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The Far Side of the Wilderness

Sometimes human colonists themselves can be away so long, they begin seeing the Earth as a romantic, hopeful place different from what their ancestors who founded the colony might remember. In a reverse of our other stories, a bit of a Moses-esque promised land mythology arises amongst a religious sect of isolated colonists in regards to the Earthly home they left behind, driving some of them to live for one goal: to return home. But what if home is not the place their legends recall?



One way or another, I’m nearing the end of my journey.

The spaceship is quiet now, except for the low rumble of the engines. It took me days, but I found all of the speakers which were filling the cabins with a cacophony of alarm bells. I pried each speaker open with a knife and cut the little rubbery wires, until the last of the infernal things had finally been silenced.

Deprived of its voice, the ship is blinking lies at me via the console screen. Warning: low fuel levels. Warning: engine maintenance required. Warning: life support system failure imminent. I once thought of the ship as a friend, a steed sent by the Creator to be the tool of our deliverance. Somehow, the Deceiver found its way in, wormed inside of the ship’s machinery, and is doing whatever it can to break my spirit and thwart me from reaching paradise.

I place the decrepit postcard on top of the screen, covering the red blinking letters, then wrap myself in an extra layer of clothes against the steadily cooling air.


On the world of Kemet, we spent our days scavenging. Our tribe traveled to a section of the caves we hadn’t been to for a while, long enough for fresh moss to grow on the rocks and tiny gnawers to repopulate. And then we’d make camp and collect the moss and trap the gnawers, and eat for a few days, until food became difficult to obtain and we had to move again.

In the evenings, as we huddled around the fire, Mother and other elders would tell stories.

Mother taught me that, a very long time ago, everyone used to live in paradise. She told me about the world of plenty, the world of blue skies and white clouds, where gentle sunlight bronzed the skin, and the air was thick and smelled of flowers. Countless generations lived in paradise, and they did not know hunger or fear.

She told me about the Deceiver, who whispered from the shadows. It filled people’s hearts with pride, and desire, and wanderlust until they built flying machines powerful enough to puncture the sky. They thought themselves equals of the Creator as they crossed the void and spread out across the stars, but all they really accomplished was to deny their children paradise. And the Deceiver rejoiced.

When I was eight, I once hiked to the barren surface in search of the wonderful place from my mother’s tales. I walked around for most of the night, until the pale reddish glow of our sun appeared in the East. Soon it would scorch the surface, make it too hot for a human to survive outside. I barely made it back to the caves, sweating and sunburned, choking on the sparse, dusty air. I did not find what I sought, and I began to doubt her stories.

When I confessed my doubts to Mother, she didn’t chide me. She reached into her pack and retrieved a bundle wrapped in many layers of cloth. Inside was an ancient picture, a postcard, covered in plastic.

“This is the only image of paradise that survives on Kemet,” mother said.

The tribe had a handful of items from before the colonists landed on Kemet. Mostly simple gadgets, built well enough to survive the centuries: flashlights, water purifiers, and drills. But I’ve never seen anything like this. I reached for the picture with great care.

A bright yellow sun reflected off azure water, more water than I could ever imagine collected in one place. Next to the water grew a cluster of trees, their branches reaching proudly toward the sky. And although the picture was very old and faded, the colors in it were still brighter than anything on my world.

“There is a better place in the universe,” Mother said. “A better life. We must never forget this; never surrender our values and our culture, and never descend into barbarism. Then, one day, the Creator will welcome us home.”

I cast doubt from my heart and resolved never again to let the Deceiver weaken my faith.


The ship came when we were studying.

Every day, the young ones had to spend two hours on reading and writing and math and all manner of other subjects. Like so many of my friends I often lost patience with learning about things that did not matter on our world, couldn’t help fill our stomachs. Mother was patient with me. She explained that we must rise above our circumstances so that one day the Creator would look upon us with pride, forgive our ancestors’ transgressions, and bring us back into the fold.

