was right. The receptor of the satellite’s signal was located in an abandoned building on a tiny, barren planet. Besides the white, rectangular building, we could see nothing else in the expanse of pale, sandy terrain. The building itself appeared as if no one had visited it in centuries.
If there had been any signs or placards in the past, all the alien language had been erased by the sun’s rays. The building had a door but it was locked so we had no means of entering. But despite no aliens being present for our reception, I was still not discouraged. The sand had footprints, preserved by the windless atmosphere. The building had windows and door knobs and solar panels. There was a circular platform near the building which I presumed to be a launch pad. We had come across a perfectly humanoid species, a society very similar to ours. Think of the potential. Even if, God forbid, the species had already gone extinct, the significance of this discovery was immense. I was bursting with excitement, fogging up my space helmet with my ecstatic hyperventilation. My entire life had led up to this point where I made history. Believers everywhere would be validated once and for all.
And then Amos found a charging station behind the building.
The charging station had a lid that shielded the electrical outlets from the sun.
There were instructions on the underside of the lid.
Instructions written in English.
I felt like the victim of an elaborate prank that wasn’t all that funny to begin with. I felt absolutely cheated. Amos and I explored the planet a bit more to look for an explanation. Who were these forgotten humans on this distant planet? Before long, the truth revealed itself to us in the form of a giant, blue and green planet, brilliant and beautiful.
We weren’t on a planet, we were on a moon. The Moon. And that wasn’t just any blue and green planet. That was the Earth.
Without knowing it, we had flown back to the original Solar System where life began. No one lives there now, which was why we weren’t familiar with the coordinates. The alien satellite wasn’t alien after all, just so ancient it seemed foreign, so ancient it could’ve fooled anyone. Further ahead, a flag sun-bleached white stood unwavering, mocking us.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Amos tried to console me. “Who cares if we’re the only life in the godforsaken universe? There are 300 billion people alive right this second. There are people who care about you and there are people who love you and there are people standing right in front of you.”
And we stood there on the olden moon, our footsteps beside our ancestors’, the two patterns practically indistinguishable. For every speck of light above us, there lay an ever-expanding amount of empty space. Perhaps we were never meant to sail across the constellations. I had never been more aware of the fact that the universe contained more nothing than something, and that nothing drove me mad. I screamed until my throat turned raw, but in the grand scheme of things, I didn’t make a sound.
Fifteen colonized planets and twenty-seven space stations across two galaxies and it all stemmed from one lonely planet who was scared of the dark. Four thousand years later, the sky is strewn with manmade lights but at the end of the day, we’re still just as scared and alone as the day we sent that satellite into space so many years ago, calling out to the void, desperately praying for a response.
Susan Tu is an accounting student by day and writer by night, which means she is really fun at parties. She studies creative writing at Cornell University. If you follow her at twitter.com/andsusantoo, she promises to get much better at tweeting.