The Meaning of Isolation by Josh Warriner

The stars began to spin faster than he had been accustomed to over the last four hundred days. He knew that he was almost home. After the radio had first died and he was left alone, he feared he would not be able to survive the journey. It wasn’t until after the silence had set in that he came to truly appreciate the isolation. He never spoke nor made very much noise at all; he never felt the need. He quickly felt at peace with it all.

The only sounds that filled his ears were those of the whirring machinery of the small spacefaring vessel he had spent the last thirteen months inside. The silence would be stirred once a day by the scratch of his pen against his logbook, and nightly as he strapped himself into his sleeping quarters, which quickly became a necessity after the sleepwalking began some months ago.

He thought for some time that the silence must be driving him insane. Although, that couldn’t be true—he felt entirely sane. The thoughts in his mind had maintained perfect clarity, and he functioned each day to the fullest of his faculties. The silence would break with a slight chuckle that would leave him at the notion of insanity.

It was in this infallible sanity that he spent his waking hours staring into the stars, often until they began to appear like they were staring back. It was then that he would attend to the maintenance of his ship or continue his daily logbook entry to avoid their gazes. Their spiraling motion as the ship spun its course back to Earth luckily didn’t make him nauseous, all while its pace quickened the closer to home he traveled. By design, his vessel would pierce the thick atmosphere like a bullet, arriving back on Earth, hopefully near the launch station from which he departed over a year ago on his journey just beyond the edge of the solar system humanity had always called home.

The only time his sanity broke was during the night. During the final few months of the journey, he had been plagued by terrible nightmares along with the sleepwalking. It would be during a particularly unpleasant terror that he would awaken to find that his unconscious body had traveled the short length of the ship, sometimes to the cockpit, sometimes to the sealed hatch leading into the vast emptiness beyond.

These dreams had always followed a similar theme: the loss of those he held dear, and the isolation that followed. In the most recent instance he could recall, which he noted in his logs, he awoke in his dream strapped to his bed at home, a bed so empty it reminded him of why he chose to volunteer for such a ghastly mission. He watched as small, unearthly creatures disassembled his home around him, screeching gleefully as they tore it to pieces, leaving him completely exposed to the elements. Rain began to fall as he struggled against his restraints. It was then that these small, shadowy beings would converge on his bed and begin to tear him apart as well, with similar joy. Despite being ripped to pieces just as his home had been, he never bled: a rule he used to verify whether the terror he felt was reality or not. In his final moments of clarity, the rain overhead began to flood the land around him and carry him away.

When he awoke from that particular dream, he found his hands bloody from scratching at the dreamstate restraints.

He thought of the purpose of his journey and recalled what he had learned throughout his voyage. He had written hundreds of logs, detailing each day in extensive detail. To date, he had composed 398 logbooks, all meticulously organized into a compartment that once held 400 blank books—the estimated length of his voyage. His journey had been planned precisely from the start. He had been told, however, that given the shifting nature of celestial bodies, this number could possibly be inaccurate by two to five days. He had no precise instruments to control his velocity nor to know how much time had elapsed on his journey.

To honor the incoming end of his journey, he decided to review some of his earliest log entries to catalog some key information for delivery upon his arrival on Earth. He was sure there would be countless questions as soon as he landed.

He drew a random logbook from early on in his journey and began to read:

Log Entry #003 of 400, Lt. Cmdr. Teller, aboard the UCS 08-Rousseau:

72 hours have passed since launch, and Earth is slowly becoming a pale blue dot in the porthole as the hours pass. I’ve finally sorted everything in the capsule to my liking, such that everything feels ready to be my home for the next three hundred and ninety-seven days. Give or take.

I have all that I need to keep me occupied, I believe. I have the long-distance radio transponder in the cockpit to speak with the control center back on Earth, on which I had an enlightening conversation with Lt. Scott in the control room about his marital troubles just this morning. Although I did remind him that it could be worse. Just look at how mine turned out, right?

I was allowed a single satchel worth of belongings, so as to avoid the clutter that could accrue over a year-long voyage. I elected for a digital library, a classic deck of playing cards, and an audio player and recorder, loaded with as much music as I could fit on it. I decided I would explore musical history throughout this voyage, so this morning began with Symphony № 40, and watching home vanish far behind me. -CT

Of all the factors which had arisen with the radio falling into disrepair, he missed his conversations with the crew of the launch station, Lt. Jacob Scott, who had been his primary contact with the rest of humanity during the first half of his trip, the most. He withdrew another book from the tightly packed compartment.

Log Entry #251 of 400, Lt. Cmdr. Teller, Rousseau:

Central stopped responding today after a couple days of connection issues. Despite passing the apoapsis of this journey fifty-three days ago, only now does it appear that I have passed out of range of home.

