I’ve always felt that human beings have a poor appreciation for silence. After all, as social creatures we can’t help but surround ourselves with the evidence of other people. A faucet running in another room, a laughing child outside on a spring evening, the soft breathing of our lovers as they turn over in our beds. Even in the dead of night, the quiet is full of sounds that say you are not alone. That is the sort of soft din that humans like to call silence.
That is not the kind of silence one experiences on the march out of the dome shield. As the third shield door closed behind me, I was wrapped in the utterly-alone silence of the Waste. Overhead, the sun bore down like sudden death–and I supposed that was exactly what it was. Falter waited patiently in the shrinking patch of shade as my eyes adjusted behind my visor and I observed, with irrepressible sorrow, the ancient devastation left behind by the Old Earthers.
Each of us in the city felt this same sorrow. It was a sadness as old as our civilization. The thing that trapped us, that threatened our existence every day. The sun-bleached thing outside our city that could no longer really be called Earth. The planet-wide expanse of dust that was all we had left of the forests, the glades, the towns, farms, campgrounds that once sustained us–so the texts said anyway. To look at the Waste was to fan the ever-present flame of rage we all directed at our ancestors. In museums, there were a few ancient, crumbling texts and video images of the Old Earth. When I was a child, I would take out my micro-projector and weep for hours at the sight of what they called sunflowers. Flowers named for the sun! The sun that would kill me if it ever caught a glimpse of my bare skin. Such flowers could not exist in the carefully controlled farm grounds of my city. We grew only hard-won fruits and vegetables whose flowers were mostly small and pale. Sparse trees and grass. My mind could not conceive of a green Earth.
These thoughts came unbidden from the silence of the Waste, mounting resentment alongside all the other jumbled feelings that churned inside me. Falter and I marched through this silence, the winds buffeting us with the ultrafine dust that may have once been sunflowers. Some small part of my brain resolved to reject whatever had come. This silence had been wrought by your people. This dead planet was a prison for those of us without the fortune to be ferried off to other, cleaner worlds. The history was irrefutable: Old Earthers had destroyed everything and left us behind to die.
Sooner than I was ready for it, the vessel appeared in my view. I felt a flash of shaky relief as I realized just how close this thing had come to striking our city dome. I stopped at a distance, shocked by how…small the vessel really was. All this feeling, all this chaotic upset for something no larger than a farmer’s carriage. Falter stopped her measured pace at the edge of the small crater, silently waiting for me to choose what to do. I sent a few commands to my helmet to take continuous video, interspersed with detail photographs as we trotted slowly in a circle around the edge.
The trail of smoke had tapered off significantly in the hours since the crash and I could see that the near-perfect sphere of the ship’s hull was unbreached. It gleamed sharply in the sun, a seamless and reflective white-gold colored alloy of unidentifiable material. I began to record my observations, more to hear any sound at all than that I had anything useful to say. My own breathing was ragged in the monitor as we circled around, finally reaching what appeared to be the front. My camera clicked once before, as if rattling a death sigh, the ship shuddered and went quiet–at which point I registered the high quiet keening of what must have been the engine. The sound had gone unnoticed by my ears until suddenly disappearing.
The vessel groaned and Falter took a skittish step back. Right before our eyes, the previously seamless hull of the ship cracked open and spat something out in a cloud of smoke. The instant the toxic cloud dissipated, I practically leapt off my horse and ran down the slope of the crater, slipping and sliding in my thick boots on the ultrafine sand. I reached the left hand first, covered in a black glove that seemed like it couldn’t possibly be doing enough to protect a body from the radiation. I heard my own voice crying like a young child, laughing too, as I gathered the unconscious figure into my arms. The helmet they wore was only loosely fastened and I quickly secured it to the rest of their suit, listening in awe to the sound of it pressurizing and filling with air.
My resentment fled across the dunes as I sat in the dust with that body across my lap for an age that felt as long as our peoples’ separation. I couldn’t move or think, I only cried and cried. I could feel breathing, could count the fingers, feel the limbs through the suit. This was a human. Human returned to Earth! I clutched the body to me rocking and slowly remembering where I was. This human was in danger, I had to get them back to the city.
With great difficulty, I dragged the limp body up the slippery dome to where Falter waited, anxiously dancing from hoof to hoof. When she saw the body, her dancing became wilder and she shook her head. Through the layers of my armor I could faintly hear her whinny of protest. Putting my vox-com through to her ear, I murmured a few soothing reassurances and tried to pet her flank through the layers. I doubted she could feel it but hoped the gesture was appreciated. Once she was calm enough, I hoisted the body across the back of my saddle, tied it down with the rope from my kit and began the march back home. This would be the first time I hoped that you were not dead.
