Two explorers re-entered the threshold separating them from the outside. One took off its helmet, wiping its brow. “Well, what do you think?” A sigh escaped its mouth. “What do you mean?” the other muttered. “Possibly the greatest discovery in history. How else should I react?”
“Did you see some of those objects?”
A silent pause. “Yeah.”
The two explorers said nothing, discarding their suits and placing them in a sterilizing bin. Underneath were their uniforms.
Walking to another area of the ship, one of them reached into a compartment and grabbed the day’s half-rations.
“Care to eat?”
“What’s the point?” the other remarked forlornly. “You and I, and everyone we know dreamed of the day when we could find life on other planets. Remember?”
“It’s still possible, you know.”
“Possible… shit,” scoffed the second explorer. “If we do, they all probably went the way of this one. Must have been uninhabitable for thousands—maybe millions—of years since we got here.”
“So you do believe in it, then?” The first explorer’s voice wavered, picking up a tone of hope.
“Believe in what? Life? Assuming that life existed here, and that it was intelligent, then why is everything in ruins?”
Another break in conversation. It was true, certainly, that many objects suggesting life existed here. Tools, symbols reminiscent of language, even cleverly-forged metals littered the landscape.
“It doesn’t explain what happened here though,” the first explorer continued. “My detector is tracing an unnatural amount of decaying isotopes in the atmosphere. This planet’s sun, or any external event for that matter, couldn’t have caused this.”
Nodding, the second explorer added, “This place seems to have been destroyed… but not from the outside.”
“Look at the deserts out there. Those aren’t the kind you can find back home.”
“The sunlight appears incapable of penetrating the thick outer layers of atmosphere,” they mused together. “But I think it did, at some point…” They trailed off.
The second explorer frowned. “I don’t understand how you can just sit there and act like nothing’s the matter! This is the first and maybe only time that we’ll ever come as close to extraterrestrial life.”
“What do you want me to do? What do you want?” the other replied hotly.
“I want a reason!” the second explorer gesticulated madly, pacing back and forth in that area of the ship. “I’ll wager that this civilization was indeed intelligent! Very intelligent! All the combinations should have worked out for them; optimal distance from their sun to permit heat and light energy, traces of water deposits found in what are now canyons and deserts, presence of gases that could have been used for metabolism, and tools. Yes, tools! Yet… yet for some reason, they are gone now.”
“Yes, that’s clearly evident,” the first explorer interjected.
“Do you know what loneliness is? It’s not a planned space exploration, spending time away from home. Loneliness is knowing that you’re the only life remaining in the universe, and that everything else had been whisked away while you weren’t paying attention! In this vast expanse of space, I thought we would serve as beacons, seeking out stranded life on some uncharted galaxial shores. But I’m starting to believe something different. Perhaps we are the ones stranded? Perhaps in our effort to connect with others, we are trying to outrun a futile pursuit from loneliness?”
Another pause, longer this time. Neither one made a sound, until silence stifled the room.
“Don’t give up. There must be some extant life out here. We just have to look harder,” said the first explorer, trying to sound comforting.
“I guess you’re right,” sighed the other explorer. “Well. I’m going to open communications back to home and report on these findings.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“What do you want to do? Return home… or continue searching?”
“I don’t know. Out there, anywhere.”
And so, the two explorers left the barren planet’s surface. Upon further consideration, they decided to return promptly back to their home planet…