The video was well-preserved, and when Commander Arie stared into the camera, it was like she was looking into your eyes, divining the desires of your heart.
“The stars are not the distant dreams they were in the past,” Arie said, and her voice cut like a sliver of diamond, and it made you tremble to hear her voice. “The stars are our neighbors, and I will not rest until I have met every neighbor, and seen their backyards, and sat in their homes, and welcomed them into mine.”
Arie dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again her normally stony glare twinkled with a light and warmth that made her look twenty instead of a formidable forty-five. Years had distinguished her, and maybe her beauty faded a little, but her presence had outgrown her slender frame.
“I pride myself on being the perfect hostess.”
The reporters laughed. They asked her questions about Star Cluster 9, and Alpha Zeta, and Satellite Planet 41-003, and she smoothed down her long hair, already silver, a respectable color on her, and she answered their questions with a steady stream of knowledge, glowing with the wonder she felt whenever she visited a planet, the wonder she wanted all of Earth to feel. And they did feel it. At least, Funani felt it, and even when she was six years old, watching this video in her little bedroom covered in posters of galaxies instead of from the inside of her small quarters on an exploratory space vessel, she knew that she would follow Arie into the darkest hole of space.
Funani turned off the video.
“Nolwazi, how much longer until we arrive?” she asked her vessel.
“In three point two hours, we will reach the destination,” answered Nolwazi.
When Funani travelled with other astronauts, they complained that Nolwazi’s voice was too cold, too stern, but Funani designed the AI to be like another woman she respected. She designed her voice to sound like the familiar cut of a diamond. Nolwazi did not share Arie’s passion, but she shared her vast knowledge of the mysteries of space.
Funani turned on another video.
Arie was smiling in this one, and she rarely smiled, possibly because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth, though Funani guessed she could afford the technology that would fix her smile instantaneously. Arie was not smiling at the camera, she was smiling at a creature nearly twice her size that seemed to be composed entirely of tar. The blob creature had a gaping hole near the top of its shapeless body that could have been a mouth, and several blobby appendages that could have been arms, but it was probably just Funani’s mind trying to understand a shape that was entirely foreign to her.
“Arie!” a reporter off-screen shouted. “How did you manage to decipher the language of the people of Sept Printemps?”
“Most of the deciphering was done by the Sept Printempians,” said Arie. “I am just honored that they chose to reach out to me for first contact.”
The Sept Printempian gurgled, spitting a tarry blob at Arie’s feet. Are smiled, and shook his hand, and did not cringe or gag as her hand was engulfed in the creature’s gelatinous exterior. She pulled away, her arm stained black, and reached into a large blue duffel. She always brought her large blue duffel when she was meeting a new alien. Funani thought of the duffel as a treasure chest when she was a little girl, and it was still hard to see it as anything else. Arie pulled out a small bag, presenting it to the Sept Printempian, and the reporters laughed.
“You think aliens like maple candy, Arie?”
Apparently they did, because the Sept Printempian ate the entire bag, including the plastic wrap.
Funani loved that video. She loved any video of Arie meeting aliens, because Arie enjoyed it so much. Arie inspired Funani to become an astronaut, then join the exploratory astronaut’s league led by Arie. Funani missed home, she missed Earth, she missed people that looked like people and planets that looked like civilization, but if Arie was leading her, she would continue to travel deeper and deeper into the unknown.
Though the league followed Arie from planet to planet, they were always a few planets behind her, then a few more, until their leader no longer responded to their efforts to reach out to her. The other ships gave her up as lost, for forty years they gave her up as lost. But Funani refused to give up. If they gave up, then she was just far from home, and terribly homesick, with nothing guiding her forward. If Arie was not pulling her forward, then Earth was pulling her back.
She turned on another video of Arie.
“We will reach our destination in one hour,” said Nolwazi.
The others had given up. They had programmed their vessels to search for Arie’s form, copied from thousands of videos, but there was nothing like Arie in the universe. Then they programmed their vessels to search for life forms in the deepest, most sterile parts of the neighboring galaxies, and they found life forms they would have never believed could exist, but they did not find Arie. They decided to keep her alive through their exploration, and leave the hopeless search to Funani. Funani instructed Nolwazi to search for a blue duffel, far from any other signs of human civilization, and Nolwazi found it.
In this video, Arie was pulling a long scarf out of her bag, and wrapping it around a wide-eyed, multi-eyed, slug. The duffel was a treasure chest. And Funani followed Nolwazi’s treasure map to her hero.
The planet was cold, but the trees with their umbrella-like collection of thorns almost reminded Funani of home. She tried not to think of how much she missed her little bedroom, rising from solid Earth, and let her handheld guide lead her forward.
“The entrance to the cave is fifteen feet to the west,” said Nolwazi. “Night falls in five minutes. Use caution.”
Funani would use caution, but if Arie was inside the cave, there was nothing to fear. Arie was the perfect hostess, and she would never be rude to a guest. If she even was in there. If she had not abandoned an empty duffel on a planet and kept hopping the stars. If she had not landed and finally met an alien who did not care for her nosiness and offer of interstellar friendship. As the sun went down, the planet became colder.
“Shall I turn on a light?”
