Jupiter, as captured by the Voyager 1 probe. Image: Horizon International Images / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Voyagers’—the winner of the VS Pritchett Short Story Prize 2024

In partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, we are delighted to present Tom Vowler’s winning short story
February 22, 2024

There are more stars up there than grains of sand in the world, Nadia announces, as we lie head-to-toe beneath a low-wattage sky, the only female astrophysicists this side of the Pennines, waiting for the psilocybin to bind itself to the serotonin receptors of our brains. Nadia is trawling the constellation of Leo, with its sickle lion’s head; I’m inviting the ancient light of Cassiopeia to fall on my retina, its crooked ‘W’ framed by the hazed band of the Milky Way. I tell her to shush, preferring silence at the start of such odysseys. We have a code, to each squeeze the other’s hand if we see a shooting star or the Space Station. It’s a chill night for March and the earth has filched the fire’s residual warmth from me. To ward off any panic that rises I recite fragments of trivia in my mind.

In 2016 scientists detected a radio signal from a source five billion light years away. This means that when it started its journey, the Earth did not exist.

Last autumn, when Nadia was well enough, we foraged for several days on the moors, dawn forays where we scrutinised the ground like a pair of hovering kestrels, parting the pale grasses of the upper slopes until we glimpsed the golden conical heads. An expert had shown us how to identify the few imposter species, a couple of which can prove deadly. The window to harvest magic mushrooms is a small one, closing at the first frost of winter, so the hills are usually populated by a few fellow psychonauts—a phrase Nadia has started using to annoy me—trying but failing to be discrete. We know as soon as we rupture a single slender stem, we become lawbreakers, regarded the same as those who use heroin or cocaine. And yet we also know humans have altered their states this way for millennia. There’s even an evolutionary theory that we owe our development as a species, our superior hunting skills, not to the possession of arms that could throw spears, but instead to the sensory acuteness brought on by such psychedelic practices.

We dried the mushrooms in a cardboard kiln I’d fashioned—a portable fan reducing the fungi to tiny, desiccated spindles—before storing them in a Kilner jar at the back of my wardrobe. Earlier I gently steeped around 40 of them in a tea with honey, which we imbibed around the log burner, initiating our now traditional equinox ritual.

Some historians suggest North African and European cave paintings from 9,000 BC indicate magic mushroom use. Aztec rituals also included a hallucinogenic substance called ‘flesh of the gods’.

Our orbits collided at an astrophysics conference in Geneva four years ago; Nadia’s paper on deflecting Earth-threatening asteroids aligned closely with my own areas of interest. I introduced myself in the hotel lift, suggesting we take the conversation somewhere less stultifying. Leaving the bar a little before dawn, and with my own paper to present only a few hours later, we sought out a nearby park, lay on our backs and gazed at the arcing Moon until breakfast. By day we were studious, porous for new knowledge. By night we drank dirty martinis, danced until we collapsed, before staggering back to one of our rooms where we imbibed from each other.

The Moon is moving away from Earth at about four centimetres per year. Eventually it will leave our gravitational field altogether.

A breeze purls over us and I wish I’d worn more layers. A distant fox yips and barks.

Feeling it yet? Nadia says.

Not sure, I say. How about you?

Nothing. I told you we should have used more. I thought we were having a ‘heroic’ dose this time.

If Nadia had her way, we’d be rattling the foundations of our minds already, overwhelmed and transformed, leaving reality far behind in the quest for sacred insight. Or as she once put it, getting ripped off our tits.

I track the sky eastward to Cepheus and eventually locate the Garnet Star low to the horizon, a red supergiant more than a thousand times larger than our sun. Nearing death, it is fusing helium into carbon and, once its core collapses, will produce a supernova before becoming a black hole. For a moment I think I see it pulsate and swirl, like those in Van Gogh’s painting, before realising the liberty caps are now influencing my pre-frontal cortex after all.

The brain is the only organ to have named itself.

I think about Nadia’s medication, the possible interactions with the mushrooms, knowing her caution of our first few trips has waned. Perhaps she feels life’s wheel of fortune owes her a break; perhaps she regards the risk as acceptable. I know the disease impacts her vision, and I wonder how her hallucinations differ to mine. Last year a GP suggested she tried cannabis, and although the spasms reduced, the effect was short-lived.

Nadia got sick a month after the Swiss conference. It was the kind of diagnosis that demanded the re-evaluation of emerging relationships. I suggested, flippantly, the tingling in her face and legs could be the result of chemistry between us, but a lumbar puncture proved otherwise. It changed nothing for me, but the call wasn’t mine to make. In the end we agreed love would be a distraction for her: work and disease would leave no vacuum.

I want to stick around, though, I said.

Like a limpet?


It won’t be pretty.

I know.