I was worried that this was because I had shifted off course, but all of the basic readings I can get have remained unchanged: I am headed home. Scott and Halloran consulted with me about the radio just before I reached my furthest from Earth, and they told me I could perhaps be outside of contact range for up to a few days. Perhaps this is just a delay of signal? I hope so, anything else could be trouble. -CT

He closed that particular book and reached for another to gain further insight into his thoughts shortly following the disruption of the signal.

Log Entry #282 of 400, Lt. Cmdr. Teller, Rousseau:

I have been without any signal for a month now. After it became clear that the comms system was in disrepair, I made the executive decision to disassemble it, after the droning sound it was emitting began to penetrate even my dreams. A full silence has overcome the vessel now. I found several burned fuses, but without prior understanding, I can’t determine whether this was the cause of the loss of signal or if it was caused by the week or so that I left the radio on continuously to monitor the reception.

I haven’t spoken a word since the last conversation I had with Cmdr. Halloran a couple days prior to the loss of signal. Nothing seemed out of sorts, which led to my conclusion that the problem must certainly lie in my systems, and not central command.

The nightmares haven’t gotten any better. Last night it was her again, but this time her eyes were wrong. They were looking through me like she was staring into eternity. Then she began to rot away again, so quickly that I could barely fathom. After only a few seconds, she was gone, and I was alone again.

I hope the next hundred days go by quicker than the last. -CT

Unfortunately for him, he now knew the last hundred days had been slower than the hundred days prior. He knew that the contents of the most recent logs were nearly null. He had nothing to report as he passed the threshold of the journey and returned through charted territory. Prior to returning to the familiarity of the solar system, he was able to report astronomical data, notable gravity fluctuations, and any other celestial phenomena he encountered. Now, all that he had to discuss were his dreams, or his continuing gratitude that he was close to home. He reassured himself that the isolation would all be worth it—he was almost home.

He fixed himself the closest thing to a meal that he had on board: a serving of a wheat-based protein supplement, served in a bowl. It wasn’t entirely without appeal, as it did keep him alive. It did nothing to appease the senses beyond that. To the eyes, it presented nothing but a coagulant beige mass. Mercifully, the smell and taste were both non-existent.

A deep, disturbing sense of paranoia stirred inside him as the beige sustenance before him began to turn black, blacker than the space between the stars. He stared into it intently, just like he would stare out into the space between the stars and wonder about how it felt like it was staring back. It spilled over the edges of the small, plastic bowl, spilling the blackness across the tabletop. It bubbled like boiling blood, and he felt the coagulant black mass on his hands and wrists as they rested motionless on the table.

Shaking himself violently out of his trance, he found his meal unaffected, simple and brown once more. He did not finish his final dinner aboard the Rousseau before calling it a night and preparing for landing.

He strapped himself in for what would be his final rest aboard this vessel.

His sleep, as always, was plagued by nightmares, where he saw his colleagues, friends, and loved ones torn apart by an unidentified force. First, he saw the last room on Earth he had stood in prior to his voyage—the launch center hanger. There, the maintenance crew was being vivisected without a cause. They were left strewn across the massive hanger, unrecognizable in the destruction. The force tore everyone he knew apart, and it was coming for him next. In his dreamstate, he felt the urge to flee as far as he could.

He awoke with a yell in the cockpit of the ship. His unconscious form had been typing carefully into the mostly untouched navigational computer, intent on overriding the ship’s autopilot and throwing him fatally off course. The straps of his sleeping bag still hung on his forearms.

He had stopped himself just in time.

Earth loomed closer and closer over the following day, until he passed the moon late in the afternoon the day he was set to land. During this time, looking out into the stars would be too disorienting, so the portholes automatically sealed themselves shut in preparation for landing.

He was left alone with the mind that had begun to conspire against him in the last couple of weeks. He sat at the ship’s small table, the artificial gravity sparing him from the centrifugal force building with the rapid rotation of the vessel. Sitting in his own thoughts, he penned his final journal entry.

Log Entry #400 of 400, Teller:

I can’t tell you what would happen to me if I weren’t landing so soon. The nightmares are more of me than I am now. I wonder if you feel the way I do. I don’t know if you can ever feel like this. I don’t believe I ever will again. Do you even remember me? How long has it been? It feels like it’s been a millennium. I only hope that someone is waiting for me on the other side of this mess.

For this final log, I declare that there are eleven potential sites for human colonization along my charted course, as noted periodically in these log entries, per the mission statement of the UCS 08-Rousseau.

Most of all and as my final note, I am thankful to be home and to be away from my own thoughts. Lieutenant Commander Christopher Teller, United Council Member 58B-191, signing off.

