Have you ever wondered what it's like, up there?”
There was a period of silence.
“I mean, they look different than they do from down here I'm sure.”
Nearby, a low rumble was heard as a rocket took off, lifting passengers away to some other place. A colony orbiting Earth. A colony on the moon. A colony on Mars. They left for a new life, encouraged by the belief that something better laid just beyond the horizon.
There they were, two young people, on the brink of something they had never experienced before, sitting on a ledge of the deck on the 84th floor of an apartment complex. As they sat, they watched the city evolve before them. Each second that the sun set further in the distance, more lights turned on, as people bustled to and from work. Each neighboring skyscraper became a light up doll, a shining beacon emitting enough light to make it seem that, for a while, the planet did not follow a normal, 24 hour cycle. The sounds of the city enveloped them, occasionally offset by a rocket in the distance, silhouetted against the setting sun. The city breathed a life of its own; a dilapidated, frustrated being, struggling for change.
“Do you think you'll ever see them one day?” the girl asked, sitting on the left to the young man on the ledge of floor 84, flying vehicles above and below her. She turned to face the young man, who had not talked as of yet.
He was looking at the stars, head cocked upwards. His hair caught a light breeze and blew around his face, lifted out of his eyes and off of his ears. He turned to look at her.
“Maybe. Someday. What about you?”
She gave the faint hint of a smile, an expression nearly extinct. She turned back to look up at the stars, skin half captured by sunlight and half captured by shade. Her long brown hair rustled in the breeze, her eyes sparkled. She wrapped her arms around her body as if a chill had taken her over.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and they looked up at the stars in quiet contemplation as they dreamed of a life that seemed so unreachable.
A Week Later
“Make sure the HDT liquid is loaded.”
"AP packs interspersed to the crew?”
“Look, I've got-”
“Hey, did you see the foodpacks?”
“Yeah, they're in bay three.”
More technical jargon continued. The captains and co-captains continued to prepare. They were leading a flight of some four hundred passengers to Mars, the largest single flight to Mars yet, another mission to increase the fledgling population of about 15,000.
Fifteen minutes from now, all the passengers would be dead. Kids, wives, husbands, entire families. That was perhaps the only saving grace to those who would wonder why it happened. Loved ones traveled together so they wouldn't have to live missing one another. Except for the staff. They had family back home.
“Maybe, someday,” as she turned back to look at him.
“I hope so.”
They sat again for a while in silence, breathing in the city, looking at the world around them, making up stories for the passerby, as people walked among the skyscrapers sidewalks. Was that woman a single mother trying hard to raise two kids? Was that man a businessman who just made a pretty penny today or who lost out on a big deal? Two young lovers on a bench? Or just brother and sister consoling each other after a family loss?
The liftoff went successfully, everything was going smoothly. The captain settled in to his seat in relative comfort, letting the auto-pilot function do its job as the ship began its orbit around Earth before sling-shotting to Mars.
“Did you see the game last night?” he asked, turning to face his co-pilot, a man in his mid-thirties, professional looking yet with youthful eyes.
“Yeah, good stuff.”
A small, dull, repeating noise started up and the captain looked down at his dashboard.
“INASA is picking up a UFO at bearing 6.4 E,” he said.
The co-pilot flipped a few switches. “Yep, I read it. Coming in fast. Energy reading suggests small passenger flight.”
“Let's see if we can't talk to them.”
“Wait... sir; they're not registered with INASA.”
“Yeah, no number, nothing. INASA you getting this?” the co-pilot spoke into a small microphone.
“That's a citizen violation to own an unregistered spacecraft,” the captain said.
“It's coming in fast sir, 40 astronomical knots." There was a brief pause as the co-pilot swallowed. "It's on a collision course, sir."
"I can't move this ship right now; I'm in a slingshot orbit."
"INASA is prepping missiles.”
“Missiles? Dammit. They gotta EMP it or something. Tell the passengers to buckle up and brace up. It's closing in.”
Red alarms went off throughout the ship; worried passengers looked up from their food or games, anxious excitement replaced with nervous dread.
Thirty seconds later, the collision occurred, and the bright explosion could be seen from the surface of Earth.
