Since our beloved sister Roberta invented the solenoid I have to say I indulged my wanderlust with zest: you never know what you’re going to find on a new planet and being the first human there is the icing on the cake.
I gave all the trips reasonable preparation, I’m an adventurer, not a fool, and in time I gathered the confidence that I can handle myself reasonably well in any new environment, no matter how hostile. Just back from a trip to a moon in the Vega constellation I was browsing stellar charts to relax and noticed this tiny dot on the outskirts of a solar system in Andromeda’s Halo. To my surprise, the tiny planet lay in the habitable range and a closer look at Roberta’s data from the probes showed an enchanting world with bright blue vegetation and shallow gooey pools filled with a sticky liquid high in glycerin, compliments of the plant life’s decomposition processes.
The sun was small, but quite close, which made the entire landscape look weird, with long, thin shadows stretching endlessly in response to the blindingly bright pinprick in the sky. Curiosity got the better of me and despite the fact that I was still tired from the recent trip I immediately started planning a visit to the quirky little planet.
I figured I didn’t need much, the atmosphere was breathable, the water was drinkable if you absolutely had no choice and we weren’t going to stay long anyway, just enough to get some recordings and bring back a few samples.
You know it’s our custom to never go alone, and sister Roberta was quite irked that I’d just come back from a trip and I already wanted to drag another long suffering sister with me to this unremarkable planet, when every one was so busy with their research. Her disapproval amplified tenfold when she realized that none of the sisters wanted to or could come, which meant she would have to be my partner for this off-schedule, last minute, unsanctioned trip.
I’ve known Roberta practically forever, so I wasn’t daunted by her tantrums and her guilt trips fell on deaf ears (you know how she can make you reevaluate your entire moral code when you do something that displeases her!). She ranted for a while, and then, in characteristic manner, noticed a detail about the proposed exploration zone that piqued her interest and completely reversed her attitude.
We arrived at sunrise, just in time to watch the point source sun shine bright yellow and cast a surreal display of shadows, so long their ends stretched beyond the horizon. We wandered randomly, grabbing a plant here, a mineral sample there, until we arrived to the bottom of a rocky mountain range, quite rugged and abrupt, that seemed to run a straight demarcation line in the landscape, as far as the eyes could see. Every here and there we noticed round holes in the side of the mountain that didn’t seem to have formed naturally, but rather appeared to be the burrows of some sort of animal. They varied in size, from just a few inches in diameter, to large openings, like the entrance of a cave.
Neither one of us is a shy flower, so we simultaneously decided, without even asking each other, that the second we found an opening large enough to get through, we’re going in. We did find a good size entrance into the side of the mountain, and noticed that it continued with a smooth tunnel, perfectly round, like the hollow tubes lava leaves behind in its passing. The tunnel was dark and bent abruptly around a corner within fifty feet of the entrance, and we couldn’t see what was going on beyond that point.
Sister Roberta walked boldly in front of me, engrossed in the exploration of this new environment, and turned the corner just as I was catching up with her; I only had one glimpse of her disappearing into the void. Lucky for me I had the flashlight, and in its dim glow I saw the chasm opening right in front of my feet. To this day I can’t describe what it was, because it seemed less like an abyss and more like an absence, an absence of everything – matter, force, thought.
I was so shocked by this fast unfolding of events that I didn’t have time to grieve what I thought was the loss of Roberta, my oldest and dearest friend, and as I turned towards the cave entrance the tunnel started to collapse and my flashlight went dark. I panicked, listening to the soft sound of soil crumbling. I called to God in prayer, but there was no answer, it seemed that even He didn’t want to venture into the haunting emptiness in front of me. I was so terrified I started hyperventilating and that made me lightheaded, so when I heard Roberta’s voice resonating from the void I was sure I was hallucinating.
“Novis! Novis! What on earth are you doing?! Come on, sister, we don’t have all day, I want to get back to my work!” sister Roberta called, in a very calm voice, from the pool of nothing in front of my eyes, while the edge of the rift kept crumbling at my feet. I turned to stone and even if I had had the mental courage to move, my body didn’t listen to me. I instantly decided that I wasn’t going to be afraid of Roberta, whether she was alive or dead, but hesitated to reply to the ghostly voice, if nothing else because I wasn’t sure that in my fright and grief I wasn’t imagining it.
“Sister, you are annoying me, you dragged my old bones to this godforsaken planet and now I have to yank you with the jaws of life to continue your own research project. Would you do me the kindness to get over here? It’s getting too bright, I should have thought to bring visors, live and learn, huh?”