Funani nodded, and the handheld guide glowed, leading the way. She put out a signal before she stepped onto the planet, letting the other vessels know that she had found, or might have found, their old leader. None of the vessels were even in the same galaxy, though the closet ones were on their way. They cautioned Funani to stay on her ship until help arrived, or send in a drone led by Nolwazi, and she promised she would before she strapped on her spacesuit and began exploring.
Funani watched Arie explore a cave on a video, a cave that was on a very different planet. The creatures in that cave were not quite like bats, but that was how her mind saw them. That was what helped her understand an entirely foreign little, winged alien. This cave was much larger and darker than the one in the film. Who knew what kind of aliens lived in this cave, or how Funani’s mind would try to comprehend them?
Nolwazi did not tell her that there was danger ahead, so Funani continued forward. She continued into the cave until she could not see the planet she left behind her. She might have been moving down, or up, she was disoriented, but Nolwazi told her she was getting closer.
“You will reach your destination in five seconds,” said Nolwazi.
Funani stumbled over something soft on the ground. She had a terrible feeling it was a small, slender body, that her leader had crawled into this cave and died. But Nolwazi shone her light at Funani’s feet, and Funani did not see a body, but a blue duffel bag.
Funani turned, and there was something in the corner. It was a large lump, like a down pillow, or an undercooked loaf of bread. Its face was a mass of wrinkles, like a large shriveled apple with two slanted seeds for eyes. Thin strands of white hair trailed to the dirt of the cave floor, where two fat yarn lumps covered what were probably equally lumpy feet. The image was so unfamiliar to Funani, so foreign, so wrong. It did not match the voice that came out of the slit of its mouth.
It did not fit with Funani’s memories, or the videos, but somehow her mind managed to understand that this was Commander Arie.
“What are you doing here, Funani? Shouldn’t you be exploring?”
Her voice was quieter, but it still cut the air like a sharp diamond. It was still the same beautiful sound in a body that did not fit Funani’s memory of the commander.
“What happened to you?”
Arie chuckled, but she did not smile. Funani did not mind. She rarely smiled, and Funani did not want to see what her teeth looked like now. She thought that there may not be any teeth behind those sunken lips, and she realized that crooked teeth were not the worst thing in the world.
“Forty years happened,” said Arie. “Did you think I was immortal?”
She was immortal in the videos. If Funani turned on the tape right now, she would be as beautiful as she was in the past. That beautiful Arie made Funani want to explore the stars. This thing that Funani could barely see as Arie made her want to cry. If this was what waited at the end of the universe, she should have stayed home.
“I’m being a bad hostess,” said Arie, trying to rise to her feet, unable to rock her roundness to an upright positon. “Do you need anything?”
“I need you to go back to the way you were before,” said Funani. “Why do you look like this? Why aren’t you exploring?”
“When you’re older, see how easy it is to keep your figure,” said Arie. “And when you’re older, see how long you can keep running before you decide to rest. I’m tired, Funani. You have to explore without me.”
This cave seemed too small, smaller than her room on the vessel, smaller than her room back on Earth.
“I was following you,” said Funani. “If you’re not travelling, who do I follow?”
Arie did not say anything. This old woman could not explore the galaxy. She probably could not fit in the pilot’s seat, her girth would not allow the seatbelt to close. She would not be able to see the stars through her squinted apple seed eyes. She would not able to grasp the control with stubby fingers. Funani needed Arie to pull her forward, to new forms of life that she could never fully understand, to new worlds and neighbors that Arie loved, and in turn made Funani love, or else Funani would plummet back to Earth. Without the Arie she knew, how would she continue her journey?
“I will guide you to your destination.”
Nolwazi’s voice cut through the cave like a sliver of a diamond. She sounded like the woman who spoke through the aged lump. She sounded like the voice that guided Funani through the videos of the past. She would guide Funani forward. Funani was emotional, passionate, and Nolwazi could understand more than she could ever imagine.
“Before you leave,” said Arie. “Let me give you a gift.”
Funani did not want to watch Arie struggle to stand again, so she picked up the duffle and tossed it onto Arie’s lap. The old woman rummaged through the bag. Funani was surprised it was so full, but she probably did not meet many aliens these days. She tossed Funani a slick paper, folded so small, and Funani caught it in the air.
“I will lead you back to your vessel.”
Nolwazi’s voice guided her out of the cave, and she left Arie behind her. She would tell the others that there was nothing there, just a duffel, and she took a souvenir from the old treasure chest. She did not look back at Arie, because there was more of Arie in the voice of her guide than in the old woman swaddled in the cave, and she needed to move forward, or Earth would call her down. She did not look away from Nolwazi’s light until she was back on her ship, flying back into space.
“Where are we going, Funani?”
Arie was supposed to be the leader. How was Funani supposed to tell this diamond voice where to go?
Funani unfolded the paper in her hand. She unfolded it again, and again, until it was completely open, spilling over her lap, a large poster of a mysterious galaxy, so similar to the posters that hung in her bedroom when she was a little girl. It made her think of Earth. It made her miss home. But it did not make her want to go home. The posters always drew her heart to the stars. Funani stood up, and hung it by her pilot’s seat.
“Find me someplace new, Nolwazi,” said Funani. “Find me a neighbor we have not met yet. Find me someone who needs to be welcomed.”
Nolwazi lit a new map on her screen, leading Funani into space, and Funani followed her guide.