Once upon a time in a remote nook of the universe, beyond the farthermost twinkling star, there was a sky traveler and his spaceship. On clear nights in those days long gone, a patient and diligent sky watcher could spot a grain of light dashing about in a zig-zag trajectory. Yet it was not a star, not a planet or an asteroid. It was a spaceship with a single traveler on board, on his way to yet another star or galaxy. The traveler had never established home on any planet, moon, or asteroid. He traveled, ate, and slept inside the fast and shining ship. He was given to declaring, not without pride, that the whole universe was his home, for, wherever he goes, whichever planet or star he visits, he feels as if he belongs to that place, as if he’d been born and raised there. And so his soul never came to discover what homesickness is, and on cheerful days he even denied the existence of such a state of mind. “If I can’t conceive of it, then it obviously doesn’t exist,” he would say in a thoughtful tone. A moment later a mischievous grin would steal across his face, and with a slight rasp in his voice, he would add, “I am the Caesar of the universe. The entire universe is my home.” Then he would break into cheerful metallic laughter, which betrayed how simple-hearted and childlike he still really was.
Although the traveler had lived in the spaceship for as long as he could remember, there were still countless hallways and compartments that remained unknown to him. It wasn’t any want of curiosity or imagination that prevented him from exploring the dense labyrinth of the spacecraft. It was rather that his daily chores kept him occupied, and his day-to-day activities revolved around the same few routines. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, though, he would venture into less familiar hallways of the ship.
In the case of one such an excursion, it took him almost an entire month to find the way back. And when, at last, he walked into the spaceship kitchen, he at once set about preparing himself his favorite snack: a peanut butter sandwich. And how generous he was with the spread! And how he chuckled when he nearly emptied the entire jar and contemplated opening another one! And with what delight and appetite he ate and later washed the sandwich down with a hearty glass of milk! And how tactfully he afterward smacked his lips and clacked his tongue! And all throughout his munching, he ruminated on his strange adventure within distant and unfamiliar hallways, and what lesson he might take away from it. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t recall the exact location where he’d made the first wrong turn which started the whole affair. But the truth was that he didn’t mind becoming lost from time to time. And despite the inconveniences such experience brought and the fears it raised, he considered it an overall positive occurrence, even necessary for his sanity and growth.
The traveler’s most loved compartment was the observation chamber. It was small and dark, and at first sight insignificant. Its main features were a large observation screen and a cozy sofa placed across from the screen. Here the traveler would retire after completing the maintenance chores. He would hop onto the sofa, tuck his feet beneath him, and stare for hours, if not days, at the large and fascinating observation screen. Over the years, the window had revealed to him countless marvels that no one else had ever seen or even dreamed of. No two stars were ever alike. The years of silent observation taught him that even the same star was never truly the same, for the universe did not repeat itself. For when a star was looked upon at different times it revealed different, sometimes even contradictory, attributes. And not just because it was viewed from a different vantage point. When observed by a viewer with a different mind-set and in different humor, it was altogether a different star. Like a magic mirror, such a star would reveal the star-watcher’s inner self. Although he didn’t know it, the traveler observed the stars to attain self-knowledge. To see himself as he truly was and not to be a stranger to oneself. Thus the self-same star would appear sometimes sad, sometimes cheerful, and at other times silent and reflective. Yet it always was the same star!
Sometimes images that the observation screen revealed were so mesmerizing that the traveler became transfixed for days. The perfect silence of the spaceship would be broken only by his quiet sighs of wonder. When at last he awoke from his spell, he would wobble toward the bedroom compartment and collapse onto his bed. He would dream he was back in the observation room, gazing at the screen. The images of the previous days would return and once again lure him with their colors, shapes, and dance.
Such were the rough outlines of the daily life of the traveler. To complete the sketch, it remains to mention that the traveler was not alone in the spaceship. It would be naive to assume that a single creature could maintain and operate an entire interstellar craft — the countless switches, levers, blinking lights were sufficient to induce a headache. Therefore, not surprisingly, the traveler had a helper: a short but industrious robot. Despite their different habits and non-overlapping schedules, the two coexisted in subtle harmony. During busy maintenance periods, they wouldn’t see each other for months. But when finally done with chores, they would hurry to the observation room, plant themselves before the screen, and then gaze at the content of the window. The two would sit for days in complete silence, the traveler admiring stars and planets, the robot recharging its batteries via the star light.
The aforementioned habits and routines at times would be interrupted by the silent and colorless stretches of time, corresponding to the period when the spaceship had to cross an empty region of the sky while on its way to another galaxy. Those were wintry periods during which the spaceship vanished from the blanket of the night sky. The observation compartment would be empty, and the screen darker than the night. This was time for catching up on sleep and eating well. To escape the tedium of those times, the traveler would begin to wander through the hallways and compartments of the spaceship.
During one such an excursion, the traveler made too many turns and lost his way among unfamiliar compartments of the spaceship. He walked for some time in a linear hallway without exit until he arrived at an abyss, beyond which extended only darkness. At the point at which he was ready to turn back, he became aware of a figure walking by his side. Another traveler in the spaceship?
“Hello!” He screamed in a joyful outburst.
But the stranger remained silent.
“May I refer to you as friend?” the traveler timidly asked after some reflection.
“It is true that we hardly know each other…and yet in the end, we will never truly know each other, for we cannot even fathom ourselves. You and I are separated by an abyss that cannot be crossed.”
After silently regarding the stranger, the traveler’s expression became lighter and he asked, “What happened to you? You appear perturbed or perplexed. Share your hardships, share your soul with me.” The traveler thought confiding in the stranger might encourage him to speak. “See, I too am in predicament. I lost my way in those hallways.”
