Surface Leave

December 2019

He takes slow steps off the spacecraft, down the stairs to the tarmac. His head numb, he walks inside and out through his gate, cut off from the pulsing life around him. Customs is a blur of dead-faced travelers from two dozen species. As they inch forward, he imagines ancient slaughterhouses, back when meat was made from real animals, and cows were sent to the blade through lines like this. 

Then he’s out to the public, past crowds holding signs for new arrivals, none with his name. It’s late, so he takes the hovertrain into the city and walks to his hotel, luggage wheels clicking over each gap in the sidewalk as drunken crowds ooze out of pubs in blobs, stumbling and yelling in the streets. He checks in at his hotel, offering basic pleasantries and lazy jokes to the receptionist, going through the motions of sentience as the world buzzes around him.

He drops his luggage on the hotel room floor and falls to the bed, exhausted. A week on his home planet was supposed to be a breath of fresh air after so long in space, charting outer system planets in search of life. But now, he feels only emptiness. Not a desire to be elsewhere, but a lack of desire for anything at all. A desire to want something, anything to work toward and look forward to. At least if it hurt, he’d have the motivation to do something productive (like drink himself into a stupor), but he doesn’t even have that.

When he wakes in the morning, he heads out to the park, now only accessible by elevator. As he rides it up, he emerges from the shadows of a thousand mile-high skyscrapers and into the brilliance of the sun. The real sun, not the simulated walls of his quarters aboard the ship. He walks out near the pond and comes upon a row of benches adapted for the five major Earth species. For the first time in a long time, it’s easy to find the human seating area. He sits and watches the birds — Earth birds — as they flitter about in familiar patterns, singing their tunes. Perhaps it’s not so bad to be back after all.