The Return Home: A Short Story

Source: NASA

He looked out the canopy of his ship, into the vast expanse before him. A trained soldier, engineered to serve the greater good, he reflected upon his mission. He saw the twinkling of billions upon billions of stars before him, knowing one of them harbored a planet for his people.

“Our planet is dying.” he remembered her saying.

“Aren’t we all dying?” he responded.

She smiled and kissed his hand. She had a way of pulling him away from his gloomy visions.

“We’re all living. Help us continue to do so.” she finally said.

He thought back to the green sunrise he experienced earlier in the year. Their star rising above the horizon, illuminating the lush jungle canopy. In the distance the mountain smoked, threatening more and more to erupt. And then it did. The destruction it wrought was enough to bury the village and cover the distant city of Capeton with soot, providing further proof that the planet was slowly decaying.

In all their years of space exploration, they had harvested planets, never intending to colonize any of them. At first, their laws forbid colonization, as it would inherently impact the ecosystem of any planet they encountered. Then they allowed exploration and the commodification of entire planets. Colonization was forbidden not because it would destroy a planet, but because it would prevent its exploitation. Man’s appetite was insatiable. The sweet irony was that they now needed a habitable planet to escape theirs, and they could not find one.

He was selected along with twenty other soldiers to head out into the darkness of the beyond, to find a planet and return with hope. They endured training, genetic engineering, biological implants, and years away from loved ones. His mission was to head to sector 4591, send out probes, and hope for the best.

He pressed his display and saw a holovid of her pop up, smiling and blowing him a kiss. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes and a lump developed in his throat. He thought of how he missed her and how he might never see her. Six years he’d been on this mission, and in six years the probes had found nothing.

He quietly ate his meal, allowing the hum of the ship to be the only noise made. He had long given up trying to listen to music, as it meant nothing to him any more. He wondered what she endured, if she was afraid, if she cursed him for not being there to protect her. His thoughts began to consume him and forced him to become angry at his situation. He threw his plate at the wall, the leftovers splattering over the ground.

How could he have known his second mission? How could he have known the truth, a truth hidden from everyone? He walked his way to the airlock again, contemplating forcing himself out into space. The death would be painful, but it would be quick. The thought of her somehow knowing, of her looking on at his suicide prevented him from opening the airlock.

He walked past the cryo-tubes, the cold and bitter reminders of what once was. Hundreds of embryos in suspended animation, prepared to develop in artificial wombs and eventually birthed into a new world. Representatives of a society long forgotten. How he hated these tubes, these mockeries of his life. These reminders of just how alone he truly was.

He slipped into bed. He watched the video of his wife once again, crying as he attempted to touch her image, his hand moving through it. He then switched videos, to the last transmission he received 5 months ago.

“Commander, as you know time was always against us finding a new home. We regret to inform you that you are the only ship we still have in operation. We’ve lost touch with two others and the rest are confirmed destroyed or disabled. You were our only hope, but sadly our hope has run out. The Grand God has finally erupted, and others are erupting as well. The heat has dried up much of our ocean and crops are dying. As predicted, the air is becoming too thick to breath and soon we shall all perish, along with our planet. It’s breathing its last breath.

When you arrive at a hospitable planet, you are to set up a defensive perimeter. Once established, you are to activate the tubes. The tubes will grow them into infants and birth them. The life support systems on the ship will nurture them and aid them after birth. You are to do your best to raise them and teach them, of course with the aid of the vids we’ve provided. You will begin civilization anew, on a new planet, protecting us. We wish you success and the best of luck.”

The transmission then ended.

His home world, destroyed, a fact he lived with for the past five months. He couldn’t be there to protect his family, and this ate at him every day he existed. Every time he looked into the emptiness of space, he realized just how absolutely alone he was. No one in the universe for him, the absurdity of it all.

He laid his head on the pillow, ready for sleep.

An alarm woke him up early, one of the probes reporting back in. He briefly looked at the report and laid back down. As his eyes began to close, he shot them open again, knowing he saw something odd in the report.

“Level 3 planet, within habitable zone, water detected, oxygen detected, life detected, parts of high radiation.”

His heart raced. For the first time in his mission, he finally found a planet with the possibility of habitation. He looked at the position of the planet and set his ship to its location. He prepared the hyperdrive and set off towards the planet. Within a few hours, he was within its solar system.

He surveyed the situation. Reports showed that the star was stable. Eight planets. Three planets within the habitable zone. Only one showed signs of actual habitation. As he drew closer, he saw ruins of an ancient civilization. Thousands of ships littered his approach to the planet. He passed a gas giant with dozens of moons. He scanned the moons and saw old structures, long abandoned and scorched by some war. He passed another planet that housed a great civilization, but he saw nothing but destruction when he passed by. Buildings burned and broken, artificial atmosphere canopies long broken and destroyed. He then arrived at his destination.

Surrounding this blue and green planet were the signs of a war that ended in devastation. His scan of the surface revealed that many parts of the planet suffered from radiation. While not dangerous, it was best to avoid those areas. He scanned the ships and recognized the names of nations from legends.

Is this true? This isn’t just a child’s story?

He continued searching and finally came across the definitive proof. The Übermensch. The words were painted boldly across the side of the derelict ship. Every child knew snippets of the story, and every student had to study the great epic tales of the fall of a place called Earth. The legends told of how all humans descended originally from a planet they called Earth, but in a great war the planet was left uninhabitable. Those who attempted to escape the planet were destroyed by the Übermensch, whose captain wanted to make the planet in his own image.

He waged a bloody campaign, but after a barrage from an allied fleet, one ship was able to sneak by his force. That ship landed on a new planet and founded the city of Capeton. While the ship escaped and the Übermensche was destroyed, billions of humans died, entire fleets destroyed, and those trapped on Earth had no means of escape and had to suffer the consequences of nuclear fallout. Legend had it that almost all died, either from radiation, starvation, disease, or each other.

Almost all historians and scientists dismissed the legend as a myth. Yet, here it was, staring him in the face. The reality overwhelmed him. He, the first human in thousands of years to see where it all began, to find his origin. And he had no one to share it with. He was the last adult human alive, the last fully developed human alive, all because many generations before people could not learn to live together. The hope he had dissipated at the destruction he saw.

What point is there in life? Why raise up another civilization who will either kill themselves or be killed by nature?

All hope departed from him. He watched the hologram of his wife again, but it brought no comfort. Instead, he desired to unite with her. He landed his craft in a habitable zone of Earth. He walked back to the cryo-tubes and activated a sequence. He then walked to the airlock and opened it, allowing the fresh air to fill his ship. For the first time in six years, he was on land, breathing real air and not artificial oxygen. He walked to the edge of the cliff, watching as the waterfall created a beautiful rainbow. He looked in the distance at the setting sun, amazed that instead of a dark green, he saw bright reds and oranges.

How beautiful. How could we leave?

He watched the hologram of his wife. As the sun slowly set, he sat with his feet dangling over the cliff, watching the vids of him and his wife. He laughed while crying, missing her. He then thought of everyone else he knew and how he missed them as well. Behind him, the sequence completed on his ship, it burst into flames and eviscerated everything within. He was now the last human in the universe.

He laid on his side, running his hand along her naked back.

“Our planet is dying.” he remembered hearing her say in that moment.

“Aren’t we all dying?” he responded.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and scooted closer to the edge. He watched as birds flew away from the scene and he listened to the roaring of the water. He smiled at the beauty, and then pushed himself off into the dark abyss below.