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You, Reflected

T. R. Siebert is a speculative fiction writer from Germany. When she's not busy writing, she can be found attempting to grow vegetables on her balcony (not very successfully) or looking at pictures of cute dogs (incredibly successfully). Tweet at her @TR_Siebert.
Earth has been habitable for 591 days. You and I, we're just waiting for the others to arrive.
"When the others get here," you say with the whole planet stretched out underneath us, "we'll leave right away." From this altitude, the horizon is a gentle curve, the sky's blue faded to almost white. "I've had enough of this rock."
You reach out your hand and my hand moves. You shift ever so slightly in my cockpit and my whole body adjusts with it. I can't squint but I know you do. Whole landmasses disappear behind our thumb. Our palm blocks out half of what used to be Europe.
"Who'd ever want to live in a place like this?"
You say that a lot--enough that I almost think you believe it. But I notice the way your heart beats faster when we race across the Atlantic towards the rising sun. I heard you gasp the first time a forest spread out beneath our feet like an ocean of green. And I see you walk barefoot through the empty fields, carefully avoiding the pearls of dew strung on spider webs.
"They can have it," you say but you still braid flowers into the harness of my cockpit. "I don't want any of it."
For weeks, you spend your days charting potential landing sites for the colony ships. "They want something symbolic," you say, frowning at the latest valley we sketched out. "To celebrate humanity's return to Earth." The disdain in your voice is clear enough for me--even me--to pick up. "But it's all overgrown as shit."
I show you the reconstruction of what used to lie beneath these unnaturally uniform hills and sprawling woods-a city of stone and steel and light. "They will rebuild."
You scoff and climb back into the cockpit. "Well, I'm not the one who should complain about second chances."
In theory, I have access to all your personal data. Your entire history, stored away neatly in the depths of my brain. In theory, I know exactly why you are here. How you ended up as my pilot on this mission.
But with you, for some reason, I prefer to just ask.
"Not much work for a fighter pilot after the war," you say as you go through the routine movements of flight preparation. "Even less for someone who fought on the losing side."
"This assignment was a punishment?"
I feel you twitching in the pilot seat and pull up control panel C for you to fiddle with. I know you like to keep your hands busy when a conversation steers somewhere too personal.
"They prefer to call it a chance to redeem myself."
What would you call it then? I almost pose the question out loud as we take off, leaving the valley below. But I can read your elevated heartbeat and the frown on your face, picked up by the cockpit camera. And perhaps, I wouldn't like your answer all that much anyway.
From up here, with some distance, it's clear to see what lies beneath the surface. The straight lines of streets and buildings and lives long forgotten.
You stay silent for a while as we hover above it all.
"We haven't changed at all, you know," you finally say, quietly. "Maybe we were never capable of it."
At night, you like to sleep outside. You tried to explain it to me once but I still don't quite understand. I could have built you perfectly suitable sleeping quarters in under a day. You could even sleep in my cockpit, like you still do sometimes when it's raining or snowing and you don't feel like flying towards more pleasant climates.
But when the sky is clear, you prefer to sleep underneath the stars. It's the one thing I've never heard you complain about.
It takes a lot of energy for me to sit or even lie down. My body may have been molded after a human's but during construction, nobody considered I would ever lie in a field of tall grass to look up at the stars with you. Sitting is only marginally easier.
I still do it. You insist.
"You make me nervous when you're just standing there," you say.
If I'm honest, it's worth the effort.
"Look," you say and point up. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be looking at. I could activate an overlay that would show me all the constellations, name all the stars shining down on us. If you gave me enough time, I could chart us a way back to colonies from here. Somehow, I don't think that's what you want from me.
"Look," you say and I do. At the stars and the darkness in between sometimes. But mostly at you.
"Only humans would build a ship and make it look like themselves," you say one night, mere weeks away from the others' estimated arrival. "It's typical narcissism."
As far as we know, humans are the only beings in the galaxy capable of building ships at all, but I don't think that's the point you're trying to make so I don't say anything at all.
You look up at me from where you're sitting in the grass. My silence irks you. I can tell even without checking for the telltale signs in your vitals. "Don't you ever wonder why they build you like this? With arms and legs and a cockpit as a heart? Like they couldn't stand the thought of sending anything down here that didn't look like them?"
"They did not build me to wonder."
"That has never stopped you before."
The truth is, I like that you can look at me and see something familiar, a reflection of yourself. I don't know how to see myself if I don't see myself in connection to you. Perhaps that's how they really built me. Or perhaps it's just a side effect.
"I am a ship," I say, because it's the one truth I know for certain.
I expect you to laugh but you stay silent. Above us, the clouds open up to a sky filled with stars. "Maybe that's something we can figure out when we finally get out of here. Together."
I watch you dig your fingers into the dirt underneath you and I could wonder how much of that is true. How much of it will stay true once the others get here. Once it's not just you and me here anymore. But they didn't build me to wonder. So for now, I'll just sit here next to you. And wait.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 17th, 2020
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