Depending on who you ask, the early space settlers were either brave pioneers, out to stake new claims for humanity among the stars, or they were idiots, too dumb to know the kind of danger they were actually in. Their ships were canvas-covered wagons compared to what you can find on most landing pads today. Just this morning, a Raven Class Windswipe touched down on Earth 7 from Kepler 16 in 4 hours. Our technology has turned that once epic, years-long journey into a tame day trip. What was once a treacherous voyage is now a commute. My point is that humanity has come a long way.
A lot of people seem to think that those settlers had a better life than what we have on any colonized planet today. Those people are not historians, I am. “Simpler” they call it. Quaint. The repopularizing of early settler recruitment videos did not help to dispel this ridiculous belief.
“Make the universe yours!” “Carve out your own pocket of paradise!”, antiquated promises of freedom for anyone willing to strike out on their own were the big attraction in these propaganda pieces. In those early days, anyone with a GASA-approved vehicle was eligible for the incentive programs. The government gave you a few barrels of fuel, a case of ammo, and sent you out with the full authority to claim any space rock as your own – so long as you pay all taxes, follow all governmental regulations, and sign the “Resources Management” contract. That last one was key and often overlooked by the civilians clamoring for their own piece of the sky.
The Resources Management contract stated simply that while you, the settler, technically owned the claim to any land you discovered, the Federation (now a branch of the Galactic Coalition) retained the right to review, recall and manage any resources discovered (“material or not”) that would be valuable to humanity as a whole. The right to determine what was “valuable” was left entirely up to the government regulators’ discretion. Essentially, this contract nullified your right as a settler to any claim that the government decided it wanted. Clever, no?
And thus, the colonization of the universe by humans began.
Relative to the colonizations undertaken on Earth Prime, the ancient march of monarchs into foreign lands, this process went relatively smoothly. Humans, for the most part, avoided planets that already had an established, advanced species. Why chance a war or culture clash when there’s so much space to go around? Over decades, hundreds of ships embarked on journeys to distant planets and far-flung galaxies, knowing they would never see their homes again.
Those settlers put blood and sweat and tears into taming the planets they discovered. And as decades and then centuries passed, they built new homes. Vast cities. Gigantic communication systems, capable of uniting people across hundreds of millions of miles. Humanity rolled on, evolving, building, growing.
I think this is where the ridiculous glamorization of the early settlers begins. We see only the final outcome of their work – sparkling cities and the everyday comforts we hold so dear. The movies don’t show how disgusting those first few years of any settlers’ journey would have been. We don’t like to think about the horrifying conditions they would travel in or the ugly truth of what developing a society looks like.
We’ve turned these important, complex, historical figures into kitsch heroes of the final frontier. We depict them as tough cowboys, wrangling the stars and bending them to their will. The propaganda is endless, taking the form of movies, action figures, stage plays, and anything else that can turn a profit. This problematic portrayal was only made worse by the discovery of the Rigger wreckage.
The Rigger was a converted merchant ship built by the Riley Wing Corporation in 3014 and was considered one of the more reliable ships of its time. It featured then state-of-the-art safety mechanisms that we would find laughably unsafe today. Compared to its modern-day counterparts, this thing was a rocket-fueled death trap. Nonetheless, its crew of 32 men and women took off from the Kennedy Space Center in the capital city of Florida, America on July 8th of 3020 (For those unfamiliar with “America”, they were a handful of rather feral countries later conquered by The Orrakk Empire. Before the final destruction of Earth Prime, the area was referred to as a “biozone”. A gentle way of saying “wasteland”.). After that, the story of the Rigger was the same as the vast majority of ships sent out to conquer space – years out in the nothingness, searching for a new home. The historical records show that they sent out a single distress signal before disappearing. Rescue crews at the time were limited and unable to reach the last known location of the ship. They left no trace, all 32 souls vanishing out into the neverending black. Assumed that, like so many others, they had malfunctioned, crashed, exploded, or expired in any number of terrible ways. Starvation or suffocation, perhaps. End of story, or so we thought.