“It's getting late.”
"I like it. This is my favorite time of day.”
She leaned against him. “When's the flight to Mars?”
"A week from today.”
“Your father's the pilot, right?”
“Yeah, it's his last mission. His biggest one.”
“How long will he be gone?”
“It's about seven days there and seven days back, plus a day of rest on Mars.”
“It must be hard.”
He shrugged. “Get used to it after a while.” He lied.
Flowers. That's what was suggested. They were hard to buy individually though. Still, it sounded good. They were his last words to his son, five minutes after liftoff.
The explosion made things difficult for the boy. Yet, in his pain, he needed her. Needed to talk. She was the only person he knew who wasn't empty. She listened, she cared. She smiled. If only when he worked hard for it. He stood out on his deck, floor 84, and waited. He needed to talk. Tonight they would, the same night, every week, for three years now. They had never missed one before.
“Are you all packed, honey?” Mother, making sure her daughter was ready to go.
“Yes, mom,” daughter replied, yelling from her bedroom up the stairs. She grabbed her suitcase and backpack and headed downstairs to her mother.
“You ok?” mom asked.
Daughter paused. “Yeah. Ok.”
“You wanted to say goodbye didn't you.”
The young girl shrugged. “It is what it is.” She didn't say she couldn't say goodbye, didn't have it in her. She imagined his face when she did. The pain seemed real even then.
Her mother grasped her on the shoulder and they walked out the door, down the stairs, and out into the world.
She was late. She was never late. Where could she be?
Liftoffs were always busy. There were security checkpoints, luggage checks, ID checks… They checked everything. Had to arrive a few hours early to do anything. The mother and daughter went through it all and had to sit in the waiting room for an hour. There were old magazines to read, but neither of them felt like reading.
The mother looked at her daughter. She seemed sad.
“So, what do you want to do when we first arrive?”
There was no response.
“I say we go to the canyons. They're supposed to be beautiful.”
Her daughter shrugged. “Ok.”
“Before you know it we'll be back to normal again.”
Her daughter turned and looked away, observing the bustling crowd of people at the spaceport. Their stories would never be told, but she liked to know they had one.
He looked at the flowers he held in his hand. Roses, red, full of life. A strange contrast to the city that lay before him. He daydreamed. He remembered when he was younger, playing catch with his dad. He remembered his mother, barely. He hadn't seen her since he was four. Not that he could. Hadn't seen his dad in years either, his busy schedule preventing that. So he lived here and there, with friends, with people. Eventually he moved into the cheap apartment he was in now, on the 84th floor, wondering why of all days to be late, today was the day.
It was a Saturday afternoon. He remembered it clearly. He was young, just turned four. He was in the backyard, his dad sat on a chair, reading the film paper. A beautiful blue sky glistened above him, the sun spreading its warmth. A light breeze rustled leaves that made crumpling sounds as they raced each other through the yard. Colors flaunted themselves.
There was a buzzing, a call, dad's face turning from content, to worried, to despair. All else is just a blur for the boy; picked up, rushed to hospital, saying goodbye, ice cream afterwards that he couldn't eat. House lost, new job for dad. And her. She cared for him, she appreciated him. He liked her when he was six and still did to this day.
He picked off a petal from one of the roses he held. It used to be some kind of game apparently. Back when the world was different, yet fundamentally the same. He sighed, sat on the ledge and watched the world. The world never watched back.
Finally, the mother had her name and her daughter's called. They were ready to board. They walked to the gate. The mother glanced to the side, noticing the crisp swishing noise of a pilot’s uniform; the crew was boarding through their private entrance just twenty feet away.
"Hey, isn't that his dad?” she said.
“Look, over there, the flight crew.”
The daughter looked. Sure enough, there he was, his last mission, his last flight. To Mars and back, then, a quiet life with his son. Just a couple weeks and he was done. For some reason, that comforted her, knowing that, as far away as she would be to the boy she cared so much about, she was still, in a way, so close. His dad would carry her to another planet, another life.
It had been an hour. A lot of the petals had been pulled off. A cold chill blew over him. He sighed, saddened, and threw the rose off the ledge. He watched it drop into the city, as the last color in the world faded away for good.