The last photo from Earth was nothing special, Aspen thought. There was a woman walking away from the camera, her frumpy red coat in perfect focus. Over her shoulder, a dog, led by an inquisitive nose and young legs, scurries around on the autumn leaves in a slight blur.
Aspen held only the frame, keeping his fingers from encroaching onto the sacred paper, for the glass protecting the photo had long ago broken and fallen away, leaving only a stubborn sliver in one corner that clung to the frame.
He turned towards Kieran, on the other side of the store room, looking for his sled in the fading light of the two setting suns. "Tell me about the other photos, Kieran".
Kieran came over to where Aspen was and put a hand on his arm. He moved in a stilted manner, the white tufts of hair above and around his ears betraying his age. "There weren't that many, Aspen. Perhaps ten or so."
Aspen sat on some boxes. He'd heard the story many times and as many times had felt such melancholy that he thought his eyes would water. If that were possible.
"Tell me about the other photos again, Kieran."
Kieran nodded. "My aunt Susan and her husband, they had some woods out back of their house and they would often take Bobby there, that was their dog. It's odd, the first half dozen shots were of my aunt's back, perhaps she never wanted to be in the photos or my uncle was trying out the camera. There were a couple taken in a clearing, there are some fake Roman ruins, Bobby is peeing against a column in one of them. None of it is award-winning stuff, believe me."
"You must have known those photos so well," Aspen said.
"At one time, yes. Every pixel. I looked at them a lot on the ship because then, I was missing Earth terribly. I was twenty-three when we arrived here and I still looked at them sometimes, but then they got shoved aside, displaced by our new lives, new friends, all the work. When they came for everything during the Purge, I managed to save this one." Kieran picked up the photo from where Aspen had laid it. "I guess it must have slipped out of a box. I found it under the kitchen table when they had gone. I should have handed it in, of course, but, well, this frame was lying around up here doing nothing."
Kieran slapped Aspen lightly on the back and went back to work. "I gotta find that sled before the snows arrive, old friend. You gonna help me?"
They spent the evening sifting through forty years of accumulated junk, so many of his parents' things he'd been unwilling to toss out when they'd died. Apart from that single shot of the Wisconsin woods, every other object among the clutter had its provenance on the new world: poorly-bound books, crude furniture and trinkets, a chunky-tyred bicycle and, eventually, a shoddily put together sled that had enchanted Kieran even into his thirties.
"So much was lost, taken away," Aspen said after a while.
"I know," Kieran said. He looked as though he had more to say, but the wisdom of age hushed him.
"When you argue with a friend, you don't go home and destroy every object that he ever touched, do you?" Aspen said. "Prevent every other one of your friends from uttering his name. It must be so easy to forget where you came from, Kieran. To slip in with current thinking that it all started here thirty-eight years ago."
Kieran sat on a wooden box marked 'Crockery'. "I don't agree with what happened, Aspen, but I understand why those born here decided to take power, make the break. And, hey, I haven't forgotten Earth. I see it everywhere. I've seen long Californian stretches of sand in the east and to the south, the amber foliage of a Vermont Fall. Why, half a day's hike from here, I'll make you think you're in the Bullfrog Mountains of Nevada. I'm Illinois through and through, Aspen. The Purge took the objects, but left the memories untarnished. And of course, we always saw Earth when we saw you."
"Tell me more about Aspen. I never tire of it."
"It was a magical place, somewhere your soul could soar. We went there shortly before leaving and when you were assigned to us on the ship, when they activated you, I knew instantly what name I wanted for you. I never wanted to leave Aspen behind - and I never did."
Aspen smiled. "That means a lot to me."
Aspen left Kieran alone to go outside where it was fully dark now. The twin suns Sita and Shiva had chased each other far below the jagged mountains and a tapestry of stars had come out to wink at the desert floor. Aspen looked up at Sol, hanging there in its own degree of blackness. With his enhanced optics, he could make it appear as a slightly larger disc, but nothing more. The smoking remnants of the third planet were invisible to him but his intellect knew of it. Kieran joined him outside. He'd put on a large sweater.
"You'll never know how lucky you are not to feel the cold, Aspen. Winter's on its way."
Aspen continued gazing skywards. "You can't miss what you've never had, can you?" he said.
"That's what they say," Kieran replied. He put his chilled hands in his pocket. "You know, I find it odd that you miss Earth so much. You weren't programmed to miss things, that I know of."
"They didn't program me not to either."
The two stood quietly, Kieran's weak human eyes adapting to the gloom. The light mauve of the manganese moon, Lila, had begun to glow as the night sky darkened. Kieran glanced across and though he couldn't make out Aspen clearly, could have sworn he was shivering.