Bastian Taft hated his job.
Not the usual 'oh, I hate to sit and work but like to get paid and have something to do every day' kind of hate but a genuine, nagging, deep, and terrible loathing for the place in which he currently sat. It wasn’t so much the primitive fluorescent lighting or the taupe-colored walls that sought to sedate him and his miserable coworkers, it wasn’t even that his boss was something out of 20th century cinema. It was something else, something less explicable and so all the more dastardly. As he pip-papped on his microboard, eyes glazing over as every orange character flashed and swam across the screen to find its place in the endless maze of code that was this years latest delivery confirmation software, his mind drifted.
Dear god, is it Friday yet? he thought. It had better be close. Lords, they even turned the clocks off after Peterman quit…I should leave early.
'Wouldn’t do that if I were you,' came a voice behind him.
Taft frowned. Maybe I should call Tiffany, his thoughts returned. Maybe I will. It’s been a year…
'Why would she want to talk to you? You know the main reason she left you is because no human being should ever be known as "Tiff Taft".'
Taft was getting irritated. If you don’t stop reading me I’m reporting you to the press, Astermencowskiwicz.
He swiveled in his desk chair, a satisfied smirk on his stubbled face as he stood to peer over the cubicle wall at his harassing neighbor. Steve Astro sat there with his arms crossed, frowning. Finally he looked up.
'I had my name changed for a reason, man. I don’t know why you need to bring it up, you know, don’t know why you feel you have to do that.'
Taft’s smirk turned into a grin.
Astro sighed, 'Fine, forget it, let’s get out of here.' He started and picked up his coat before speaking again, 'Only an hour early today anyway…'
“You can dish it out but you can’t take it,” jabbed Taft. His guffaw reverberated through the halls of the lobby and out to the street.
Astro talked fast, “I don’t see why it bothers you so much, I mean, I’ve been doing it for years and you should be used to it by now, you know? Because…”
Taft cut him off, “You just pick the most inopportune times, man. You know I get cranky at work and you know you shouldn’t pick at that scab called Tiff. It’s got to heal, you know? And besides…”
His friend interrupted him in kind, “Heal?” His head cocked back in a laugh as they each waved at the virtual receptionist and passed through the automated doors.
“You’ve been reading that Doc Monk rubbish again, haven’t you?”
Taft didn’t reply. He was stopped two steps out of the office building, a gentle smile spoke more than any thoughts Astro could read. The pair of them stood side by side, snow drifting softly around them like nuclear fallout. But it wasn’t anything like that; what they saw was something stupendous, exhilarating, and much more. What they saw was home.
Happy families of all colors were strolling down old city streets, stopping to pick flowers from a bed just barely dusted in snow, laughing with shopping bags in hand. Hydrogen burning cars silently glided along, their compact ovular bodies like bubbles spewed from the toy of a child. Stories above them airships lazily rolled from place to place over small office buildings and cozy cement shopping blocks; a fine and luxurious replacement for airliners that once roared over colossal skyscrapers. Back down below dozens of soft LED signs adorned the city shops and offices; all a part of system that was null and void now. At least sort of.
Taft looked at his friend, sluggish with the delight of the scene.
“See?” he started, “This is why I never wanted to leave Costa Rica.”
Astro paused for a second before speaking, “Maybe. If by ‘Costa Rica’ you meant ‘Earth’.”
Steve Astro, born Stefan Dawid Astermencowskiwicz, was a psychic. More specifically, he was what scientific journals, and thusly the people who read them, called a “Tea Kettle Psychic”. The name worked because it took this sort of psychic time to “heat up” to people before being able to read them. These scientific journals, however, could not explain why or how this happened; they just gave it name. There were other types of psychic as well, those with far more subtle abilities that only came out in very particular contexts such as an immensely stressful or unsafe situation, and there were those with wildly uncontrollable psychic abilities such as one Keith de la Torre who had broken the minds of his parents before the age of 10, from which age since he has been under state supervision. But Astro was one of the lucky few who had both control of their powers and the ability to keep it secret in public life. This provided an interesting dynamic to his relationship with Bastian Taft.
Taft took another long look at the scene on the street and then back to Astro. His friend was right.
