Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up


Christopher Daly


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his isn't how it was supposed to end. There was supposed to be a bang, a great big crashing tempest of thunder and light; fire and brimstone and then cleansing fire.

There should have at least been a whimper. Something. Anything.

There was nothing.

One day Earth just went off the air. Most of us didn't even know it at the time. We had work to do. People to see, places to go. Mouths to feed. In the middle of the workday, there's no particularly good excuse for watching fifteen minute-delayed talking heads from Earth. We were on the far side of the sun anyway, and it was late in the dust season, so those of us who were listening assumed it was just another routine transmission loss. That happened all the time. Even more when the flare activity was high. It never happened like this.

One minute the signals were clear and strong. The next the only things on the air were the frantic calls from the lunar colonies and some of the high stations, all spinning wildly off on new trajectories now that their anchoring gravitational well was gone. We should've saved more of those folks, but everyone was sort of in shock, trying to understand what had happened. Earth and Luna, you know–they were always in charge when there was a rescue effort to be made. No one ever expected one to go away and the other to be helpless. What were we red planeteers supposed to do? We were too far away, and didn't have the right equipment anyway.

Life goes on, you know, despite the worst misfortune. You get used to even the big changes. But I know people who have never been the same since that day.

* * * 

A while later, I was scoping out some real estate in the Vinard system. With only Mars and some of the outer colonies left after Earth went missing, this was about the best we could afford–a couple of picked-over, resource-poor planets that the local satrap was willing to turn over to us in exchange for every last cent we had and promises of fealty and tribute. I guess I was the best negotiator the government could find on short notice. Everybody felt driven to do his part for the species back then. Even me.

I'd haggled the six-legged old geezer down to eight percent of future production when he discovered a religious streak and threw in a marginally habitable moon out of the kindness of his hearts.

I hate charity. The emergency administration thought they could do better in the zu'Pishta system, so they pulled the plug on my bartering. It was probably just as well. The old bastard was adamant about levying up a few thousand young males every local year for his army, and I don't think that would have gone over well with the voters back home.

I wandered the moldy sections of the transient quarter and the few public areas of the old city that weren't proscribed to off-worlders. I was surprised to come across a flagellant there, so far from the lost mother planet. I thought they'd all already immolated themselves, following Earth off into the Rapture they believed they'd missed out on. Everybody has to believe in something, I guess.

"You're human!" he said to me. I wasn't in the mood for conversation after all the wasted effort there, so his stupidly obvious observation just pissed me off.

"Yeah," I said. It was more polite than the first thing that leapt to my mind, which was 'And you're a stinking pile of self-pitying filth. No wonder the rest of the galaxy treats us like homeless trash.'

"Are you going back to Earth?" he asked. From his clothes and his complexion, he'd been sleeping in the dirt for a week without wash water. Maybe longer by the odor.

There was no Earth. Not anymore. What a stupid question. "Where have you been for the past two years?" I asked.

"Out on the fringe," he explained through a gap-toothed grin. His breath was sour. It stank even worse than the rest of him. "I've seen it there. I came back to let them know."

"Seen what?" I wanted to know in spite of myself. Or maybe I just asked out of gullible reflex.

"Earth." He said it like he was talking to an idiot, distinctly and carefully. I sensed he was about to start speaking slowly and loudly, as if that would be enough to make this ignorant foreigner understand his tongue. "She's out there, on the fringe. I saw her myself. Went streaking past like a blue angel, on her way to the promise. Saw her myself."

It didn't seem appropriate to shatter his dementia with the facts. Plenty of my roiling inner demons wanted to beat him to the ground, but there really wasn't any point. I wouldn't gain anything from it but bruised fists. He could keep his fantasies.

"I've got to get back to Mars," I said. "People are waiting for me there."

He shook his head wildly. I recoiled as his filthy hands reached out and took hold of my arm at the wrist. "Just came from there! Already told them! They'll be coming through here as soon as they can get the transports together. You can come with me now. They'll catch up later!"

