Friday, February 17, 2012

Future Imperfect

She fogged up the glass by leaning in close.  Her sister had taken off years ago on a mission from Mars that now seemed would never end.  Their parting had been chilly, like the glass, but surely some fondness remained.  She fell asleep as the sun was setting thinking about this, clutching in her arms a story her sister had spent many long nights reading to her.

Miles away, so many miles she’d lost count of the stars between them, she piloted to the surface, nosing the air tentatively with the tip of her ship; trying to find a safe purchase on the ground.  The hope for this mission was great, but the reality was the opposite.  There was no hope -not for success, and not for ever seeing her sister again.  When she’d parted ways with her, she’d known this, but not said anything.  Better to go with the lie than the truth -better to avoid the rage; the temper; the inflated disappointment.

As for the mission... She took a sample of the soil, but was already certain of the result -there would be no water; as usual, no hope.  But she’d taken off on this mission without that expectation -the expectation that lurked in her colleagues’ eyes, making them shine falsely bright.  Now their eyes were dim, while hers... her eyes were about the same.

Water?!  She let out a shocked gasp when she pulled the capsule later.  She clutched the small vial close, reminding herself that this in itself meant little to nothing.  But, still... despite vast evidence of it, this was the first real water she’d come across in -literally -years.

Months later, as she and the archaeology crew walked the maze of tunnels underneath the surface of the alien planet, she recalled the moment when she’d first held that little capsule of soil.  Now they would be living here -she would be living here, a nomad finally become a settler in a faraway land.  For a moment, she thought about her sister, forever left behind, but she erased the thought and refocused on the task at hand.

All signs indicated that they -she and her intrepid group of fellow explorers -were not the first and that, in fact, the planet had once seen a long and successful occupation.  But whoever they were, they were long gone, and all that they had been was now reduced to the public and private works that she and her team were currently excavating and studying with great care.  The excavations would likely take years -the rest of their lives, probably, plus several lifetimes more.

A member of the team dropped a new sample off at her station.  They exchanged some small talk, but -mostly -no one had much of anything to say to one another.  They were all thinking about the people they’d left behind, no doubt; people they would never see again.  She wondered how it had felt to lie to them -to their families; to their friends.  It was the sort of long-lived lie that encouraged silence when faraway from home.  The truth didn’t matter out here.

What’s the point of feeling anything if you can’t do anything about it?  So much research had gone into their long-term physical well-being, but what was happening to their feelings?  She looked around the large lab they’d set up, blankly eyeing each of her colleagues in turn, but they couldn’t see behind her goggles and her momentary desire to see behind theirs... evaporated.  Better to not know, and remain silent.  What an unhappy colony this is going to be.

She picked up the sample, turning it around in her hand a few times before she set herself to the task of recording it for posterity.  Gently, she hefted its weight.  It was strange and yet familiar.  When before had she seen something as wasteful as this?  Delicate, but remarkably well-preserved, and covered with markings she felt she ought to know.  Feeling tired, she pushed her goggles to the top of her head.

And gasped.  A few of the team members in the lab turned around, but no one moved as she sat down, staring at the table -at the sample she had just dropped.  Her colleagues turned back to their work.  She looked fine.  No need for unnecessary fuss.

Hesitantly, she licked her lips, and then picked up the sample again.  This wasn’t possible.  She pulled the goggles back down over her eyes and the symbols on the page changed.  Then she pushed the goggles back up, so she could see the sample with her own eyes.  Her breath was shallow; this lie was huge -much bigger than the lie they’d all been forced to tell all those years ago.

Slowly, she set the sample down, zipped up her jacket, and walked out of the makeshift lab.  No one followed her.  She walked swiftly, with purpose, toward the huge turbines they’d set up at the peak of one of the many tunnels they’d found.  Once she felt the blast of icy air on her face, she felt it was safe to cry -where no one could see her or hear her... or be there to have to comfort her.

Half-sitting; half-leaning against the rocky wall, with cold air whipping her face and her hair, she dropped her head in her hands and cried, softly at first, but then harder the longer she thought about it.  

Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder.  It was the colleague who’d given her the sample.  He’d watched her leave without moving his head, not wanting to incite notice.  And then he’d been careful to wait to follow.   When her tears finally softened, he took the chance to apologize.  “I remember you telling me how much you used to enjoy telling your sister funny stories when you were you little.  When I saw this artifact, I thought you would like it... examining it.”

Wordlessly, she nodded.  She wiped her eyes, trying to swallow her hiccups.  “It was very thoughtful of you -thank you.”  She tried to smile, but her lips felt wobbly and lopsided.  “I need a few minutes alone -I’m just remembering my sister now... this is... embarrassing.”  He held up his palms in the accepted no-worries gesture and slowly backed away.

She could never tell them the truth -that this wasn’t just some random artifact composed of wood pulp and mysterious symbols, but was -in fact -the favorite book of the sister she’d left behind.  She looked at the goggles they always wore.  She realized now that from Day One of the Mission she’d never seen clearly; everything she’d ever seen had been a lie, and she’d traveled so far back into space and time -it never occurred to her that she’d ever come back ...home.

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