Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Those Who Went

The wide yawning sky.

We stare at unfamiliar stars, seeking familiar patterns in their strange configurations. Here is a cup and there a bear. A queen reclined and all the fish in the endless seas.

The universe is more boundless than we know. Maybe than we can know. We left everything behind for this, everything. We won’t return home—can’t return home, for the way is too far and home, well, home is fading, dying. One way—out and gone and far and they say they know why we do it.

We plunge through these stars and surely know nothing; instruments report all is well, all is normal: stars and asteroids and blooming nebulae. There is no air beyond these walls, no air but what we might find on this distant blue-green world. Everything is maybes; everything is possibilities. Instruments reach ahead of us, but even they do not know—they cannot yet tell us.

We don’t wait even as we do. There is all the time in the universe. I dream of air, of wind in my hair and snow pelting my face. I dream of a sky fragmented with the colors of an alien sun, of squinting and feeling the burn of warmth against my skin. I dream of the lake and the slip of mossy stones beneath my bare feet.

This ship contains not even the memory of these things; there are no children to draw trees of rivers. We carry images of our homeworld—what if this planet we approach is already claimed, occupied, loved—we should tell them from where we came, won’t they want to know? Arrogantly, we think yes. Of course.

They say they know why we do it. We do it for the accolades—how we must love the crush of press, the attention, our likenesses framed in ink, in oil, in the timelessness of sculpture. We will never be forgotten, they say, even as this world dies. We who leave the dying safety of the known world to explore that which we can only imagine. They say they know why we do it—but they’re wrong.

When we stand on this unknown world, when our instruments tell us all we cannot otherwise know—the air is safe, clean, breathable—when we crack our helmets open and off and I feel the wind in my hair and the memory of your mouth across mine, then we all know why.

We radio our dying home, to tell of all we have found, empty landscapes and yawning sky. I tell them how the wind smells: that there is a far distant ocean and flowering trees threading salt and sugar through the air. There are no people here, until now, until us. Strange herds of animals run toward us, without fear.

Someday, long after we have reached the ocean and taken harvest from trees, they—not those who sent us, but those who may rise in their wake—will receive our transmissions and know why we do it. Why we have come. And it’s not ever what they think.

E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Interzone, among others. Her fiction was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and her editing work at Shimmer was a finalist for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Her first short story collection, The Grand Tour, was published by Apex Book Company.