I broke his grip and gazed into his fevered eyes. "I'll wait for them here. It shouldn't be too long."

"There's room with us for one," he insisted. That was the first time I noticed the "us," a cluster of equally dirty humans, gaunt men and haggard women and glassy-eyed children circled like wagons around their few cases of belongings, guarding their remaining treasures from the Indians all around.

I wouldn't have gone with them if they were the last humans in the galaxy.

"That's all right," I affirmed, starting to lose my composure. "I can wait."

"Mars doesn't have enough transports," he declared. "It will be just like Luna! There might not be room for you. You have to come with us. Now!" He reached for me again, threatening to make another stain on my sleeve. I snapped.

"Get away from me," I said stiffly. He didn't move fast enough, not for me, not for that moment. "Get away from me!" I hit him twice, I think, pushing him backwards against the mud-brick wall. He seemed to become a part of it as I backed away. A dirty face staring out from the dried earth, his unclean hands rising like the dead weeds of winter from a barren soil.

He didn't curse me, didn't lay one of those righteous epithets on me that would damn my soul to an Earthless hell for all of eternity. I'd heard that speech enough times before. He just slumped there, a look of surprise on his face that faded to pity as I stepped farther and farther away. None of them did anything. They didn't lift a finger, they didn't say a word.

I let the crowd of long-legged aliens absorb me into their bustling and push me along, away from the madman and his followers, away from that desperate and ugly part of my species. I threw that shirt away when I got back to the hostel. I didn't even try to get the stain to come out. I knew it never would.

The funny thing is, I thought I recognized one of the men in the crowd from my old job. He worked over in the service department answering calls with the same phony smile and cheerful greeting for everyone, day in and day out. He wasn't smiling anymore. None of them were smiling.

* * * 

Our leaders–what we had left that passed for leaders after ninety-seven percent of the population went missing–blamed it on the K'far at first. They needed something to point at, some direction to vent the rage. The K'far were as good a scapegoat as any other, and probably better than most. Ancient beyond our origins, advanced beyond our understanding, enigmatic beyond our deepest mysteries. We'll never, ever, know. The K'far talk to no one. They act incomprehensibly and make no explanations. I don't think that K'far even talk to each other, so the chance of them ever letting us in on anything useful is nil. Might as well talk to a droid that's blown its logic slips.

Had that duty for two seasons once. Parts were scarce already, so I had to do my best to repair the slips instead of just throwing them away and slapping in cheap replacements from Earth. There weren't any more replacements, not for machines as non-critical as food-service droids. Someone thought they could be put to better use doing industrial tasks, so we tried to keep them serviceable. It was monotonous work. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, find the problem in the tester, micro-solder and reprogram the slip, then try again.

"What's the special today?"

"Tapestry with cheese. Shall I bring a sonata for your feet?"

Yank the slip, position it in the tester, scan for potential problems. Clean that corroded lead. Re-insert.

"I'd like a glass of water, please."

"Will you be poodling alone this evening, Officer? We have a disgusting Bordeaux in the car park."

Yank, position, scan. Solder that chafed circuit. Re-insert.

"What happened to the Earth, Mr. Robot?"

Silence. I let it run on for a few moments, then reached for the logic bay. It spoke.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your cosmology."

"Philosophy," I corrected in a whisper. Shakespeare. By then, most of them had also been programmed to double as teaching units. Something must have been scrambled up in the data sets. I'd need to completely wipe this one's storage lines and start over.

It hummed on while I sat, hand frozen an inch from the off switch. "Have you come from off-world? We're so glad you've chosen this establishment." It made eye contact, a carefully programmed facsimile of genuine interest quivering onto its features. "There are so many wonderful attractions convenient to the resort. I'm told the great valley is beautiful this time of year. You can see the Earth from the cliffs there on a clear night, if you know where to look."

It leaned toward me, something sparkling from the silicate eyes embedded in its soft, smiling latex face. I waited for its final revelation before pulling the plug.

