You are Explorers. Your bodies are enhanced with drugs, with ceramics, with metals, with neural chips. You stride the world wearing seven-league boots and wrestle Kodiak bears before breakfast.
You are the Elite. Everyone knows your names, your faces. Ten thousand of you enlist, but only a handful push through the years of tests, training, and private struggles.
You are First Contact. You go through the Portal.
We do not. We are the ones who stay behind.
Occasionally, as you cross the threshold of the Portal, you turn and wave, or more likely, give a big grin and thumbs up, to show you fear nothing that lies beyond that silent void. It is an act of bravado, something to cover up that dagger of fear that pricks at your belly despite your intense conditioning.
Some of us lift our eyes from our instruments and wave back, or offer a timid smile. We dare not show our true feelings. It would break us – it has broken us.
You take five steps into another world, hoping to find green fields, dark forests, rich valleys, pristine oceans.
Sometimes you find all that. Other times, nothing.
Occasionally, you find monsters.
We who stay behind are quiet. We are nameless technicians. Interchangeable. We hand you harnesses, count out your rations, your ammo, your kits stuffed with experimental nanomeds. We remind you about protocols, about communication lines, about keeping your head clear. We remind you to drink water, to trust your gut, to watch out for your buddy. We remind you to leave breadcrumbs, for the Portal opens and closes of its own volition.
The Portal is alien. We found it buried under ten thousand years of Martian regolith.
We who stay behind dine by ourselves, or in small groups, but always apart from you. We do not participate in your bull sessions, your jokes, your parties, your flirtations, your coupling, or your drama. Even if we desired it—and some of us do—we restrain ourselves.
We know what you say behind our backs. You think us failures. Washouts. Government clock watchers. Bureaucrats dreaming of retirement on sunny beaches. If only it were that easy.
We stand vigil on the Portal. Sometimes when we open the doors, we see fire and smoke. Or hear cries for help.
We go to the vaults then, and array ourselves in alien armor that grants heroic strength and enhanced senses but causes heart failure after repeated use.
We fasten our helms and step through the Portal. When we find you, or pieces of you, we carry you back like a bride over the threshold, into the regeneration tanks and blissful oblivion.
We debrief you. We sit by your bed and encourage you to talk off the record. We hold your new hand, or massage feet that tingle with nerve growth.
You describe the things you saw on the other side of the Portal, things that should not exist.
We nod and smile warmly. We understand, we say.
Later, we bring you flowers. We smuggle in beer and pornography, and convey Get Well Soon messages from other Explorers who never find time to visit you.
We bring you fresh uniforms the day the medics release you, and wait while you dress. Then we escort you to the Explorer barracks. Before we reach the final corridor, we pause and tell you that you don’t have to go through the Portal. If you wish, you can stay behind. No one will think less of you.
You look into our eyes, then, and notice them for the first time. They are eyes that have seen alien worlds, and beauty, and death. Eyes of Explorers.
We need you, we say calmly, and extend our hands. Stay.
About the Author
Karl Dandenell is a first-generation Swedish American, survivor of Viable Paradise XVI, and active member of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives on an island near San Francisco with his family and 2 cat overlords. He is fond of strong tea and distilled spirits. When not sitting in project meetings, he reads a lot of speculative fiction, and serves as a First Reader for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.