Outside my window, a whale swims past, feeding off dust and starlight. There was a time when seeing something like that, so massive and so old, would have instilled me with wonder and awe, but whales are common enough these days (thanks to the efforts of environmentalists) that they no longer take my breath away, although not much does now.
I glance down at my map, tracing my finger over the path I've drawn for myself through the constellations.
We're so close.
Behind me, the rest of the crew does their tasks - Jai with the sails, Coriel steering us, Bizi probably in the engine room somewhere, and Seven watching them all, occasionally looking at me with a worried in look in their eyes. Axi, the newest member, stands near Jai, glancing around anxiously and jumping at loud noises. Under other circumstances, I'd probably give them a task, but excitement has made me heady and I'm finding it hard to think.
I stand up abruptly, folding up my map. Coriel eyes it with disdain - they disapprove of paper maps - but I ignore them.
I walk out of the room and into my quarters and let out a breath. Everything is the same when I glance around - the old fashioned steering wheel from boats that sailed on water still spins whenever the ship tilts slightly, and countless maps and diagrams are still strewn across my desk.
And yet it's all different. Soon I'll never have to see this room, this room I've come to love, again.
A school of fish swims by my window, huge eyes empty and mouths slightly open. Once, a girl I dated compared me to one of them, claiming that both the fish and I would be forever swimming through space, our sightless hunger driving us further and further away from home.
My parent told me once that in order to tell the difference between hunger and ambition, you had to decide if you needed the thing you wanted or not. I told them I had a dream, that I wanted to find something (I took great care to use the word "wanted") and that I would be back soon. My parent hugged me good bye. My mother told me that she could see that I needed to find it, that I was starving for it, and told me to go.
Then I had most of my organs surgically removed and replaced by machines, for many reasons but mostly to prove to her and to myself that I was not starving, that I could not feel hunger anymore anyway.
There's a knock on the door and Seven comes in, their face anxious.
"Loren," they say. "Um, Coriel says they've sighted a planet, but they're not sure if it's the right one."
I stand up hurriedly and rush out of the room. Coriel is glancing at their map and then back at the planet that I can see hazily. They hand me binoculars, and I take them, hands shaking slightly. Seven puts a hand on my shoulder, steadying me, and I don't thank them.
I can see the greenish tint, clouds billowing across its surface. This is it. I've found it.
"Adjust the sails," I tell Jai, and my voice doesn't sound like mine but I barely notice. He nods once, and I turn back to the planet.
"Er, sir," Bizi says, coming up from the engine room, face creased in concern. "There's not much solar wind in these parts. If we go to this planet, chances are we might not be able to get back."
I glance at them, consider.
"We're going anyway," I say. I don't say that even if there's not solar wind, even if we can never get back, it won't matter. If it really is the right planet, then I'd never want to leave, and if they do, there should be enough materials for them to build themselves a spaceship and the make it the way they used to be made with fuel and no sails. They should be able to get off if they want, although I don't know how many people those ships carry.
Bizi hesitates for a second, and I worry that they might refuse, but then they nod and retreat back.
"Can I talk to you?" Seven says, approaching me. "In private?"
I don't want to put the binoculars down, but I hand them back to Coriel reluctantly and follow them into my room.
"What is it?" I say, tapping my fingers impatiently. I want to be back at the window, I want to watch as we approach the planet.
"What will you do?" they ask. "When you find it?"
"What do you mean?" I say.
"You've been looking for it for a while now, but now you may have found it," they say. "What will you do now?"
"I'll . . ."
I'll take apart the ship once they've all decided whether to leave or stay so that I can never leave. I'll build myself a house out of rocks and mud and logs, or maybe I won't. Maybe I'll sit outside in the rain and feel it all, maybe their star will warm my skin. I'll watch whales swim by above me, and my heart will beat a little faster when I see them.
But of course I can't tell them these things, and it's all too much, so I say what they expect me to.
"I don't know."
"So then why?" they press on. "Why bother stopping, if you don't know what will happen next? Why don't we just continue on as we are? Don't you love this ship, don't you love this life?"
"I . . ."
And it's tempting. It would be so easy to say yes, to continue on past this planet, to find a way to go on and know t hat I left my dreams behind. To not have to live with a reality in which I found them, and they weren't as good as I expected, or they were different from how I imagined them.
Once, I encountered a fortune teller on some odd planet far behind me and he asked me what my greatest fear was. I told him it was death because I couldn't think of a better answer, and he laughed slightly and shook his head, and only now I realize that this is my greatest fear: to spend my whole life chasing dreams and realize it was in vain.
"I can't," I tell Seven. "I can't."
"But why not?"
"You want something from me that I can't give you," I say gently. "I'm sorry."
They shake their head, and something dark and full of pain passes through their eyes. They laugh bitterly.
"You were always like this, you know," they say. "You always choose stories and lies over people and life. I thought I could save you, but you just don't see it, do you? There's always going to be another fantasy to chase, another holy grail you have to find. You're never going to be able to find the one thing that will make you happy. There's never just one answer."
I take a deep breath, force myself to ignore the way the words sting.
"Seven," I say. "I'm sorry. I need to find this. Now," and I take another deep breath. "Please leave my room."
They hesitate for a moment, looking at me, angry and also anguished, and then they turn around and leave, slamming the door behind them.
I lie on my bed and wonder.
The next week is tense. Seven avoids talking to me, and the rest of the crew seems to realize we're fighting. I don't really care at this point - I feel bad, but I'm so close, and soon we'll have found it.
We get there after a week, though it feels like longer. As soon as the ship lands, as soon as Axi runs the tests (with Bizi supervising) and assures us it's safe, I step out of the ship and look around.
It's nothing like I imagined it.
There are no forests, no plains of lush grass, no swamps or mountains. There's a sun, far away, its light barely heating my face. There's dust.
I sink to my knees. Seven is giving me a look that says, "I told you so" and also "I'm sorry" and Bizi has retreated back into the ship, probably to see if there's some way to fix it, some way to get off, and Axi is looking around anxiously, their arms wrapped around themself.
A wind blows dust into the air, and it settles over my knees, and for the first time in forever, I start to cry.