"Would you like fries with that?"

* * * 

Some think it was the Rabizi. That's ludicrous. I'd believe it was an Act of God first, and I put as much faith in the almighty as I do the K'far. The Rabizi don't have the balls for something like that, let alone the technology. You want to talk about an impoverished species? Even after losing our homeworld we're still able to make a profit selling tech and manufactured goods to those poor slobs. Belief in reincarnation is awfully popular these days, and some folks think all our missing friends and families are going to come back as another species, something new and wonderful that will welcome us as ancestral soul mates once we find them. If I have to come back as something other than human, I sure hope it's not a Rabizi.

It was practically a comedy when they tried to conquer Mars a few years after the disappearance. I suppose it wasn't really an invasion force as much as a space-borne Viking raiding party. Problem was, they didn't know much about Vikings. Or raiding, for that matter. Anyone else would've kicked them out, beaten them back to their home system, then conquered their planets just for being so stupid. We blew a few of their third-hand warships out of orbit, let the survivors build a free city on our planet, and forced them into a trade alliance on our terms. Couldn't have worked out better.

Not that we had too many options. Nobody will admit it, but we only won because we knew they were coming and set an ambush. Back then, we hardly had enough firepower to blow our noses, let alone mount a counter-offensive into another system. Even one defended by the likes of them.

"Are the charges primed?" Ragesh asked me that day, probably for the twentieth time since breakfast.

I only nodded, weary of answering the question. He could read the indicators himself if he wanted more information. The tiny mines had been scattered in orbit days before. From our listening post on Deimos, we were responsible for almost a quarter of the defensive sphere that circled our world. Our backup world once, the most important one we had left now.

He whooped in surprise when the first Rabizi cruiser solidified out of half-space. They came out practically on top of us. They were either really good pilots to come in so close to the moon like that, or really lucky not to plow right into it.

"Would you look at that? Would you look at that? It's beautiful. Beautiful!" He kept on like that, stammering and repeating, as the front rank of their force, most of their big ships, slammed into the stealth mines.

The nearest Rabizi warship cracked open on one side from the shockwave of the explosions. One of our patterns was placed perfectly. The detonations moved in quick series like a blinding white nuclear zipper down the side of the ship, shattering the hull like old stoneware. Debris and atmosphere and body parts spilled out. A cloud of ionized fire followed, blossoming out of the hull as the old ship, pushed sideways by the explosions, rotated away and fell toward the planet's surface. The simple inevitability of gravity took care of the rest.

I never found out if they were good or lucky. With everything else that happened to them that day, I'd have to go with good. They certainly didn't have any luck to speak of. They gambled so much of what little they had. And lost.

"That was beautiful, man!" Ragesh repeated. "Victory is beautiful!"

Beautiful. Victory. I suppose it was. That's what everyone always says about it. They must know what they're talking about. Pieces of burning aliens and their ships falling and crash-landing across a quarter-million square kilometers of the surface. Not my idea of beauty. Not my idea of success.

* * * 

For a while, a lot of folks held out hope that Luna would settle into an orbit near where Earth used to be. At least, they kept telling themselves, it might be captured by Jupiter or Saturn or one of the other outer planets.

Everybody knew that was a lie. The calculations showed clearly that there was no stopping her. The best we could do was try to evacuate everyone before they got too far away. Last time I checked, sister moon was still pirouetting toward the Oort cloud at thirty kilometers per second.

I had experience in a vacuum, so I got assigned to the Heliconius for a refugee run to bring back a boat load of children. The place was a madhouse. It was like a stampede in the middle of a typhoon. There were grim-faced officials trying to manage forlorn-looking parents and children, aided by grim-faced lunar police and a few heavily armed unsmiling Martian army volunteers.

I got stuck at the hatch, counting off the ones we could take. The last one on was a blonde-haired little boy, maybe six years old, half of a set of twins. They'd been born after Luna had already begun her death spiral. His mother, tall and unfaltering, pushed him forward and helped me close the gate. She held the other child back, like the last letter from a departed lover, pressed against her heart so tightly that it must have hurt them both.