It was while we struggled to memorize the periodic table of elements that there was a rumble and the walls and ceiling of the caves shuddered, shaking loose a shower of pebbles. It felt like a quake, but came from above and not below. When the noise ceased and the shaking stopped, we rushed to the mouth of the cave. Outside, there was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

The ship rested on its side wedged between rock formations, its gleaming silver surface out of place in our world. There was a faint glow around the hull, which made the ship look like it had a halo. I knew right away that this was the Creator’s gift, the carriage to bring us home to paradise.

We approached the ship and it opened to us, like a desert flower at dawn. Inside, there was death.

We found five bodies inside the ship, and one woman who was still alive, in her quarters.

She was feverish and sick, and we could do nothing except tend to her and make her last days a little more comfortable. I volunteered to stay with her, despite the dire warnings she issued in her rare moments of lucidity. The strange smells and textures of the ship called to me and were too alluring for anything to scare me off.

Her name was Beata and she was an explorer. Her ancestors left paradise at the same time as mine, four hundred years ago, but they landed on a much more hospitable planet than Kemet, and kept on developing their technologies.

This ship was designed to travel from one human colony to another, so that Beata’s people could reconnect with their long-lost cousins. She said that they had been to several worlds before something went wrong. There were no people alive on the last planet they had visited, and the crew became sick very soon after taking off. Beata believed that they were exposed to the same virus which must have killed the original colonists, and she begged me to stay away from her lest I contract the disease and pass it on to the rest of my tribe.

Confident that the Creator’s favor would protect me, I stayed and questioned Beata about paradise. She said that we came from the planet called Earth and that it was no utopia. Our ancestors poisoned its air and polluted its water, and that’s why they had to leave for the stars.

I didn’t believe her. Beata’s people never lost their technology, or their pride. Their lives weren’t harsh so they never found the strength to deny the Deceiver. Their bodies and spirits were too soft and the Creator never forgave them like he did us; that is why I didn’t get sick despite spending days in a small room with Beata.

We talked of distant worlds and wonders of space. I told Beata of our life in the caves and she was horrified. She said that her people could help, could carry us to a more hospitable world. That her scout ship was automated, and would eventually return to her home world, and that she would record a message for them once she felt strong enough. But she was getting weaker and weaker. Near the end, she ordered the ship to transfer control to me, and asked me to record the call for help.

We burned Beata’s body and scattered the ashes on the same plateau where we burned the bodies of the other explorers, so that Beata could be with her friends in death. That’s when I told the others that I could pilot the ship.

It was a lie, of course. Not even Beata could pilot it. Learning that skill took a lifetime of training on her world. All I could do was give the ship’s onboard computer basic commands and hope that its machine brain could interpret them right. But it wouldn’t do to let the others know this. The Creator had chosen me to lead them home.


Twelve of us boarded the ship. It was too small to house the entire tribe, and so the elders decided to send only the young. I wanted so badly for Mother to come, but arguing for this would not have been fair or wise.

She hugged me tight when I was ready to go. Hope and pride shone on her face. She handed me a small bundle. “So you’ll never lose your way,” she said, her voice trembling.

I claimed the captain’s bunk, placing my few belongings in the compartments by its side. Then I unwrapped her gift. It was the postcard, her most prized possession. The yellow sun beckoned to me from the photograph.

“Fly, ship,” I implored and the engine roared to life, lifting us toward the arms of the Creator.


Life on the ship was better than the life in the caves. There was a machine that produced an edible paste that was tasteless but filling. Little screens could be made to play music and moving pictures, and the time passed by quickly while we discovered sights and concepts that were previously unfamiliar.

I maintained the illusion of control.

“Take us to paradise,” I whispered to the ship when others couldn’t hear me.

Unspecified parameters, the ship would answer.

“Earth. Fly us to Earth,” I begged.

Unable to alter flight plan, the ship would say.

I knew that surely, with time, I could convince it.


“This place is not what you promised,” said my tribesmen when the ship had landed.