I didn’t answer, I just sat motionless in total darkness, mentally assessing the fact that whatever happened next I most likely wasn’t going to die, not with the purple DNA keeping my tissues repaired and all, so I’d have to spend eternity in this hole. Hours passed, that seemed like forever, hours during which sister Roberta kept calling me, more and more alarmed, and I became more and more despondent, curled up in the fetal position next to a boulder and unable to move.
I prayed and cried, with sharp shrieks, I thought, although I later realized no sounds actually came out of my mouth, and tried to block sister Roberta’s calls, which became more and more insistent as time advanced.
“Sister, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, and I really don’t care to find out right now, but for the love of God, move from that place already, the window of opportunity is closing and I only programmed the solenoid for one return trip. I’m not sure who knows we’re here, at any rate, if we miss the window there will be days until they find us, if at all. If you ever trusted me in your entire life, trust me now when I tell you to get up from that spot and step forward!”
Her voice had a gravity I never heard before, and real or imagined, I felt the urgency of her call in the pit of my stomach and all my instincts told me not to doubt that the danger she was talking about was genuine. I managed to move my head and tried to look around, but there was nothing but darkness, a soul sucking void.
“Thank God, sister!” Roberta uttered a sigh of relief. “For a moment there I thought you were dead. I am right here, right in front of you, can’t you see me? You only have to take one step! There seems to be a force field preventing me from reaching you. Please move!”
I really don’t know what it was that gave me the impulse to step into that void, whether it was Roberta’s voice or going out of my mind in the darkness filled with the creepy sounds of crumbling dirt, or maybe in my altered state of mind I thought I heard God call me from beyond, but I rose to my feet and jumped forward.
Right in front of my bewildered eyes stood Roberta, looking very worried indeed, in the entryway of what seemed to be a mirror image of the cave where we started, with the intense radiance of the sunset behind her; the light was indeed so bright I had to squint to protect my eyes.
“What is wrong with you, sister, you scared me to death, do you really want us to be marooned on this planet? I don’t even know if the vegetation is edible!”
I turned around to see very clearly the corridor I had spent hours in, quite well illumined, boulder and all. I mumbled something almost unintelligible to Roberta about the darkness and her disappearing, and grace to our long standing friendship and my normally solid common sense she didn’t doubt it. I was mortified with embarrassment at the thought of her standing there the entire time, begging me to move and watching me as I clutched helplessly onto that boulder for hours, petrified with fear.
“It must be a portal, I didn’t even notice when I passed through it”, she said simply, “stranger things happened in this universe”, and in light of my nightmarish experience I begrudged her poise.
“Did we pass through to the other side of the mountain range?” I asked unsteadily, trying to sound rational.
“No, we’re on the same side. It’s the same cave entrance too, only backwards, look, you can see the solenoid from here!”, she nudged. I looked out to acknowledge the solenoid and then turned around again to take one more look at the corridor and the boulder I had held on for dear life, and it was still there, innocently defying me, almost within arm’s reach.
“Sister, if you regained your wits, we have exactly three minutes before the window closes, and one hundred feet to the solenoid. Run!” she grabbed my arm and hurled me forward, so abruptly I almost fell.
After we got back home, I decided to trim back my enthusiasm for exploration a bit, to give this lovely incident some time to sink in, and tried to stay out of Roberta’s way until she forgot the details of our shared experience. Fat chance of that, she never forgets anything, you could store the Institute’s archives on her brain!
I’ve never been scared again after that, I’m not sure why, and began to look at life with keener eyes: I started enjoying the splendid landscapes of Terra Two, the delightful perfume of vanilla and gardenia, our communal meals (especially when sister Jesse is cooking and sister Abigail is not), our talks to God in prayer.
To this day I’m not sure what I could have done differently and can’t help feeling embarrassed that I made a complete fool of myself, but it didn’t dissuade me from exploring, quite the opposite, I just allow for a lot more unforeseen aspects in my travel plans now.
When I stepped into that void I let go of every certainty I had about life, every certainty other than the omnipresent love of God. What I lost in certainty I gained in inquisitiveness, and my fear turned to this intense interest about the workings of the universe and to awe about how much of existence we don’t understand.
Your mother is going to be mad at me when she reads this story, I think she was hoping for something heartfelt and uplifting, but I say there’s room for cautionary tales, especially for children, we wouldn’t want you to end up standing petrified in fear in front of an open door now, would we?