The real drama started, like most historical catastrophes do, with an artist taking several creative liberties. Misinformation in the name of creativity. The disastrous outcome was “Space
Bounty”, a pathetic, in my opinion, documentary retelling of the Riggers story. The film ignited viewers to seek out the final resting place of the ship, spurred on by the directors (Gavin Umber, a pompous dick head, again in my opinion) liberal use of the suggestion that the ships manifest listed 678 stz. of gold bars. He proposed a handful of insane theories about the ship’s demise.
Imagine the public’s maniac response when one of them turned out to be (not really, but close enough) right.
One of Umber’s unsubstantiated theories was that the Rigger had run into a cluster of asteroids somewhere in the Sector 12.74 region. A relatively empty portion of the cosmos, save for a desert planet and its two green moons, where he proposed the ship may have crashed after taking damage. A wildly unprovable claim that as fate would have it, came true. Two “treasure hunters” found the ancient remains of the ship. They were searching the area based solely on the suggestions made in Umber’s film.
The Rigger had almost completely disappeared into the landscape of the remote planet. Ruins so devastated that the true cause of the crash could not be determined. Time had washed away any evidence or treasure that was once there. The ship had been entirely exposed to the elements on a planet not capable of long-term human survival. Of course, this meant that it became an instant tourist hot spot.
Guided tours, complete with shoddy safety gear, offered visitors the chance to spend an hour walking the wreckage. That included the opportunity to grab any chunk of the ship you could manage to pry off. Eventually, the Council of Science stepped in and marked the site for research. A few soil samples later and the government had deemed the planet “irrelevant”. This is when the enigmatic billionaire stepped in.
Nina Bo was the third-born daughter of real estate tycoon, Maxwell Bo. The unabashed black sheep of the family, she had sprinkled pet projects across several galaxies. Known as the most eccentric of the notoriously eccentric family, her interests were varied. Exotic petting zoos, theme parks with record-breaking roller coasters, a research lab dedicated to the investigation of metaphysical powers, the list goes on and follows no pattern or theme. Nina picks her ventures on a whim, chasing after whatever idea floats through her unburdened mind. It wasn’t all that surprising when she declared her interest in the Rigger wreckage. What was surprising was what she built there.
Rigger Park, as she announced it would be called, would be the most immersive historical tourist experience available in the universe. “Live the life of a real space settler!” the advertisements shouted. Rigger Park became a popular destination for wannabe cowboys as the cultural boom surrounding the early space settlement era doubled down.
To call the park historical would be an affront to history. The poorly written reenactments, prattled off by apathetic teenage actors, only comprised about 10% of a visitor’s experience. The rest was Wild West hype, nauseating rides, and overpriced deep-fried foods. Not to mention that you had to do all of it while wearing an oxygen pod. In the early years, the wreckage of the Rigger was the focal point of the park, with various attractions spreading out from it. Eventually, long after Nina’s death, the wreckage itself was paved over and a new landing structure was built as the park expanded far beyond its original bounds.
With the success of the then still burgeoning Rigger Park, Nina Bo set her sights on her next venture. The goal was rather straightforward – find another lost ship. She reveled in the idea of being the first to find an object that had been lost to time. She hired the treasure hunters who had found the Rigger, a captain, and myself to help her do it. To her credit, hiring a historian to assist with research was a smart move that 99% of the other numbskull wreckage hunters never even considered.
The five of us set out in a midsize luxury cruiser, a much fancier ship than I ever would have been assigned to on an academic expedition. Led by Captain Tristan Clearwater, a military veteran and lifelong hater of bureaucracy, he retired with full honors and took the biggest payday he could find. Despite his duties running the ship, Captain Clearwater spent most of his time wrangling the treasure hunter extraordinaire duo, Ted and Terri Trunch, twins who fought more than they breathed. Nina and I spent most of our time in the “lab” – a converted conference room that we covered with star maps and historical records.
We set our sights on the Lantern – a much larger ship than the Rigger. The Lantern was a carrier ship holding 112 passengers and 38 crew members when it dropped off all radar systems. While we had more information than anyone had when hunting the Rigger, a few measly transmission details, docking records, and a single set of coordinate pings, that didn’t make the job of narrowing down an exact corner of the galaxy to look in any easier.