Outside, grains of frozen water danced in the frigid air. Everything was covered in white, except the area around the ship where the engines melted the water and uncovered black patches of wet dirt. Beata had said that the ship would travel to planets with known human colonies, but if any people had lived in this inhospitable place, they had long since moved or died.

“The ship needs to rest,” I told my people. “It cannot make such a long journey all at once.”

They accepted my explanation. We let the ship rest for a while and wandered the alien landscape. Our feet left deep indentations in the frozen water.


There were people on the next world. Millions of lights illuminated cities so large that their outlines could be seen from space. Was this the world of Beata’s people? We were eager to meet them.

They fired weapons at us before we even landed. Missiles exploded against the sides of the ship but weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the hull. On the ground, war machines rolled toward us from every direction and continued to fire. These people did not see us as long-lost cousins. I asked the ship to carry us away and it complied.

Maintenance and minor repairs are required, the ship blinked at me from the console display.

“It will be all right,” I patted the great mechanical steed. “Take us to Earth and the Creator will see to it that you arrive there safely.”


We hopped across a dozen different worlds.

We swam in shallow lakes under the light of three moons and walked in fields of wild flowers each twice as tall as a man. But every time we landed on a world with other humans, I refused to open up the ship. The encounter on the war planet had made me cautious, and I couldn’t risk the possibility that some bad people might covet our ship and try to take it away.

The ship was asking me for repairs more insistently now, but it was a good and true steed, and it soldiered on despite the fact that I could do nothing to assist it.

That is when we arrived on the world of the purple sun.


The ship landed in an idyllic valley. The purple sun shone above the land of plenty, which burst with a medley of bright colors. Plants swayed gently in the warm breeze. A peaceful, clear spring was lined with trees, their branches weighed down with large, juicy fruit. We explored the valley and the orange grass under our feet felt like the softest blanket.

It was several hours after the landing that strangers emerged from beyond the trees. I was alarmed, but they didn’t appear hostile. They wore soft tunics and looked healthy and beautiful. They spoke in a sing-song language we did not understand, but there was kindness in their eyes and smiles on their faces, and soon we were no longer afraid.

We spent nearly two weeks in the company of the Betawi people, and were beginning to learn their language and customs. I enjoyed our stay as much as the others did, but was also impatient to continue the journey.

“Why should we ever leave?” asked my tribesmen. “This world has everything we could ever hope for.”

“It’s beautiful here,” I said. “But it’s not our home. The Creator awaits us on Earth. Surely this pleasant oasis is another test of our determination, our faith.”

But they wouldn’t listen. Not a single one of them would return with me to the ship. I was shocked at the ease with which the others gave up our quest. I would take any risk, give up anything to reach paradise, but my friends were eager to trade the Creator’s favor for the promise of comfort this planet offered them. I pled and threatened, all to no avail.

I waited for several more weeks, in hope that time would teach them wisdom. But they were genuinely happy on this world, welcomed and loved by the Betawi, and soon doubt began to creep into my own heart.

I couldn’t allow the Deceiver to gain foothold within me again. So I left the others to their new abode and continued the journey alone.


There are so many stars out there, more than one could count in a lifetime. Which one of them holds my salvation?

I have seen more wonders than I could have ever imagined growing up in the caves of Kemet. I have visited dozens of planets: heavens and hells and everything in between. I delivered my people to the far side of the wilderness. Will the Creator reward me for my faith, my stalwart willingness to press on, or punish me for abandoning them there?

I stroke the brittle surface of the postcard. Mother told me, many times, of the blue and white jewel suspended against the black velvet backdrop of the cosmos. More than anything else in the world, I want to see it for myself.

The Deceiver cannot defeat me. Countless generations of my people subsisted in caves but never lost their faith, or their humanity. Their faith kept them going through the worst of it, and the Creator blessed them and called them home. My faith is stronger yet, and The Creator is kind, and will surely allow me a glimpse of paradise, even if only from the distance.

I watch the stars from the viewport of the ship that is dying around me, and I wait.

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