A/N: The prompt for this piece was "One does not see anything until one sees its beauty," George Orwell.
They stood silently atop the rise, watching. The Major's reflective visor showed a perfect mirror image of the swirling blue and white sphere, an unfathomable distance away, and yet the closest thing in the empty wasteland. Far off, distant pinpricks of light twinkled in the dark cosmos, belligerent little stars that flew in the face of the eternal darkness.
The Captain glanced up as a small wave of static passed over the radio transmitter. "Did you say something, Major?"
"No, I was just thinking."
The Captain stood silently for another moment, lost in his own thoughts as well. The Major turned his head slightly, though the Captain couldn't have known, what with the space suits and all. "It all looks so peaceful from up here," the Major finally said. "Beautiful, even." He sighed again. "From so far away, you don't realize that those clouds are really a massive storm cell, or that in that desert right there, young men are peppering each other with holes. You don't see the poverty, you don't see the corruption, you don't see the pollution. I can just take it all in as the big picture. And from this far out, that really is beautiful."
The Captain raised an eyebrow, though the Major couldn't see that through the reflective visor. "Major, you're missing the point. From this far away, yes, the world does look nice. But you can't see what makes it beautiful. Have you ever stood on the beach and watched the sun set? Or woken up with just a little bit of sunlight coming through the windows, with the birds singing that stupid, annoying little song of theirs? Surely you've felt the touch of someone close to you, that sense of proximity and warmth? Out here, you can't feel the wind on your bare face, or smell pine trees, or feel the uneven rocks under your feet."
He glanced down at the crater they stood on, and the two trails of footprints leading up to their current perch. Those footprints would remain, ever unchanging, long after he and the Major returned to Earth. The footprints in the fine lunar dust would remain as fresh as they were now even hundreds of years into the future. Those marks would not fade until the moon spun away, reduced to dust drifting through the infinite cosmos. The man smiled grimly in his spacesuit. That was what the Major found beautiful.
The Major loved the permanence of things, things that he could count on not to change. The sun was always going to rise in the east; the world was going to keep turning. The seas were going to stay blue, and the swirling clouds white. The Major was a man with his feet planted firmly on the ground, and who kept his head out of the clouds.
The Captain smiled again, appreciating the irony.
But he was cut from a different cloth. Though they had been away from Earth only two days, he had already begun to miss the sights, sounds and smells he had always taken for granted. Now, certainly, space was beautiful. But there was a harshness to that beauty, a kind of sterile quality. The void had its allure, and for men like the Major, it was the most beautiful thing of all. That kind of vast emptiness daunted the Captain, even as it entranced him and captivated his mind. The allure that had brought him into space was the same dread that made him terrified of it. He understood the beauty of the infinite, ever expanding cosmos, but he did not feel it as profoundly as the Major did.
What he wished to experience most of all was the west wind off the sea, playing through his hair and across his face, to smell that salt air and the aroma, to feel the warm comfortable sensation of having someone else slip their bare fingers into his, to hear things without the static of a radio communicator. But the Major would laugh at this, saying that those things wouldn't last. It would only be a matter of time until the wind shifted, and he would be buffeted with the reek of sewage seeping into the ocean. That hand would be pulled away, dragged off by the hurry of everyday, mundane life. Their voice would fade too, all the pretty words snatched away by the wind.
The Major was standing as still as a statue, a timeless monolith, placed by an ancient civilization to stand silent sentinel beneath the silent stars. The sun was bright against his visor, the only part of the Major that was any color other than a chalky gray. The Captain suppressed a shiver.
Space was cold.
Once, several years ago, the Captain had trekked deep into the mountains. There had been a waterfall cascading into a pool. He remembered standing under that waterfall in the gray half light of early morning, feeling the frigid water cascade over his skin, the chill raising the hair on the back of his neck. But space was not cold like that. The cold here ate away at a man, chilling him to the soul.
The beauty of the moon was a cruel, harsh one. There was a sterile quality to it, and though the surface was pockmarked and flawed, it gave off an air of purity and wholeness. The moon was something ancient, a monolith from a long-forgotten age. It stood like a steadfast steel skyscraper, looming above the heads of those on Earth. Until one walked upon it's alien and ghostly surface, one never understood the quiet majesty it possessed. The Captain had spent his entire life gazing up at the moon, wondering what it would be like to tread upon it's frigid, barren surface.
Now that he knew, he only wanted to flee.
The moon was in the domain of the heavens, made to exist outside the ken of mortals. Though it was a scientific triumph of the highest degree that he was standing where he was, the Captain could not help but fear that man was not meant to walk on the moon. This was sacred ground, the kingdom of the gods. Who was he to intrude, to despoil this quiet rocky sphere that had soared above him, and all of his ancestors, since the very dawn of his race?