I was heavily reprimanded, of course. I had deviated from the directives. Observe only! Reconnaissance only! The elders argued with me and with each other in the makeshift encampment that had sprung up around the first shield door. A mile-wide expanse had been cleared in the hard dirt fields since I’d returned with the “alien” a week before. I had endangered the entire city, some said. What if it was contaminated somehow? What if it brought disease? Was it alone? Was it armed? Have they come for us?
The team of Rangers assigned to this mission had rushed in and taken the alien from me as soon as we passed through the doors. Hoisted lifelessly above the heads of so many rangers in hazmat suits, the figure looked like something out of some of the oldest art we had recorded. The kind of tragic, helpless, angelic form that early-Earthers would have painted, poeticized. I watched, my hands clenched in the reins of my horse, as they rushed the alien inside a tent nearby for decontamination. On the brief trip back from the crash site, I had grown to think of that person, whoever they might be, as mine. I felt an irrational flash of anxiety seeing that lifeless body swept away from me.
It had been days since then, the subject quarantined with a team of doctors cleaning, prodding, innocculating, testing the familiar-unfamiliar body that had fallen from the sky. It was determined, astoundingly, that it was safe for us to interact with him. Already some of the elders were convinced that the extra-terrestrial was a danger to us and should be expelled from the city to fend for himself. Others vehemently rebuked the idea, wholly opposed to any choices we could make as a society that resembled what the Old Earthers had done to our ancestors. As the debate raged on, I was sequestered away from the still-unconscious form, thinking of nothing else. I too had become something of an alien. After all, I had risked our entire civilization to save a single Old Earther. Even if there was no disease, I was still contaminated—by an idea.
When I was a teen my teacher once took me aside, crossing her legs on the ground and laying her relaxed palm on the grass near her knee in that serene and benevolent attitude that teachers always have. She spoke gently and thoroughly about the human brain, the chemicals it typically produced, the moods and tendencies those chemicals could manifest. Some of these moods, tendencies could be useful, pleasant. Some could prove challenging. I remember peeking at her in my peripheral vision, too attentive to her meaning to look her in the eye. Could I tell her, really, that there was an empty space in my heart so clear and pure that to fill it would be to defile it? Could I tell her the secret yearning I nursed in that empty space to know more, to see more than would ever be possible for me? Or that my body felt only half-present, as though it were strained between two impossibly distant points in space and time? That sometimes, I would walk aimlessly for hours only to find myself in the barren outer ring of the city, hands pressed against the ten feet of polymer between me and the rest of the universe? No. I could only thank her and agree that I might benefit from more time in specialized physical aptitude training.
In the days following my return from the Waste, I was worried to distraction by the thought that my part in this might be finished so quickly. Our premier psychoanalyst conducted what felt like and endless litany of interviews and tests to determine my ability to cope with what had just happened. I felt a pulsing, wild desire in my heart but kept it strictly contained lest it disqualify me from participation.
The elders reached a consensus on the seventh day. I was being asked to act as caretaker and liaison to the alien. When he woke, I was to interrogate him, learn as much as I could about the Galactic Society. Most importantly, I was to glean his purpose in returning to Earth. I could perceive, slithering around the corners of their words, the fear that squeezed them. They didn’t really want to know the answers. What are they like? Where have they been? Do they remember us? Have they come for us? People, I was beginning to learn, could take an ounce of hope and contort it into grotesque forms: fear, hate, control.
In the sterile and chilly medical ward, my tense breathing and the soft beeping in the corner were the only signs of life within the four walls. I settled myself near the alien, having not yet dared to look at his face. In my mind, Old Earthers were ugly, with sharp teeth for eating all the animals they once killed. So instead of starting with the alien’s face, I settled in the uncomfortable armchair near the head of the bed and kept my gaze fixed on his fingers, peeking out from under the white sheets. Long and slender, with fine bones. Brown, like mine! Luminescent fingernails curved in irregular half-moons.
That detail is what relaxed me most. Only a human would have such perfect-imperfect fingernails. I laughed to myself as I pictured some wondrous domicile in the unimaginable comforts of the larger galaxy, plush cushions, decadent foods, intoxicating juices, exotic stars nearby, planets with miles and miles of water and woods. I laughed thinking, somewhere out there this human has clipped his fingernails and only done halfway decent job. Before I realized it, my own hand reached out to touch those fingers—just lightly.
All at once the hand was jerked away from me as the alien sprang upright, alarmed and shouting. I had expected to wait, perhaps weeks, while the alien recovered and regained consciousness but now I found myself spilling onto the floor and scrambling to the other end of the small ward as my own alarmed shout rang out.
