“For the most part, they are silent and still. Only Hussein paces back and forth across the cramped white room. Not even the heavy thuds his boots make seem to distract anyone. The quietness that drapes the rest of outer space in a smothering quilt now covers the tiny space cruiser.”
For the most part, they are silent and still. Only Hussein paces back and forth across the cramped white room. Not even the heavy thuds his boots make seem to distract anyone. The quietness that drapes the rest of outer space in a smothering quilt now covers the tiny space cruiser.
Sofia’s eyes are still red. She can’t see it, but she can tell by the way Tarah observes her and how everything stings when she blinks. Her sight isn’t blurred over from crying, so she can tell that they have about fifteen minutes left before… everything.
Fifteen minutes until they’re the only ones left. Fifteen minutes until they have to drift further away, farther than they’ve already gone. Fifteen minutes before all the contact will be cut off.
Tarah clears her throat. “We’re going to have to talk to them, you know. We have fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds, counting.”
Hussein stops pacing. He draws up a chair and seats himself. His voice cracks as he speaks. “… We’ve already talked to the government, they’ve already accepted it. Now it’s just your families left.”
“Who’s going first?” Tarah doesn’t look up from the control panel, choosing instead to tap quietly away at the buttons in front of her. She sits with her back facing them both. “Between Sofia and I, I mean.”
“… I’ll go first. Hussein, are you alright with taking over the control panels?” Sofia undoes her hair from the band holding it in place. She thinks about how she was always the one who wanted to go first in the past: She wanted to be the first one to get ice cream from the ice cream truck, wanted to be the first of the three of them to go into space, wanted to be the first to set foot on Mars. Back then, she always was the one who went first, but that was because she wanted to be first.
Now she is only doing it because she knows she has to be first. No one else will go before her. Tarah has made it clear enough, and Hussein doesn’t have anyone back on Earth — he has only had the crew, and he will only have the crew after this.
Sofia dials the buttons, staring down at the spotless white floor of the shuttle. When she looks back up at the hologram, there is only static. A lump begins to form in her throat. Are they already gone? Is this it?
The static disappears, and she sees them. Mami. Papi. Leo. They’re all staring back from behind their hologram at home. If it weren’t for the occasional flickering, she’d almost reach out and touch them.
“Mi hija?” her mother asks.
She waves a gloved hand through them. “Si, Mami. Es tu hija.”
How long has it been since she’s last spoken in Spanish? Has it really been three years since they’ve been sent up here?
Her mother’s smile is outlined in red lipstick. The dimples form on her cheeks. “I’m so proud of you,” she continues in Spanish. “To think — our daughter is the youngest girl to be sent up into space! You’re my daughter.”
“Mami.” She groans a little, remembering all the times before when she’d sit in her cramped kitchen and her mother would be waving around the 99% she got on her test or her scanned certificate from the math teacher.
“You’ve learned so much.” Papi is speaking now, and she can see the tears behind his glasses. “Querida, you are very strong. We are proud to be your parents. You have learned so much, and you have taught us so much.” She thinks back to the hours spent teaching him how to make macaroni y queso as he called (she insisted that he just call it “macaroni and cheese”) and how he’d seat her at the piano and teach her how to play and that she should keep her fingers curved when she played.
“I’m sorry.” She shakes her head. I’m not going to cry again. I’m not going to cry again. “I’m sorry you’re stuck back there. We’ve tried. I’ve tried. Ecuador has tried. The UN has tried. And I hate how there isn’t anything else I can do so far away.”
“Sofia — ” Leo is speaking now.
“People keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I’ve tried to help you get off before it all. But it was never enough. I’m too late.”
Sofia doesn’t realize she’s given in to crying again until she finds herself drying her tears.
“I’m sorry for crying in front of you.” She speaks to Leo now. “I’m sorry you have to see your older sister like this.”
Three minutes left. It’s only felt like a few seconds.
“You did what you could. And it’s okay. I’m not a child anymore — I’m fourteen years old,” Leo says. “It’s okay. I’m just glad to see you before we go.”
And for a moment, like she has thought before, she wants to be back on Earth with them. She knows that she did all she could from so far away on the edge of the galaxy. She just wishes she could do more.
“Te amo,” she says. She reaches through the hologram for a moment. Two more minutes.