She smiled when she lied to the child beside me, now alone and on the edge of panic. "It's all right, sweetheart. We'll be along soon. You find your uncle on Mars and stay with him until we catch up." She smiled so beautifully, that moon goddess, I wanted to take her with me, forget about the kids. That was the smile of the full moon, reflected back up off the still waters of a quiet mountain lake in July, white and beckoning and eternal.

We couldn't take her. We couldn't even take the other twin. That would've been another thirty kilos. We didn't have the fuel or the rations for it. You don't fuck around with things like that. Not for some poor kid. Not even for the most beautiful smile in the system. Not ever.

I don't know if she ever got off, or if the lucky kid's brother ever joined him on Mars. There weren't many refugee flights after that one. Every body they could spare was pitching in to slap together ships that would get them out of there. The later ones were creaky pieces of garbage. Some of them blew up on the surface, some of them sprung leaks along the way and everyone suffocated. That was when they were still doing okay, before the food started to run out and anything edible was eaten. Anything.

The Heliconius. A name almost as inappropriate as Eden. That ship wasn't a butterfly. It was a vulture picking the most promising bits off the carcass before it rotted away.

I used to like Luna, even though I was only there twice. Before the catastrophe, I mean–not counting that salvage run. It seemed like a nice place to raise a family. No one ever goes there now.

* * * 

There are other schools of thought on the matter. 'Natural causes' is a popular explanation. I could never quite understand that one. Making a planet disappear isn't a natural thing. No one's ever been able to find a record of it happening before, in any of the galactic archives. There are all kinds of theories–transient worm holes and passing black holes and temperamental white holes. They're all for assholes. People will try to convince you it was a stream of anti-matter, or a time inversion caused by a passing hyper-string. Any explanation is better than no explanation.

The preachy crowd is convinced it was self-inflicted. Man went too far trying to unlock the secrets of the universe, and the universe struck back. Our ignorance was our undoing. Serves us right, they say.

"It was too much tampering with nature. We were meddling with things man wasn't meant to know. We did it to ourselves."

I couldn't believe the words were coming from her that evening. She'd been someone I'd respected. Her rational voice had been solid ground for me for more than a decade when others had slithered into a swamp of superstition. It was an election year, though. She was playing to the crowd. The debate edged toward ugly.

Her opponent went on the offensive. "So, your position, Senator, is to blame our lost loved ones for what happened? It was their own fault? Or are you singling some particular few out? Were the physicists behind it all? Maybe it was some plot by the greens to speed up the environmental restoration? Or some religious minority group?"

"My staff are trying to obtain duplicate copies of certain sensitive records from alien archives. Unfortunately, the originals were on Earth. We were explicitly warned that some of our research efforts were moving too quickly down dangerous avenues that we didn't understand. The proper course would have been to move slowly and cautiously with our own research, while purchasing established technologies from the people who have already been developing them for thousands of years. We tried to reinvent the wheel and stumbled into oblivion."

I knew he wasn't going to take that lying down. Especially not when there was an opportunity to plug his own platform. "It would be a grave mistake to ever let humanity become so dependent on another species for our future advancement. Your suggestion is dangerously irresponsible. My administration will never allow such a thing to happen."

"Irresponsible? Your policy will end it for all of us. We've already lost one planet that way. We can't afford to take that risk again."

The election was awful close. She nearly won it all. And that was even after the scandal broke. There were no clandestinely archived documents. But there was a massive contribution to her campaign from particular non-human business interests who had been promised lucrative technology contracts if she won the election.

I voted for her. There are just some risks you don't want to take, even when the facts tell you everything's fine.

* * * 

I didn't protest when they asked me to ship out to the new colony on zuPee 2. I'd stopped wondering a long time before why my name kept coming up when the powers that be did a search correlating skills and experience to the needs of the moment.