But the stranger only stared with cold eyes. All the previous attempts at communication having failed, the traveler resorted to small talk.
“Are you also accompanied by a small and industrious robot to assist you with your chores?”
Once again, there was only silence. The traveler became aware of the murmur of the ship’s engines. He believed he could hear the wheezing sound of the approaching robot.Turning to the stranger once again, he had powerful desire to touch him. He stretched his arm, reached toward his face and touched it. The touch revealed to him the smooth cold surface of a mirror.
“Oh, so you do not exist,” the traveler sighed in disappointment. “You are a reflection of myself, like the stars.”
He whirled on his heel and commenced to run. Without knowing how, he reached the observation room, where, yearning to forget the dreadful experience, he flung himself onto the couch and slept.
Once again, he dreamed he was standing before the abyss, wavering in his decision. This time he resolved to enter. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he began to perceive shadows moving all around him. Someone beckoned, and he obeyed. He discerned other shadows seated at a table. The companion from the mirror was there, too. Seeing the traveler approach, he sprang to his feet.
“At long last!” he said. “The others had given up hope, but I always believed in you. Sit with us. The feast is about to begin.”
The traveler obeyed, and someone placed a glass of wine before him. With the nodding of his chin, the companion from the mirror encouraged him to drink.
“It is poisoned.” said a shadow at his side.
The traveler turned to face the stranger from the mirror. He could clearly see now that the skin on his face was old and peeling, his smile false, and his teeth made from metal. Through the fissures of the drying skin, he could see inside, and he saw somebody else. In the same moment he heard the humming sound of the approaching robot.
He woke in a room flooded with intense white light. As the light quickly receded, he took it to have been part of the interrupted dream. Then the light returned, and a brilliant comet crossed the observation screen. Gazing at the shooting tail and the radiant head, he sighed.
Then the comet began to speed away.
“And yet I will never touch you. You will never truly be mine. You will forever be remote and unfamiliar. Distant as the stranger from the mirror.”
As if to taunt him by confirming his statement, the comet disappeared from view.
Suddenly, the traveler sensed the universe was no longer the same, and he dashed out of the observation room and ran to the navigation compartment. At the control board, he pressed buttons and typed in commands. With a roar, the spacecraft changed its course to follow the trajectory of the comet. The perturbed robot stopped its chores and observed the traveler from a small dark recess in the compartment. Once again, the comet appeared on the screen, though it shrank quickly as it sped toward a swelling image of the planet. Caught in the planet’s gravitational field, the comet could no longer escape.
In its final seconds of existence, it resolved to reveal all its beauty and appear as it never had before. As it entered the outer atmosphere, it dressed itself in long orange flames and began to sing in monotonous low voice. Then the shock-wave of collision rocked the ship. It was over.
As the fumes receded, the traveler softly dropped the ship onto the edge of the crater created by the collision. For the first time in his existence, he stepped out of the ship that till then had been his sole abode. The humming robot followed him to the open door, where it stopped. Coming up to the edge of the ship, the traveler closed his eyes and jumped to the ground, where he immediately began to laugh. Looking boldly at the world before him, he scrutinized the vistas and the strange geographic forms and structures.
The traveler turned abruptly to the robot. “I will remain here!” he screamed. He seemed to deliberate something, then resumed, “But you must go. Continue our travels alone.”
The robot did not respond.
“One day you will find another traveler,” he said, softening his tone.
The diode lights on the robot’s metallic surface danced in random sequences, indicating distress.
“Go!” the traveler said. “Continue your travels. Explore the universe. The universe is your home.” His voice tapered into pensive silence.
The dance of the diode lights on the robot’s surface appeared more deliberate and ordered, and it stood at the entrance a little longer. Then it turned and vanished into the ship’s darkness. A moment later, the door was closed.
The traveler’s eyes vacillated between distant hills and the silver surface of the spaceship. He was only half aware of the rasping sound of the starting engines. Looking at the mustard-colored mountains, he pictured himself walking in a valley. The roaring engines raised their scream, and the spaceship levitated in the air. Looking at the valley, he imagined himself swimming in a river and there discovering another world. Without raising eyes from the ground to look at the disappearing spaceship, he whispered, “I will never leave the spaceship. I will always be imprisoned in its infinite metallic hallways.”
The ship vanished from the sky. Disconnected memories rushed through hallways of the traveler’s mind. He remembered the kitchen compartment, peanut butter sandwiches, the observation room, the screen full of stars, the cozy sofa, the omnipresent murmur of the robot’s wheels. He screamed in the direction of the now invisible spaceship.
“There’s an infinite supply of spare parts if ever you need any,” he shouted in the direction of the now-invisible craft. But you already know it. Because you are me.
As he looked at the vistas stretching before him that seemed to beckon him closer, his face relaxed into a smile.
“I am the traveler,” he pronounced in a singsong voice as he set out on his way.
“The universe is my home.
Wherever I go, whichever mountain or valley I visit, I feel as if I’d been born and raised there.”
A few moments of silence passed before the traveler continued.
“Of course, I am not alone on the planet. It would be naive to assume that a single creature could take care of one entire planet. I, the traveler, am accompanied by a small but industrious dragon.”
Then he laughed, for at heart he was still a child.
Derek Frydel holds Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Chicago. He is currently an assistant professor in the Chemistry department at the Federico Santa Maria University, Chile. His interest in writing (or rather the courage to write and insolence to continue to write) is a very recent occurrence that was born from pleasure of reading implanted during his years at the University of Chicago, the time of his life where he discovered so many things and possibilities. His first short story “The Unicorn” was published just recently at the Oddville Press magazine in the winter of 2018. The current story is his second success. However, chronologically speaking, it is the first short story he ever wrote, where he only vaguely understood what it means to create a tale from nothing.