“I don’t think you get it, man. If those bastards hadn’t left Earth, where would we be today?”
“Well, I’d be back in Brooklyn,” said Taft. “Maybe have a pizzeria or something. Live in a little matchbox apartment outside the city. Married.”
“No, you’d be dead. You know everyone who thought like them had this country on a one-way track to oblivion. Climate change, global empire gone wrong, nukes in the hands of Americans and terrorists alike, a genuine meltdown in the world financial markets.” He paused and said, “And I just don’t get why you’re so fixated on this idea of having a family. Look at this!” Astro stopped in the middle of the intersection in which they were walking, arms up like he was calling a football game, face to the sky. “This is snow! In Costa Rica! Don’t you get it yet?”
Taft shook his head, “You’re too pragmatic, man. I mean…everything changed too fast. One day we figure out how to jump a galaxy, the next day humanity divorces itself. At least those who could afford to did. A few years after that those who couldn’t afford it could and now we’re here…leaving snow tracks in Costa Rica.”
The tranquil female voice of the crossing light at the other end of the intersection spurred them on. “Car approaching. Please cross immediately.” The pair started again.
The two were both raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Taft born and raised, Astro just raised. They had been in the same classes all throughout their academic careers but hadn’t sparked a friendship until midway through high school, about the same time as Dellingr I. By this time Astro had decidedly been close to young Taft for long enough to start the psychic tomfoolery that would initiate their friendship and the frustration Taft would have to endure to keep that friendship going. He was the next one to speak as they left the business district of San Jose and into the residential.
“Let’s face facts, okay? Let’s do that. This world hasn’t exactly become what we all expected it to be after they left. I mean, it’s like...” he snapped his fingers. “It’s like Saruman never went to the Shire.”
He left it at that, letting his friend process the little analogy. By this time they were passing street vendors barking for their attention like they were in 12th century Jerusalem. There were Arabs selling nanobot vacuum cleaners and designer knock-off handbags, locals selling tamales and satellite phone boosters. This was the no-mans land between districts where the municipality let things be. Free markets and laissez faire still worked here, even if the people perpetuating it didn’t quite realize it. The streets were immaculate, even here, but fewer cars slid by and fewer airships cruised overhead. Each building, almost all of them adobe and two-story, had nicely designed holographic signs out front advertising space for rent or travel agencies or the latest news from the galactic frontier; evidently Team Nevsky had claimed another planet.
“Hold on, I want to get a churro,” said Astro.
The small local woman smiled, scooped up two of the doughy things and placed them in a napkin. “Two fifty, please,” was her request, spoken in perfect English.
Astro smiled kindly, “Two dollars and fifty coming up! You know, I just can’t get enough of these things – easy man, two second.”
Taft was jabbing him in the ribs.
“I said two seconds, what the hell…”
Shade covered the block. Finally Steve Astro looked up. Some great object, looking like a mechanical snake, Astro thought, was blocking out the sun, dowsing the block – the entire city in shade. No one really screamed or cried out; the tranquil population simply looked up and watched with fascination like a toddler first sighting a butterfly. The massive ship, as it turned out to be, lolled like a whale through the sky further and further from sight, though this took quite some time as the craft was in no sort of hurry. After perhaps twenty-minutes time naught but its tail was visible on the far horizon. Not a word was spoken. Slowly the eyes of the onlookers found there way down, blank stare meeting blank stare. All turned to the televiewers for aid. Nothing. Shrugs, frowns, and then back to work.
“That was some kind of Explorer…but there were no colors to identify it. Every political entity that sent ships out marked them in some way. That one was just…black.”
Taft still looked up, not hearing his friend. A flick of the ear got his attention.
“Did you hear me? That thing couldn’t have been from Earth!” Astro’s exclamation caught him a few sidelong glances from others on the street but he didn’t care.
“Just stop,” said Taft, “You don’t know what’s going on out there. It could’ve just lost its paint somehow. Probably…trying to get back here…for some reason…and crashed.”
He took a long pause, concern creasing his face. Astro waited patiently.
“But why would they be coming back here?”
Astro smirked knowingly, “That’s the question, then, isn’t it?”