Of the 27,000 near-Earth asteroids we know about, 2,000 of them are potentially dangerous. Of these, 150 are larger than a kilometre wide, meaning they could cause an extinction-level event. In 1908 an object a fraction of the size approached the boreal forests of eastern Siberia at 27 kilometres per second. Indigenous tribes in the hills to the south observed a bluish-white light, as brilliant as the sun, blazing across the sky, a rebuke from the gods. Exploding before it reached the surface, it laid waste to 80 million trees and killed a thousand reindeer. Air waves from the blast were detected across Europe and as far away as Indonesia and America. Using supercomputer simulations, this is what Nadia and I search for, the future cataclysms.

As there is no wind on the moon footprints made there will remain forever.

Our breaths vapour the air. I want to suggest we go inside, or at least fetch blankets. I also know not to fuss, know that one day even this short trip will be beyond her. The subject of a wheelchair loiters like an unsolicited guest on her horizon.

Thoughts come to me now less as intrusions, more as invitations, my brain communicating with parts of itself normally disparate. I’m beginning to feel more like a passenger as my subconscious mind takes the wheel. Morsels of fear bay for my attention, but I know to breathe into them, to let them disassemble in their own time. Although I’d agreed to these ceremonies to accompany Nadia, I’ve realised there are learnings here for me too. A friend once told me that I’ll get what I need, not what I want on such journeys.

I am no longer quite so cold and instead visualise a warm elixir flowing from the core of me, my body vibrating to some ancient frequency. I can’t tell if we’ve been lying here for two minutes or twenty. A wave of nausea flushes through me then subsides. One moment I feel the urge to cry, the next to giggle, and I realise I’m doing both.

We never agreed if love would be too much of a distraction for me.

Nadia issues a deep exhale. That’s more like it, she says.

Closing my eyes, I think of the twin Voyager probes, launched years before either of us was born, both now traversing interstellar space. At 14 billion miles away, they are the farthest man-made objects from Earth. Silent pioneers. Each probe carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc, in case they’re found by intelligent life forms. The discs contain photographs of the Earth and its inhabitants, a variety of scientific data, sounds of whales, of a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore. There are recordings of Mozart and Chuck Berry, greetings in 55 languages to prospective galactic citizens. An acute and primal longing to connect, to not be alone as a species.

But like Nadia, the crafts’ systems are slowly shutting down. Heaters and other structures have been turned off one by one to preserve energy, but in a few years the probes’ thermoelectric generators will no longer produce enough power to operate the instruments. Best estimates suggest they’ll transmit weak radio messages until around 2025. Yet, if they remain undisturbed, they will continue into deep space, perhaps forever. An eternal pilgrimage. Even after our sun dies and consumes the inner planets of Mercury and Venus, after it bakes dry Earth’s oceans, the probes will journey onwards, the last remaining human artefacts in the universe.

A question endures: how long would Nadia continue if undisturbed? Had she not collided with space debris.

I feel mildly euphoric now, transcendent, sense my ego easing its tyrannical grip as my mind’s hinterland reveals itself. An electrical recalibration is occurring as receptors in our brains absorb the fungi’s signals. Infinite mycelium fractals. I contemplate other galaxies, wonder if planets in habitable zones have their own psychedelics. Alien life forms dissolving into hallucinations of their own, contemplating whether life exists elsewhere. I play with concepts of the multiverse, myriad possibilities: in another world we are still lovers; another, Nadia’s body doesn’t slay itself; somewhere, probes are headed not away from Earth, but towards us, offering recordings of another planet’s Mozart. I wonder what will remain of us when it arrives.

Earlier this year an asteroid large enough to destroy a city passed between Earth and the Moon. We had seen it coming, observed as it passed serenely by. Paradoxically, such near-misses are auspicious, allowing us to determine its composition, in case its next visit is closer to home.

Before it was powered down Voyager 1 was tasked with one final act. Departing our solar system, high above the ecliptic plane, the probe’s cameras were instructed to turn around, back towards the sun, in an attempt to capture a family portrait of the planets. One of the images showed a pale blue dot, six billion kilometres away, a speck of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Earth as a single pixel, fragile and insignificant. The only place in the galaxy we can possibly live. In taking the photograph, Voyager 1’s work was concluded, the image a farewell salute to its place of birth.

Nadia lets out a wolfish howl and although I can’t explain it, I can see the sound in my mind’s eye, witness its shapeshifting and gradated colour as the pitch and volume of her cry undulate. With little intention I release my own version, until we fall into a call and response of lupine wails, a pair of moon-serenaders. I consider our own near miss, allow myself the memory of her mouth on mine, of our bodies spiralling like Andromeda.

A wolf’s howl can be heard up to ten miles away. However, there is no sound in space as sound requires the presence of molecules or particles to travel.

The medicine is in the farthest reaches of us now. Deep space. For the next few hours, Nadia and I are celestial bodies, adrift in a stellar continuum, indistinct from one another. Time has been suspended as the vastness of everything is laid out before us. A tawny owl cries out from the woods in the valley, its liquid call at first tethering me to reality before unspooling me into the ether, to oblivion. I open my eyes. The sky’s fabric is embroidered with a million luminous spheres of gas, all birthed from nebulae of dust. Despite there being no meteors, I squeeze Nadia’s hand.