“Te amamos,” Mami says to her. She reaches back, and just for a moment, Sofia thinks she can feel the warm of her mother’s hand holding hers.
She reaches for Papi’s hand, and then Leo’s. She tries holding his hand the longest, pretending that he isn’t a hologram her fingers slip through. She’d taken him to look at the planetarium down in New York, helped him balance on a stool so he could look through a telescope, and hung models of the planets and posters of the constellations up in his room.
They’ve always lived vicariously through the cosmos. Nothing has changed since then.
“I just have one more minute,” she says. One minute before she has to turn her back from their cramped living room all the way down on Ecuador. One minute before she has to turn her back on Earth for good.
“Gracias para todo. You taught me a lot,” Leo says.
“You’ve made it this far. It’ll be hard not to give up, but you have help from your teammates.”
“Be safe. We care about you.”
“I’m going to miss you. I’m going to name some of the planets we find after you like I’ve told you before.”
“So there’ll be a planet named Leo.” He laughs a little. “That sounds awesome.”
“I love you. You’ve taught me a lot, and I’m glad I know everything I do know.”
Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.
“Thank you for everything.”
Ten, nine, eight. Eight more seconds.
They don’t have to say much more. They’ve already said what needs to be said.
Five, four, three —
“Adios,” she says.
She stares at them for a few more seconds before the hologram flickers off. Her time is up.
“Tarah?” It’s jarring when she switches back to English. “It’s your turn now. You have five minutes.”
“Thank you, Sofia.” She turns away and begins to dial the buttons. Sofia realizes she’s only really seen the pale blonde hair and sleek black eyeliner, and not the dark circles under her eyes and her shaking hands.
The hologram begins to flicker again. Sofia sits down at the table and turns away. She’ll just look away during this.
“Is that you, Tarah?” The voice on the other end shakes, muffled and crackling through the static.
“It’s me, Lauren. Hello.” Sofia doesn’t have to look — she’s seen Lauren before with her short red hair and squarish black glasses.
“I’m scared. I knew this would happen when they talked about it a few days ago, but I never thought it’d be like this. I never thought it would actually happen. I’m scared because I know you and the crew and the USA and the government have tried everything you could for this, and I hate how even though I know it’s all going to be over — ” Lauren cuts off her sentence to breathe through her tears. “ — I’m still scared.”
“I’m scared too,” Tarah says. “I don’t want this to happen, I feel like there was something more I should have done even though we’ve tried everything. I don’t want to leave you behind, but we’re too far away. I feel like I’m hiding away in the shuttle. I feel like I’m a coward.”
Sofia looks at the timer. Four minutes left.
“You aren’t a coward, Tarah. You’ve never been one. You’re brave because you came out to your parents even when you weren’t sure how they’d feel about you. You were the one to talk face-to-face with Mom when she found out about you and found out I was dating ‘another girl.’ You’re brave for asking the government for our marriage papers even when you told me you were scared. You found life on Mars even when NASA told you how dangerous the atmosphere was.”
“Then if I’m not a coward, it’s alright for you to be scared.”
Three minutes and thirty seconds.
“You said I was brave for asking about the marriage papers even if I was scared, right? You told me you were scared, and you’re still here. You’re still holding out till the end even after you told me you’re scared. Even though we got this news from the government a few weeks ago and no one saw it comings, you’re still holding out.”
For a moment, Sofia just hears Lauren breathing.
“I love you. We’ve had obstacles, but I’m glad you’ve made it this far, Lauren. You’re brave for making it this far.”
“I love you too, Tarah. I’m still scared, and I know I can’t help it, but I’m glad to be talking with you before… before I have to go.”
One minute and forty-five seconds, counting.
“I’m glad too. I’m glad I fell in love with you. I’m glad I’ve married you.”
She can still hear quiet crying, but she thinks she can hear Tarah crying too.
“Thank you for everything, Lauren. Thank you for moving in with me at college. Thank you for supporting me when I decided I wanted to do this.”
“Thank you, Tarah.”
Seven, six, five —
“I have to go. Thank you for everything again. Remember you’re full of courage for everything you’ve done for me.”
“I’ll remember. I love you, Tarah.”
Three, two —
The hologram flickers off, and Tarah turns around. She pulls out one of the chairs and stares through the paneled window of the shuttle, away from Earth and the Milky Way and toward the sea of unnamed stars swimming in black.