'We can use someone with your experience out there,' they said. 'There aren't enough good men like you around any more.' That's about what someone else had told me before I first went to Mars. Leave everything behind for a couple of years. See another planet. You'll be doing good and it'll be good for your career and your family and your future. I wanted to pop the question, 'was it good for you?,' but there wasn't anyone left to ask.

Life just seemed to be settling down. I had a good position with the terraforming commissariat and could only go up. But something was missing. Something was always missing. Mars was too close anymore, too close to that empty orbit. There was nothing there. I knew. I could see it from the cliffs over the great valley on a clear night, if I wanted to look.

You're good at attending to the details, they said. There are lots of details in an effort like this that need attending to. We want you to make sure things don't get overlooked. Help them get their administration up and running. Get the infrastructure in place for the future. Pay special attention to the things they'll need for success twenty or fifty or a hundred years from now. Utilities systems, development corridors. An educational system, from the first years to advanced training. That sort of thing.

You want me to be a city planner? Or a school superintendent? Something like that?

Something like that. Just do what needs to be done. You'll be critical to their success.

I shipped out with a fist full of other critical successes and about a hundred families, most of them lunar refugees. There was one older guy with us who took everything in stride. Nothing could faze him. Maybe it was a trick he'd learned to deal with things after we lost the Earth. Maybe it was something he'd always had. The news of Earth disappearing might have hit him about as hard as learning that the library had cut back its hours on weekends.

"Is that so?" he would say through his salt-and-pepper beard, as if the news excited him about as much as hearing there was no butter left in the cooler.

"It really is a shame about Earth," he said one evening while we were killing time in the galley. You murder a lot of minutes on those long journeys. He was stirring some powdered creamer into his coffee. It wasn't the good stuff; there wasn't any of that anymore. It was the lichen-based one, before they figured out how to make it taste like something. He might as well have dropped a couple pinches of sand in. I drank mine black. It almost tasted like coffee that way.

"So much potential there. It'll set the species back quite a ways, I think. What do you say? Fifty generations, maybe, if we're lucky? Fifteen hundred years, if we keep the birth rate up and early mortality down? If we're careful and we can buy up a few more promising worlds like this one, we should be able to do it. Still, it's quite a setback, don't you think?"

I nodded. I'd never done the math on the population recovery. He was telling, not asking, anyway. All I knew was that there were going to be a lot of pregnant women around for a long time to come.

"Yeah, we lost a lot that day," he said between sips. "Some people lost everything. How about you? Miss your family? Friends?"

"I didn't have any family there," I told him. That was what I told everyone. "No friends down below, either."

"Oh, that can't be," he said. I guess I'd finally touched on something that wasn't so. "Everybody came from there. We all had friends, or at least family. We didn't just spring out of the dust on Luna and Mars, you know. You must've had parents or grandparents or cousins. An uncle, or something. Somebody."

"Not me," I said, affirming my origin. I could see all the white smears in my head where I'd burned those faces out of memory. I'd forgotten how to pronounce their names, made them alien sounds in a dead language with no written record. "No family. I'm all alone. It's just me and the empty sky."

"Is that so? Well, I guess you're lucky that way." He went quiet and his face darkened. The regular impassive veneer slipped away. "Everything I had was there. Everything. My home. My wife. My children." He grew more sullen as he went down the list. "My brother. My best friend. The business. All of it."

He was the only mourner I ever wanted to help. After the first few months, with all those common therapy sessions and group demonstrations of despondency, I had grown inured to the magnitude of the tragedy. My grief was my own, and theirs should've been theirs. I didn't want to hear about it. Someone was always trying to out-whine the others. I lost my husband and two children, one would say. Oh yeah? Another would say. Well I lost a wife, three children, and a Labrador retriever. That's nothing, someone would butt-in. Let me show you this scar…

There wasn't anything I could do to cheer him up. I put my arm across his shoulders and gave him a brotherly squeeze. "It's all behind us now. We have to stick together. We have to let them all go and move forward." I'd heard the same words a thousand times. They sounded just as inadequate coming from me.

