“How do we get there?” has always been the driving force behind humanity. Beyond the desire to reach new places, it is the questioning of how it would actually be done that brings us to new heights and expands our horizons. Once that question starts to be answered is when the dream begins to become reality.
We conquered every land mass, climbed all of the highest peaks, reached the lowest trenches on Earth. It was taken for granted that this question would always have an answer, that it was just a matter of time and thought. But what about all those wonders not on Earth? What about the highest peaks in the solar system or the galaxy? What about lands where no living thing had ever stood? How do we get there?
It all started out as expected. The Moon, Mars, Jupiter’s satellites, even Pluto and Eris conformed to the idea that it was only a matter of time before the question was answered. But once they had all been completely explored naturally the human eye wandered further still.
This was where the problems began. Hundreds of years of space exploration and of asking the question “how do we get there” and humanity was still trapped in its own solar system. Questions of distance and speed meant the only way humanity would ever reach a star other than its own would take thousands of years. The dream remained a dream.
But of course humanity also finds ways to bend the rules of what reality means. The human body could not physically reach a star beyond its own, but the mind could be made to believe it had. From literature to film to computer simulations, various technologies evolved to pleasure the mind, and with these the ability to take the mind beyond where the body could go also evolved. But these were also never enough. A book could be put down; film took the mind where the director wished to go, not where the mind wanted; a computer simulation was only ever a simulation, it never felt real enough.
As the technology to reach the real stars failed, the technology to reach simulated ones flourished. Simulations became more immersive, more controlled by the user’s mind. To reach a distant star or galaxy all that was required was a thought, relativity be damned. Of course at first the demands of the body dictated how long the simulation could be sustained. Computer generated images of supernovae and the eruptions from quasars fed the mind but not the body.
The technology improved. People were crying out for simulated lives reality could never bring them, and so the ancient law of supply and demand was carried out. Inventors found ways to attach modules to the simulators which converted sunlight or the soil into fuel for the body. Given the fact that those in the simulators were not moving and had their stress levels drastically lowered a fantastically low amount of energy was needed to keep the users alive. Soon users could stay in the simulations for days, then weeks, then years, then lifetimes. People no longer asked “how do we get there”, they were wherever they wanted to be.
Arthur began to leave the simulation. “Are you sure you want to leave?” flashed in his brain and he replied “yes”. Various warnings about returning to reality after prolonged exposure to the simulation popped up and he ignored them all. He had never had reason to fear anything.
He suddenly felt incredibly heavy. For the first time in, well, he could not remember how long, he opened his eyes. Everything was blurry. He dimly remembered having had to wear glasses to correct his vision. The mouth piece of the simulator detached, pulling out the feeding pipe from his gullet. Arthur’s body was wracked with a fit of coughing and spluttering. He felt incredibly empty. Some part of his brain remembered to breathe. The unfiltered, dusty air burned his lungs. He remembered fresh, outside air and resolved to move. His legs seemed to have forgotten how to work and he collapsed to the ground, reduced to coughing once again as his fragile lungs were emptied and he filled them rapidly with the harsh air.
Arthur crawled across the dusty carpet of a house he barely remembered. In the simulation he had no need for a fixed residence. He found the door and using all the might he possessed hauled himself up to pull the handle. He fell through the open doorway into blinding sunlight which burned his eyes and skin. The air out here was less dusty, but it whipped his paper like skin and its cold bit deep. A wheezing, crawling, burned wretch he skulked back to the simulator, cursing whatever impulse it was that had made him want to return to reality. He plugged in and re-joined the rest of his race.
The peace of the solar system was broken as a huge spaceship appeared as if out of nowhere. The ship had of course travelled through a wormhole it had created, allowing it to traverse the galaxy in seconds. The radio signals it had picked up emanating from this planet had in contrast travelled for thousands of years before being received. Such an obvious sign of intelligent life had been irresistible to these shepherds of younger races. They only hoped that they were not too late, and the intelligence that had made the radio signals thousands of years ago still existed. They had been disappointed before.
The first signs were promising. Radio and other signals still emanated from the planet and there were machines still being powered by electricity. But there seemed to be something wrong. They were looking at the night side of the planet but there were no lights shining out. Why would an intelligent race be content with complete darkness? Could they have been forced underground?
They then realised that the radio signals they were receiving were the exact same ones they had received when they had first picked them up. Even after all the time it had taken for them to leave the planet and reach the shepherds they had not altered. It was as if they had played on a loop ever since.
They moved around to the day side of the planet and began a visual inspection. They realised whatever civilisation had lived there was dead. Buildings could just about be recognised through the thick coverings of flora which coated the planet unchecked by any intelligent will. The machines which still continued to do whatever work their old masters had desired were located within these plant covered buildings, the only remnants of a lost civilisation.
The aliens did not know or care what had caused the demise of this once promising species. They only knew it was gone. They moved on to search for other intelligent life and left the human race to their simulations of places they would never go.