The landing process was worse than expected. His bones ached as the depressurization occurred around the ship and within him. The ship’s metal groaned around him, flexing and banging to give way to the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry. Anything not securely fastened was sent shifting across the ship’s main compartment.

Teller sat still, fastened securely within the cockpit. The gravitational forces acting on the ship were nearly too much to bear, but he withstood, just as he had trained for many years to do.

He thought about the four hundred days. He remembered most of all, in retrospect, the loneliness. It was a tremendously isolating experience to be in such a small space, surrounded by one so impossibly big. He recalled the two-hundred-and-fifty-first day, when the radio first died. Perhaps that was the closest to a true emotion he’d felt since his time aboard the Rousseau. On that day, he was afraid, perhaps terrified, of what it really meant to be alone. It took being so close to salvation from this isolation to truly understand that feeling. At his core, he was glad he wouldn’t have to be alone anymore, and hoped he never had to be again.

This was his last thought before the ship impacted with an unknown object midair.

With the viewports sealed, he was not able to predict the impact. The ship spun uncontrollably, the force breaking his seat fastener, sending him flying against the wall of the cockpit. He felt the burning of a cutting wound before losing consciousness.

Another nightmare ensued. He dreamed of dust raised and floating throughout the vessel. A crack of light shone through the covered viewport in the cockpit. The smell of burning copper and blood filled his nose. He coughed, involuntarily, sending a spew of blackened blood down his flight suit. He rose from his position against the control panel, which had cracked and splintered beneath his weight during the impact. As he lifted, shards of glass followed, lodged in his form.

In this dream, he stepped in agony away from the cockpit and into the main compartment. Inside, the door which had been sealed for four hundred days was now opened, only a small amount. He hoped this dream was nothing like how the true landing would transpire, although he could not recall when that was supposed to happen.

He used only his left arm in his attempt to open the door, letting his right arm fall limp at his side as the sharp, relentless pain told him it was probably broken. The door creaked open, its hinges weak from disuse. He was blinded by the light of his home planet.

He took a deep breath, which he expected to be fresh, cool air after many months of stale, recycled oxygen. Instead, he was met with an offensive mix of sulfur and ash. Something had gone horribly wrong with this imagined arrival.

His eyes finally adjusted, and he was alone. The view before him was desolate. He believed this area might have once been a forest, but it was arid and burned. Trees laid strewn across the landscape, charred terribly. Some still stood, bent violently in patternless directions. The sky was a mix of browns and yellows, and that atmosphere hung thick in his lungs. The sun sat still in the sky, a burning crimson.

It felt like he walked in this dream for hours. His legs ached and strained as he wandered away from the wreckage, sore from spending four hundred days in such a confined space and further damaged by his arrival. For as long as he could walk, everything looked the same. Arid, desolate, and alone.

He reached a crest, over which he could see a glow of light. This was his salvation, he knew. This is what would wake him from this horrible dream. This one had been so visceral, so authentic. He was grateful he would soon wake and return to what he was doing, the details of which he was still unable to recall.

It was at the top of this sandy hill that he was met with an incomprehensible sight. Down the long, sloping hill upon which he stood upon was a small town—or the remains of one.

Piles of ash and rubble stood in rows, and with their burned-out husks of cars, he knew that at one time these were homes. In the streets he saw skeletons, blackened. Most were nothing more than scattered bones.

Involuntarily, he fell to his knees.

The stabbing pain that roared in his legs brought him to a reality. This dream was so tangible. It seemed—

At once, he withdrew the multipurpose tool he had always kept at hand on the belt of his flight suit, which was now torn by the glass of the control panel. He thumbed across the tool until he found the small blade. He examined the sharpened edge carefully, before running it coarsely across his palm.

The pain felt as real and as fiery as anything. He waited for the sign. He held his hand out before him, palm facing the charred earth, and waited.

Slowly but surely, droplets of blood began to mix with the soil below. The earth beneath his outstretched hand turned a deep crimson as he bled. He clenched his fists, feeling the blood seep into his fingers. Agony wrought through him. The pain all throughout his body strengthened as his injuries quickly revealed themselves, a pain more authentic than anything he had felt before. This was the meaning of his isolation.

Josh Warriner is an author, university student, and entrepreneur living in Toronto, Canada. From a young age, Josh was shaped by science fiction, becoming enraptured with the ideas of worlds beyond our own and science beyond our understanding. Growing up in a small community in northeastern Ontario, Canada, Josh spent much of his early life indoors and consuming the media set in these fantastic worlds. Since then, he has tried to evoke the same magic of the genre that first inspired him through stories, poetry, and other written work. By day, Josh is a social media manager and music artist manager with his self-built artist management company, Populus Music.