All he wanted was to return to Earth and stand in the crashing surf, with the water breaking and flowing over his bare skin. He wanted to leave this quiet, unchanging, barren land far behind.
The Major's brow furrowed ever so slightly as the Captain's fist clenched. He knew the man was uneasy, though he could not understand why. They had finally escaped the bounds of their finite, earthly realm, been among the first of their kind to touch the stars. Was not that the dream of mankind, ever since they had been able to look up at the sky?
It was with great pride that the Major had planted to flag of his country into the lunar dust. Not even the forces of the universe could withstand the march of Man's progress. No barrier could stand in the way of their ambition. A new age of enlightenment was dawning, and he was one of the men on the forefront. It was a powerful feeling.
The Major tore his gaze away from the slowly rotating earth to stare out at the glitter stars. How many secrets drifted just outside their earthly ken? How many centuries would it take for humanity to even scratch the surface of the universe's mysteries? Certainly, the Major would probably never see the day a man landed on Mars. But he had made it to the moon, which was more than most of his kind could ever claim. His mark would be left their for all eternity, a trail of footprints on the rocky, pockmarked slopes of the silvery sphere.
It was all he could have ever dreamed it would be.
The moon was marked by giant scars, the marks of meteorites striking its dusty surface for millions of years. But those scars made it even more beautiful. Things on Earth changed too quickly. What was there one year was torn down the next. The winds and the tides and the unending dance of tectonic plates shaped the planet every day, constantly in a state of flux. On the moon things were quiet and still. It was like a museum, a testament to the greatness of the universe. Something so large, so beautiful could remain for so long in such a pristine state. There were no winds to wear the mountains down, no tides to eat away at a shore. The moon would stay as beautiful and empty and cold as it was until the end of time.
He winced at the radio static that interrupted his meditative calm. "Yes, Captain?"
"We need to go back soon. We'll run out of oxygen."
The Major took one last look across the lunar landscape and dug the heel of his foot into the crest of the hill. "All right. Come along, Captain."
They strode silently across the silent hills and through the barren, rocky fields. The Major was absorbed in the tranquil solitude of the moon, and the Captain didn't dare to break the ethereal silence. As they approached their landing site, they saw the flag they had planted in the ground. It stood defiantly beside their landing module, a solitary spot of outlandish color in the achromatic landscape.
The Captain climbed up the ladder and into the craft, the Major more slowly. They stood in the airlock as the pressure around them equalized. Slowly, carefully, they shed their bulky spacesuits and moved to the cockpit. Not long after, there was a rush of wind and a burst of fire. The landing module launched out of the lunar atmosphere, carrying the men with it. As they passed out of it's gravitational pull, the Captain let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.
"You're happy to leave." The way the Major said it was a statement, not a question.
The Captain nodded slowly. "And you're not?"
"I'd stay forever if I could."
"Wouldn't you get lonely?"
"I'm tired of humanity, Captain. Already, I'm an old soul."
The Captain only shook his head. "How can you have seen the world as… as the angels see it, and still think of it like that? How can you not see how beautiful it is?"
"I can. But I suppose I just don't want to accept it."
The Captain shook his head solemnly. "Then I'm sorry Major."
"What are you apologizing for?"
"Because someone has to."
"You sound like a young fool."
"I am a young fool."
The ghost of a smile played across the Major's lips. "Perhaps you are, Captain. Would that more men were as foolish as you. Then maybe I would have something to go home to."
They passed the rest of the trip in silence. The module accelerated steadily as Earth pulled it closer and closer. They were hauled through the atmosphere, cloaked in a fiery red veil. A white parachute billowed out behind them, increasing the drag as the tiny craft plunged into the sea. The Captain hurried to the airlock, preparing to swim to the surface.
"Major? Aren't you coming?"
The older man stared out the glass window at the dark waters that enveloped them. "It's so calm down here. So quiet. So… beautiful."
"Come on, Major! The navy is waiting for us!"
"Go on ahead, Captain. Might be I'll catch up to you. Then again, might be I won't."
"No," the Captain growled. "This isn't how this is going to end." He hauled the Major along with him, despite the man's protests. Together, they drifted up to the surface, and out into the cool ocean air. The Major was spluttering beside him, coughing up the water that had found a way into his lungs.
The Captain closed his eyes. Somewhere in the distance, he heard a gull. The breeze played over his face, wicking away the salt that clung to his skin. He smiled, turning his face up to feel the warmth of the sun and the soft caress of the wind.
"I've missed you."