"I know," he agreed, his composure regained as quickly as it had been lost. "Know it very well. Had to start at the bottom just after, and look where I am today. Not so bad for a guy my age." He grinned, but it was only a whisper. His words exuded a little more confidence.

"There's no Earth to go back to now. I keep telling myself that. There never was, and there never will be. Earth? Earth is just a frame of mind. That's what I need to remember, every day. Just a frame of mind."

I nodded, reflecting back his smile with a bit more sincerity. I tasted blue and heard a watermelon just then. The ship was beginning the final transition through the veil from half-space. That always ends any chance of continuing a rational conversation.

A frame of mind. I took his advice; I keep telling myself that, every day. But my thoughts always drift back, circling the sun, in that empty, empty orbit in my mind that won't allow itself to be filled.

* * * 

An Act of God has never been ruled out, at least by some. You gotta believe what you gotta believe. It was time, some of them say. They blather about the second coming and that sort of rot. It doesn't hold water, even with the real believers. I mean, Christ is supposed to take the righteous to heaven and leave the rest behind, isn't he? He's not supposed to cart off the whole damned planet, right? I don't know my bible too well, but I don't think there's a spot where it says "thou shalt not leave the planet, or else thou wilt be most righteously shafted." Maybe that's in the new Post-Earth-Era edition.

What can you believe? Anything you want. Any damned thing you want. There were plenty of witnesses on Luna, but they all have different stories. There was a blue glow. No, there was an orange flare. No, no: there was a shimmering white cloud. I heard static in my suit radio and looked up–Earth shrank into a pinpoint as I watched.

There isn't a single frame of video to confirm or deny any of it. What are the chances of that, eh? She took all the close-in satellites when she went, and they say everything farther out took some kind of electro-magnetic hit just as it happened. If you ask me, no one was even watching. Why would anyone point a camera at Earth unless it was on a weather satellite? That would be like watching paint dry. Sorry old girl, but it's the truth. No one could've known the last glimpse we'd ever get of you was passing us by.

They call this place Eden now. It's the second body orbiting the star that's called zu'Pishta in the language of the folks we bought it from. Someone once told me the old human name for it was Gienah, which sounds too close to one of the old names of hell for my liking. I think they were just making that up. If this were hell, it would be a cold, wet hell most of the time. The seasonal cycle is longer and more variable than anything Earth or even Mars ever knew. Long, dim springs and falls, winter that goes on for almost a year, and a summer growing season nine months long when we have to get enough food out of the fields to last us the rest of the long local year. The first few times through the cycle were tough, especially with new colonists arriving almost weekly. Mars could hardly meet it's own food needs. Each ship that came in was no bounty of fresh supplies. It was only another bumper crop of well-intentioned mouths to feed. It was hard not to pay more attention to the equipment they brought along than to the people who brought it.

We lost a lot of people we shouldn't have the first couple of years, but it was never, ever, as bad as the last months on Luna. I still wonder sometimes, when I look up at Eden's small, blue moon, what happened to the other blonde twin and that unblemished smile that held him so close.

I attended to the details they said I was so good at. It was important, time-consuming, exhausting work. The kind that on a good day makes you forget everything but the job. I would even forget to eat and sleep until my body would declare a strike. It would go on like that for days. Weeks. The first three years went by like a bullet. I thought of the loss infrequently, even in the dead months of winter, which were so hard those first few decades.

Things began to smooth out. The precarious months passed, then the critical years. There was less and less in the way of urgent planning for me. The groundwork was all in place, and the necessary projects took on their own momentum. Supervision and fine-tuning were required, but we had new people to do that, and they were good at it. I had more and more time on my hands, and my mind.

I went back to teaching. It had been years since I'd been in a classroom, so they started me off easy, with the six year olds.

"Can you spell that for me, Joshua?" I asked. Their books were closed and the video was winding down. The after-image of an African savanna that might as well have been part of a fairy tale was fading into darkness.