Eventually, we picked a quiet sector with a (relatively) small cluster of planets. We spent two years bouncing from rock to rock, scouring for any sign of the ancient ship with no luck. As time passed, Nina’s interest waned. She had been close to calling off the mission when I insisted we check one more location. Imagine our surprise when we found a tiny blue planet, dotted with only freckles of land, and discovered The Lantern, almost fully intact. While we had been looking for wreckage, The Lantern had become the center of a small society.
The terrain was a series of complex waves of mountains, covered in a lush forest. In one of the deep valleys, our systems picked up a shape similar to that of the Lantern. As we approached, we saw the telltale signs of life surrounding the shape. Ted and Terri argued about what the scans meant as we approached. Captain Clearwater brought the vessel down slowly, careful not to land anywhere that might be inhabited. Nina and I held our breath as we watched from the observation outlook.
Our ship’s landing, though expertly executed, was not quiet. By the time we had the bay doors open, the locals had approached. They stood at the edge of the forest, half-hidden by trees, clutching rudimentary weapons. Captain Clearwater was the first to exit the ship, bounding down the ramp before I had the chance to explain to him how potentially culturally significant this moment was. Ted and Terri followed behind, shouting friendly hellos all the way. Nina and I stood at the edge of the ship, waiting to see what would happen.
The Captain introduced himself in a manner that oozed military bravado. He explained that we were explorers, searching for a lost ship, and asked if anyone would care to help us in return for payment. The locals stood silent, some eyeing each other, unsure of how to react.
Then, in the distance, we heard a horn blow – a warning blanketing the forest. The people hidden among the trees scattered in all directions.
The forest went silent, and out of the sea of green, an old man appeared, wrapped in a tattered brown cloak and walking with the assistance of an intricately carved cane. He approached us with a friendly smile and the aura of a jolly grandfather. The old man, Davos, as we would come to know him, spoke an old, but beautiful, version of our own language. His words flowed out as lyrics, not weighed down by the heavily truncated shorthand we use today. It took a while, but we were able to communicate.
Davos told us the history of this place, passed down through generations of survivors. When the Lantern originally crashed, the crew tried to radio home but received no response. They spent a few years crouched around the ship’s radio, waiting for even a single crack of static. When they realized no one was coming for them, they began to build.
Before long, the 100 or so survivors realized they had a good chance of making it on this remote, lucky planet. They removed large pieces of the Lanterns exterior, reusing them as city walls or walkways. They created systems for feeding everyone, gathering food, and for keeping the population steady. By the time Davos was born, he says, their people already had a schoolhouse. He told us that he had never really contemplated life beyond the Lantern until, at the age of twenty, he was tasked with being their peoples’ records keeper. Davos learned and memorized every bit of their history since the crash, including the stories of any descendants of the original crew members.
Davos, with a boyish grin, tells us that he had believed his time as records keeper was almost complete until we showed up. Now, he realizes, he has a whole new chapter to record. He takes us into “town” and insists that we join the people, Lanternites as they self-identified, for a feast. A celebration of our arrival.
It was during the feast and following celebration that I heard about another visitor who had once crashed near the Lantern. A small ship the people referred to as “Zipper” (Probably a Zip Class Scouter ship based on the small size they described.). The Zipper, as both the ship and its lone pilot were called, stayed only a short while. He was kind enough to the people, promising to come back with more resources and assistance. Once he repaired his ship they gathered around to watch the departure. The Lanternites looked up, watching the Zipper slowly get smaller. They watched as the ship made a slow rotation, then a swift flip as the crash began. The people saw a streak of orange, a bright flash, and watched in horror as the out-of-control ship began its wild descent back down to the ground.
Scraps of the Zipper were found all over the island. That day marked an important chapter of The Lantern’s history – the day the curse was born. Any attempt to leave the planet, the safety of the Lantern, would be followed closely by death.
I had been sitting around a campfire, hanging onto Davos’ every word, when I realized that Nina and the Captain were gone. Ted and Terri were still dancing the night away with the locals when I set out to find our leaders. Just as suspected, they were back on our ship, conspiring in hushed tones with some mystery voice coming through the comms system.
