I could just see the shimmer of the force field at the edges of the hole in the ceiling, and the green-tinged sky above that. My eyes were drawn again and again to that crumbled corner, and the rainbow haze at the edge of the stone.
The museum seemed a hastily assembled place. Columns were propped up rather than reconstructed, the crude bracing apparatus foreign against the ancient smooth stone. Everywhere around me technology mixed with decay – even the artifacts housed in rows of clear, controlled glass display cases had cards of explanation that looked rushed and unbelievably old fashioned. They looked like samples of text I had seen in a typewriter exhibit when I was a small child, in some other forgotten museum back on Earth.
I wandered through the displays, occasionally catching a glimpse of Franco at the end of a corridor, or somewhere across the great room with its ruined edge and that glimpse of odd, green sky above. We had agreed to go our separate ways, so we each toured the ruins at our own pace, though my route was random in a calculated way.
I was avoiding him.
I studied a clay object far longer than was necessary, just to waste time. I couldn’t make out its use, and its given description was useless. It was an offertory, the card said, or a common household object. I realized that the archaeologists here had no way to gauge the accuracy of their suppositions — they were simply making it up as they went along. Suddenly this last museum tour seemed more appropriate.
Weren’t Franco and I just making it up as we went along? Weren’t we all? The thought was oddly comforting, even so far from home.
I made my way through to the end of the exhibit, only slightly less confused than when I entered. I took one last glance at the opening in the roof and at the alien sky, and wondered suddenly how much it cost to maintain that barrier and the oxygen rich atmosphere inside. I suddenly wondered how quickly the oxygen would dissipate if that little membrane failed, and shivered.
We weren’t supposed to be there. We should never have come to this place.
I found Franco at the little gift shop near the exit.
I picked up a small black object from the shelf nearest me, just to feel its smooth weight against my palm. It was a perfect replica of one of the displays inside; I wondered how it had been cast in such an exact way, how all of the markings had been so precisely rendered. Turning it again and again in my hand, I had the strangest feeling that everything here was cursed somehow.
“Come on,” Franco said. “We’ll miss our shuttle.”
I put the little artifact back on the shelf, and smiled wistfully at the cashier. “Maybe next time,” I said, knowing that I would never come back. It’s easy enough to lie. I should know.
We were alone again in the shuttle. It seemed to me that our seats were too close together, or maybe the air was pressurizing too quickly.
Franco looked like a stranger in the low light of the cabin, as strange and unknown as the object I had left behind in the souvenir shop. Before I knew what I was doing, I impulsively reached out and traced the side of his jaw with my fingertip, just gliding along the edge and down the side of his neck, following the pulse within.
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Just don’t. It makes it so much harder.”
“To leave? Or to go back home?” I asked.
Franco closed his eyes and turned away as the shuttle began to vibrate beneath us. Our departure was announced in an automated monotone, and I felt the old lurch in my stomach as the planet dropped away below.
I touched the screen in front of my seat and slid my finger through the menu until I found the view I wanted. There, just below us, growing smaller by the second, were the alien structures – the pyramids like a mountain range behind the great hall we had just visited. The rift in the roof was clear even at this height. It seemed almost to grow as the building diminished into the landscape.
The rift was so, so much larger than it seemed.