And there you were, eyes wide and staring, teeth gritted in fright. There were a few surprising details, yes. The black hair, wild with sleep and swept every which way, was gently brushed at each temple with what looked like gold. So, in fact, were the wrists bound, with bands of gold so slender and fitted that they appeared to be sealed against the skin. A moment later my stomach churned a little as I noticed that these precious metals really were fused to the skin. I saw the red marks that our doctors had left in an obvious attempt to remove the precious metal. The pressure suit I had carried you in had been stripped away, revealing a garment made of an airy, soft-looking material. All of our textiles were made with hemp, a material we did not have the tools to fashion into such a delicate state. This fabric was, quite literally, otherworldly. It was opaque, but light, moved like liquid and draped mathematically over a form that surprised me with its fitness–I had always thought of Old Earthers as decadent, lazy, ferried around by floating hedonistic technologies. Definitely not muscular or spry as you were, and never once had I considered that a Galactic human could be beautiful. My mind reeled with all the things I had failed to consider in my imaginings. Technologies, I had extrapolated. Abundance, I had assumed. But the details, these small, decadent details had eluded me. I had never even begun to conceive of anything like you.
This sense of being out of my depth was intensified when you spoke. The voice was human, yes, with the familiar cadence and timbre of a person gently but urgently demanding to know what was happening. But the words were strange to me. Memories of my tertiary schooling stirred at the bottommost cavern of my memory. The digitized copies of copies of voices from a time so far past that all the students were too bored to pay attention. I remembered thinking how useless it was to learn this dead language. When could it possibly come in handy?
Our city, like the other very few remaining scattered around the Waste, spoke a language descended from the collection of tongues left in our region of the North-Western Hemisphere before the Old Earthers left. Our ancestors were poor immigrants, farm workers, incarcerated people, and anyone else who couldn’t accumulate enough wealth to leave with the rich that drove the Abandonment movement.
But you spoke and your words were the distant cousins of my words. Cousins my words had not seen in so long that they almost didn’t recognize each other. I felt a prickling, dizzying sense of familiarity, paired with a viscerally frustrating inability to understand. Finally, one word stood out, stark and complete– “home”–and the decade of training kicked into gear. Home, of course. I was a scientist after all, a Ranger, a diplomat. I had worked incredibly hard to learn the skills necessary in this moment: patience, specificity, caution, curiosity, tact, nurturance. This was my job, my assignment. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by personal feelings of wonder, by my deeply secret desire to panic and abandon everything I knew, everything two thousand years of my genes knew.
I repeated the word the way one might utter the word water after a few days in the Waste: “Home!”, instinctively thumping an open hand to my own chest. “Home!” Bad translating, I thought. I am not home, here is home. I swept my arm to indicate the room and—hopefully—the dirt-fields, farms, schools, groceries, community centers, domiciles beyond the encampment. You watched my frenzied response, apparently a little soothed by our first word in common. It wouldn’t be until later that I understood your first words to be “I should have never left home”
I observed as passively as I could while you really took in your surroundings. The thick canvas walls of the medical ward tent, the bed, the intravenous plasma-nutrient blend, skipping pointedly over me, and landing on your own hands. They were resting in your lap, fists clenched in the sheets. I wondered how important that must have been. I hoped that you were thinking something like Yes, there they are, the same hands as always. Your fists relaxed and you turned your palms upwards in your lap, fingers curling slightly.
Suddenly, you laughed—a wild and surprising laugh, full of dynamic sound and emotion. My hand covered the clear shock on my face as you nearly keeled over in a fit of hysterics, falling back against the surplus of pillows behind you. You passed your hands roughly over your face, caught between the untethered joy of having survived your crash and the mania of a man so utterly lost he couldn’t even identify his circumstances. And before I knew why, I was laughing with you, galvanizing my tension-stiff muscles to stand and shakily return to the chair I’d occupied before.
Our shared giddiness slipped away as abruptly as the sun sinking beneath the horizon outside. “How am I going to do this?” I wondered aloud, knowing I wouldn’t be understood. “What am I supposed to do?”
You were really looking at me now and I could see your eyes, dark and heavily lidded, taking comprehensive account of my face. My hair was cinched tightly back in a single braid and bound with stiff red bands to keep it secure when I rode with Falter. I hadn’t looked in a mirror in days. I’m sure I had dark circles under my bloodshot eyes, chapped lips, ashy elbows. My ranging suit was wrinkled and reddened with ultrafine dust that had seeped through my solar armor. Despite all this, did I look like kin to you? I felt again that nameless bubble of exasperated longing to think of it: we were cousins, in a way, like our words were cousins.
We should start at the beginning, it was obvious. I pointed very deliberately at the center of my chest. “Ranger 19-18.” No comprehension registered. I tapped at by breast again. “Nyne, that’s me. Nyne” I rotated my wrist to point at him, careful not to touch the supple fabric. “You?” To my relief, you replicated my first gesture with eyebrows raised and I nodded eagerly (how could I even know for sure that nodding meant the same to you?). “Torch” you tapped your own chest.
And there we were. Two thousand years removed, but kin! Kin nonetheless. After a silent, ecstatic moment, I found myself back in my chair. I could see the whites of your eyes.