"This is underwhelming," I muttered, gazing at that pale yellowish-brown ball of what was probably some carbon-based dirt trudging along its banal orbit around another typical star. Another disappointment. And so perfectly in the star's habitable zone. What a waste. Taylor had had high hopes for this one.
"Well?" I turned towards Taylor. "Ready to get in that stupid space suit and collect some stupid samples?"
Taylor shot me a dirty look. "Just go and dress up. We need to be presentable for the aliens, remember?"
"Sure. As if anything lives down there," I muttered, but grinned as I pushed against the window, floating over to the suits Taylor had set so neatly in the closet.
"You never know, maybe they're still stuck in their caves. You might get along quite well with them." Taylor laughed. That guy was insufferable. So maybe I'd rather stay cooped up in this little spaceship than see another dusty lifeless planet. And for good reason. So what?
Taylor had somehow already gotten into his spacesuit by the time I was ready, and was staring out that oh-so-familiar window with the neurotransmitter clipped to his head. I cleared my throat, and the lines of text stopped appearing on the screen mid-sentence.
"You're doing the log?"
"Yeah, I'm being responsible," he joked. He knew we both did our parts on this ship, and the log was his job, which he clearly wasn't doing very well.
"You haven't been focusing very well, have you?"
"Huh?" Taylor turned, and saw the screen behind him.
Diameter: 12104.23986 km. The planet appears largely brown, with white caps on the poles, likely a form of water. Huh. Water. Like home. I hope there's some trees here. Trees would be nice. Hopefully home wasn't the only place with trees. A universe without [PAUSED]
He looked away. "Um...I got side-tracked."
He sighed. "Yeah. A bit. A lot. I wish we could do one of those video holograms of home. Mountains. Or the northern lights." He trailed off. He looked up at me, and rushed to put on a smile. For my sake. "Well, we have plenty of nice things to look at here. Like all the holograms we actually have. And the stars. And Ethan's beautiful face!" He gestured towards me.
"Oh, shut up." That guy was insufferable. Stupid Taylor being so stupid sweet. And his attempt to change the topic and distract me almost worked, too. I stared at my stupid white boots. "How many minutes?"
"Fifteen. You want some hot chocolate?"
"It's not even chocolate."
"Tastes like it. And I'm making some for myself anyway. So you want some?" His voice softened. "It'll sooth your nerves."
I nodded, grudgingly, and muttered a small thanks under my breath. I pulled myself into a chair and strapped myself in, gaining some comfort in the steady certainty of the chair beneath me, and watched the dirty brown planet grow larger. Taylor floated over, a cup in each hand, and handed one to me. I took an absentminded sip, and looked back up at the window, and froze.
Now closer, the barren dirt and dust was beginning to be clearly more than that. Sure, there was dirt and dust, but it lay in thick layers over columns rising hundreds of metres above the ground. Buildings. Not lived in for decades. Centuries, maybe. Taylor tensed up by the window. We'd seen this before. Once.
It was about a year ago. Or two? I didn't keep track. We were in a spaceship quite unlike this one. Not quite so advanced. How perspective changes. The pinnacle of human technology. Laughable, now. We were a naïve species. A fraction of the speed of light. Wow. So fast. Well, they needed people to go, and Taylor and I so stupidly went. This short trip would takes us two years, but by the time we returned, Earth would have sprinted over a thousand more laps around the Sun. And so we went. The two years were fine, I guess. Being with Taylor was nice, if not slightly irritating every once in a while. Two years was a long time to spend with someone else and nothing else but computers and detectors. And then we returned. So excited to set foot on land, on Earth, on the future. And in the little round window, we saw not the future blue-green marble dotted with city lights, nor detected radio signals that should have formed spiderwebs over this now brown dead orb which was not Venus, but its twin, with structures all but gone, leaving spindly wire frames swaying in the burning wind, dry, decayed wood and splinters lying on roads of dust and ash, a palimpsest, layers of death over our long since melted, burnt down home, victim of the atmosphere so saturated with greenhouse gases, victims of humans.
It was perhaps months? Years? Time lost meaning after some time, and in deep enough desolation. Well, it was some time until we came across the Eraci system, an interplanetary system so advanced they decoded our language in minutes. It was beautiful. Science like magic. But though it fascinated and mesmerised, it wasn't home, and to watch these aliens live their lives in their home so oblivious of how it could vanish in two years, in an instant, was a stream of salt onto the Earth-shaped wound in my heart and so we ran.
We ran off together again, volunteered for another stupid mission, to find life on other planets. Not that I cared to find any. I just wanted to run. But Taylor always hoped. Hoped to find something, some semblance of life, hoped that, perhaps, somewhere, another Earth was being born. I never quite understood. But if it made him happy, that was enough for me.
I turned away as the towers grew closer and metal frames came into focus. Taylor floated, silently, towards the controls, and we flew away in silence into the inky black abyss.