A short short story
[While I was writing an article about a Chinese lunar satellite image that showed both the Earth and the far side of the Moon in a single shot, I was momentarily overwhelmed by the view, this sense of leaving our familiar planet behind. It inspired me to write a bit of tweet-length nanofiction, but I also felt like fleshing the idea out a little. This is the result.]
I could sense the alien standing behind me, impatience radiating off of it. I didn’t turn.
After a moment, it made the equivalent of a “harrumph”. In my mind I pictured it as standing arms akimbo, tapping its foot. Neither was possible, of course, but it amused me to imagine the pose. I decided to encourage it. “Yes…?”
“I don’t understand you humans,” it said.
“I’m not surprised. But in what way?”
“For all your history you never left your world,” it began. “Only a few hundred managed to get into orbit, and far fewer to your satellite.”
“True,” I said, hopefully agreeably. I was curious where it was going with this, but I still didn’t turn from my position.
“Then we made contact with you, and have taken thousands of you with us to visit our planet. Thousands who would never have made it to space otherwise.”
It paused, in what I guessed was exasperation. Then it launched ahead. “But look at you. With all the wonders of the galaxy ahead of you, you all do the same thing. You call yourselves explorers, but as we leave your planet you don’t look ahead to what awaits. You look back to what you leave behind. No other sentient species behaves so!”
I still didn’t turn, because the view of Earth before me was rapturous. A thunderstorm was erupting over some countryside in Asia, but I wasn’t sure where exactly, as we were still only a few hundred kilometers up. But I could see the horizon approaching, the Earth receding visibly as we accelerated.
I took a moment to watch, to gather my thoughts.
I gestured vaguely in the alien’s direction behind me. “If I go to the other side of the ship and look out, what will I see?”
The alien answered immediately. “What lies ahead.”
I shook my head. “What I will see are the same stars I do from the Earth, at least for now.”
Then I pointed out my window. The Sun was on the horizon, and the shadows cast by popup thunderstorm clouds were long parallel lines. People down there would see them as a fan of diverging crepuscular rays, perspective and the vanishing point transforming their view.
“And sure, when I look this way, I see the planet I’ve always lived on, and could never hope to leave before you came.”
At that instant a meteor flashed into view, gone almost before I could see it. We were safely out of the atmosphere, so I had to look down to see it. I couldn’t help it; I gasped.
I collected myself. “But that’s not the point at all. It’s not that I’m seeing somewhere I’ve always been and know well.”
I finally turned to look at the alien. I knew enough of its anatomy and social behavior to see that it was baffled.
“It’s that I’m seeing it differently, seeing it from a new perspective.”
It was still struggling to understand. Again, I couldn’t help myself.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the beginning of our exploring will be to leave where we started, look back, and know the place for the first time.” It was a misquote, I know, but given the circumstances I felt it was appropriate.
The alien stared blankly at me. I turned back to the window and sighed. The Earth was much smaller now, and I marveled at it. Before I could really grasp it, though, the entire window snapped to black. We were in FTL, and no mere photon of light could catch up to us.
I sighed again, stood up, and turned around.
“OK,” I said. “What’s next?”
[The far side of the Moon and the Earth seen together from the Chinese lunar satellite Longjiang-2. Credit: CNSA / Dwingeloo]
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