"Elephant," he said again. "E–l–e–p–h–a–n–t. Elephant."

"Very good."

Philoterra raised her hand. The children these days are nothing if not well behaved. I recognized her.

"Are there any elephants on Mars?" she asked.

I shook my head solemnly. "No. No, I'm afraid not. There are no elephants at all anymore." This was a fairly bright group for their age, so I gave them some advanced trivia.

"Most of the large mammals went extinct when the Earth disappeared. Does anyone know what the largest existing mammal besides a human is?" Hands went up. I selected them in no particular order.

"A dog," Victor said confidently.


"Chimpanzee," Elizabeth said with less certainty.


"A cow?" Hester asked.

That could be. "Maybe," I conceded. "But I was thinking of something else. About the same size, but different. I know you all know what I'm thinking of. You've all seen them on the screen."

"Dolphins!" Mark blurted out, before I called on him. It was a forgivable outburst. All the others predictably oohed and aahed and chimed agreement.

"That's right. The dolphins. We don't have any here on Eden, but there is a breeding pod on Mars. They're an intelligent and beautiful species, and we have to do everything we can to make sure they survive. The gravity's better for them here, so in a few years we might have some here on Eden with us."

That excited them. But little children are always excited about something. Try as I will to let it, the excitement never rubs off on me. It's all I can do to keep from being a depressing old moper in class, especially when the lesson has something to do with Earth, which it usually does.

We need to get some kind of zoo off the ground here. The children need an opportunity to see the animals that are left in the flesh, not just as re-runs of a documentary spool that was old when I was their age. They need to see the few pieces of the living earth that are still around to see, while they still can. So many of our animals are barely viable now, with their breeding stock reduced to almost nothing. So many more of them are gone completely.

There are no elephants on Eden, and no hippopotamuses on Mars. There are no whales or walruses, no polar bears or camels. There are no brittle stars or kelp beds, no flying foxes or meercats. No giant redwoods or American Chestnut trees. No snail darters and no saguaro cactus. No yew trees and no giant pandas.

There are rats. There are fleas and there are men, and lots of things in between.

* * * 

The official line is that Earth had no enemies, that there was no reason why anyone would want to harm humanity or destroy their home planet. That's a crock of shit. We were always bad neighbors. Anyone with half a brain who was there knows it. We pissed off almost every species we encountered, in one way or another. If we'd had more time, we probably would've gotten around to all of them. Nobody ever talks about that. It's still bad form to make sorry, pathetic animals look like liars.

I never heard of a good reason why anyone would want to remove Earth. It seems to me that by the polite standards of this spiral arm, humans could be labeled rude but that we never got in anyone's antennae enough to incite them to mass destruction. Our leaders seemed to revel in the little squabbles over trading concessions and mining rights and exploration gaffes. Minor border violations and trivial treaty infractions were everyday affairs. None of it was ever worth trading lives for.

But I admit I never followed the news or politics as well as I should have. Maybe there was something really big brewing that I never even heard about.

I'm just a teacher. I teach them what we want them to know, the things we can't convince ourselves are true, but that we think will give the next generation hope. Earth was paradise, humanity's living heaven. Everyone lived happily ever after, from joyous birth to idle, care-free old age.

The planet was a corrupt stinkhole, seething with strife and pettiness. I can't get the memories of the injustice and the racism, the wars and the senseless brutality, out of my head. I remember the crimes that we used to hear about on the news every day, pounding like a catechism. Assault. Murder. Rape. Kidnapping. The shootings and knifings, the car-bombings and the random terrors. They were part of the reason I left in the first place.

I miss Earth so much.

* * * 

Time is the hardest thing to teach them. Most of the other instructors disagree and go off about the rules of grammar or fractional division or some such technical nonsense. But some of them understand what I'm talking about; I can tell by the look in their eyes and the way they quietly frown and nod. They're not all old retreads like myself, either–wisdom doesn't come with age, and I am so god-awful happy to see real insight in a younger teacher once in awhile.