Hussein doesn’t look up from the control panel, but Sofia asks to make sure.
“Hussein, is there anything you want to do? We have five minutes.”
She expects silence or a brief “no,” but —
“Yes. I want to make a broadcast to Earth.”
“What? Are you sure?” Abrupt, Tarah stands up from her seat.
“I’m sure. I just wanted to say one last goodbye to everyone there. Tarah, could you take over the control panel for me?”
“Yes. I’ll do that.”
The buttons are pressed for the third time in a row. A hologram of Earth starts to flicker to life and spin, and just above that, the faces of everyone on Earth flicker with it.
“Hello.” Hussein waves at the blinking faces.
“My name is Hussein Aamer, I am from Saudi Arabia. Some of you have heard of me, some of you have not, but I am one of the three astronauts sent by NASA into space to look for life on other planets. By then, I was a U.S. citizen and had already completed my science credits for high school and college.”
“My family was killed in the nuclear war when I was a child, and I was sent to America through the refugee program. I’ve lived with foster families for most of my life, and when I turned eighteen, I started my first year at college.”
“I have no one else to say goodbye to but you. You and the crew are my family.”
Four minutes. The engines are shifting into position now, judging by the rumbling.
“I know that Earth can be a cruel place filled with hateful people — I’ve experienced it firsthand. But I also know that my fellow humans can be kind, too. The refugee camp showed me kindness when they rounded us up and tried to teach us English and read us stories. The foster families I have met have been kind, even though they knew I would have to move on to the next family they still wanted me to go to school and get a job and go to college. My crew is my family and have shown me kindness — Sofia Zambrano and Tarah Coleman are two of the most accepting, wonderful people I have ever known.”
“So why am I telling you about this?”
Hussein doesn’t cry, but they hear it in his voice.
“Because until now, Earth is my home, and its people have been my family. We are far from a perfect family, but from the good I know we are capable of being a good family. We have achieved so much in the past few decades, and I am happy to be a part of these achievements.”
Two minutes. Two minutes before everything is over.
“We have discovered life on other worlds together. We have developed temporary cures to slow depletions of natural resources and climate change — think about all the time we have lived. It isn’t luck, it’s because we tried.”
“By now we have done all we could, and I — no, we, the crew of of the Extraterrestrial Life Search shuttle, could not have achieved it by ourselves. We have worked together to make ends meet, we have made compromises, and we have accomplished so much by now.”
Thirty seconds, counting.
“You were my family. Thank you for that. I’m sorry to see you go, but I’m grateful for all that we’ve done together.”
The hologram has begun to flicker. Twenty seconds.
“You have done so much for me as a family I haven’t known for as long, and I will try to repay you as best as I can as we go further. Thank you, NASA. Thank you, Saudi Arabia. Thank you all.”
Nine seconds. Eight, seven, six —
“I don’t have much else to say. So… thank you and goodbye.”
The hologram finally flickers out. The faces before Hussein disappear.
Sofia stands up from her seat, wrapping her arms around him. “I don’t believe it’s over. I can’t believe everyone’s… gone now.”
She tries to remember the faces of her parents and Leo, tries to keep them imprinted in her mind just in case the photographs she has from before don’t take. She tries to remember all the words she’s ever learned in Spanish. By now it’s a language she may never use again, but it’s certainly not a language she wants to ever forget.
Tarah stares down at the control panel, looking up to the stars and debris scattered across the edge of the Milky Way. For the first time within these fifteen minutes, she looks back towards the near-blinding light of the Milky Way that they drift further and further away from with each second.
She takes a deep breath. “We don’t know what’s out there.”
“We’ve found life on Mars and Neptune and even Pluto, so there must be something,” Sofia says.
“It won’t replace home,” Hussein says. “But we know there’s something out there to find.”
Exploring new horizons. That’s the motto they picked. That’s what they’re going to adhere to.
Sofia turns her chair away from the window, to face Tarah and Hussein. “Vamonos.”
They turn away from the Milky Way, not looking back as they press the control buttons and the engines speed up.
And then the Extraterrestrial Life Search floats away from the Milky Way, towards whatever new horizons they may chance to find.
No new horizon can replace the planet they used to call home.