The voice congratulated them on their discovery and began peppering them with questions about logistics – the timeline, the delivery of the first wave of construction materials, relocation of inhabitants, etc. I couldn’t keep quiet. I burst in, surprising them both, and scolded them for even considering such a thing. They were prepared to destroy this gorgeous piece of land, these people’s home for what, profit? How dare they.
But of course, neither Nina nor the Captain cared about my protests. They didn’t care about the curse or the history of this place. Nina had a “vision” that was going to be realized here. I tried to warn Davos, but his only response was that the curse would take care of it. I tried to explain that capitalism, the unending pull of greed, was always going to be stronger than any curse. I tried to explain that even if our crew died trying to get off this planet, another crew would replace us just as quickly. Davos didn’t understand that the secret of the Lantern was already out, and the whole universe wanted to see it.
I can’t imagine what the locals thought when our ship took off and didn’t explode into a million pieces. They had fully expected us to die before leaving the atmosphere. But we didn’t, of course. We left and reported back to the world what we had found. I’m glad I didn’t have to watch the look on Davos’ face when the first supply ships arrived with their massive construction equipment.
In less than a year, the Lanternium would open. An immersive world playground built into the old settlers shipwreck. The site featured twenty restaurants and a massive hotel meant to hold thousands of tourists. Upon entry at the South Gate, there is a small glass case with a few artifacts with notes about the history of the Lantern and its people. They call it a museum. About a decade later, the third film adaptation of our discovery was released, with no mention of me. In it, the Lanternites are depicted as violent, wild creatures incapable of communication.
Nina disbanded our crew after the discovery of the Lantern. She enjoyed basking in the glow of the find – answering reporters’ questions as if she had any idea what she was talking about. She was there for the park’s opening day and then quietly faded back into her duties as a reckless, uncaring trust fund brat.
Nina Bo would go on to build several more successful theme parks, each with its own bizarre concept. The world was stunned when news broke that she had been injured during a demo run of a new rollercoaster at her latest project, The Phantom Zone. Reports eventually confirmed that she was dead, decapitated as the result of some malfunction. The ride was never opened but the park itself made a killing on opening weekend, capitalizing off of the story that a strange billionaire heiress was haunting the theme park.
Captain Clearwater took his fat paycheck from the Lantern mission and fully retired. He bought a houseboat on Earth 4 and spent most of the year out on the water, sipping beer and waiting for his fishing rod to twitch. It took a while before anyone realized he was dead. His bloated body made its way to the surface but the level of decomposition made it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of death. The safest bet, according to the coroner, was that he had one too many beers and just fell in, slowly drowning.
I decided to use my paycheck to start my own salvage company. Mine would make archeological and environmental preservation its primary focus. For some reason, I gave Ted and Terri jobs too. Over the next decade, we found several other wrecks. None were nearly as exciting as the Lantern but it was always enough to pay the bills and fund further research. I spent most of my time trying not to think of the old man and the life we had stolen from him.
Terri didn’t like when we brought it up, but Ted loved to ask me questions about the “curse”. I’ve always been honest with him – I believe in the curse. I believe it took the Captain and Nina and it was still coming for us.
Terri was never the same after Ted died. To go from being a whole to just a half, the loneliness destroyed Terri. We agreed not to talk about Ted and how it all happened. It took weeks to get the smell of death out of the engine room.
Terri and I spend a lot of our time floating. If anyone were to ask, we’d be on our way to some new discovery, but the truth is we’re just waiting for death to find us. I haven’t told Terri but when, or if, we make it home for our next refuel, I’m shutting down the company. I’m going back to my academic roots. After all this adventure and pain, I look forward to writing papers and skulking around a library.
Not that I expect to make it that far. Terri and I both know what is coming for us. I think there are a lot of days where we both want the curse to just take us. We are so tired of living in this limbo and of knowing that the universe has us marked for execution. In my final moments, I hope I see Davos again. Perhaps I’ll get the chance to apologize.
L.M. Wright is a writer and illustrator living in Los Angeles with a cat who happens to be an unrelenting critic of their work. Wright has both a children’s book – Eleanor and the Alien – and a collection of short stories set to be published later this year. A web designer by trade, and hobby collector by nature, Wright can often be found deep at the bottom of a research rabbit hole.