Children have trouble with time to begin with, but it's so difficult to convey to them when what we teach is so different from their own fragile experience. It seems futile to mark the passage of the days in packets of twenty-four hours, when the sun is twenty-seven or twenty-eight or even thirty hours between risings. It's nearly impossible to convince them there are twelve months and four seasons in a true human year when a child born in winter has seen his third birthday before he's seen snow again.

The young adapt, and the rest of us follow. We made a sincere effort to stay on Earth time the first few years. It was foolhardy. Mars never even kept to Earth time, so expecting us to do it was absurd. We maintain two systems now, one for the books and one to live by. I don't think the folks back home realize how important the distinction is. They're clinging to the past back there, and sometimes it hurts to think about it. Mars always wanted to be different from Earth, and they gloried in it, like a contrary child. Now Mars wants to be Earth so badly–they've even talked about changing the name a couple of times. They treat Eden like a world full of ignorant children, and the folks here laugh behind their back.

Living at a different pace, along another track of time, that has other consequences. I can see the changes that are happening now. I think a part of me always knew it would come to this. The thought of it's nagged me all these years, scratching at the back of my mind like some small, patient creature, slowly digging its way to the surface. A cicada that burrowed into the soil a generation ago.

We're fighting a losing battle as we slide back into superstition and ignorance, away from the golden age. It was inevitable with the loss of so much. All of the originals–the texts, the architecture, the great works of art, the places that made us who and what we are. Without them, we are not what we say we are. We are digital copies and old film records and fading memories. No one can visit Provence and understand. No one can raft down the Mississippi and become a part of the rhythm of the flood.

There was a camera crew at my door the other day. They were putting together a documentary, tracking down all the lucid old-timers they could find to get them to talk about that day. It was a crass, flashy, insulting piece of garbage when it was finished, but when they'd come to me it had seemed like a good idea. I had misgivings, but responsibility got the better of me. I had a duty to answer their questions while someone still cared about the answers It would be fine to let them approach it in their own way.

"Where were you when it happened?" There was little more for a lead-in. I had expected more. They didn't want to get to know me before their bombardment. This was an interrogation disguised as an interview. I was only talking furniture.

The interviewer and one camera stayed with me while two others seemed to aimlessly shoot footage of random corners of my house. They were running the show. I didn't complain.

"I was at work, inside. In Delphi. That's in the Tharsis–the plateau country of Mars, near all the big volcanoes." The interviewer, who had probably been born on Eden, maintained an interested look. The body language of his crew, none of them old enough to remember the Rabizi invasion, told me that they'd heard this story or one just like it a hundred times before. They didn't need a geography lesson. I bored them.

"What do you remember about that day?"

I looked into the camera, ignoring him. "There isn't much to remember. It wasn't like we all had it on our schedules, 'Earth ends today at 2:31 local time. Look up.' It just happened. No one really knew what was going on for a while. It just didn't make sense. Everyone was kind of quiet and confused, and then solid news started coming in from Luna. It was just all so crazy. It didn't make any sense." One of the crew yawned. The callous bastard.

"And what..."

"It still doesn't make any sense," I cut him off. The nearest cameraman fidgeted nervously. It was an improvement over boredom.

"And what do you think really happened?" the interviewer tried again.

"No sense at all." I didn't let my gaze waver. "What do I think happened? I don't think anything. I've heard every story you have, and then. None of them really make sense. It doesn't really matter, does it? She's gone. That's the reality. We can't change it. No answer will change that."

I'd thrown them for a minute, which gave me some consolation. It didn't take long for them to get back on track. Their questions were less developed than some of the book report assignments I'd given out to the tenners.

"What do you miss the most?"

"I miss scallops," I said, maybe a little too loudly. "Fresh from the sea. Broiled. With real butter. I'd like to have them once more."

They must've expected me to wax on about absent relatives or strolling on my favorite beach with a loved one, warm sand between my toes. He recovered quickly, though. "I've heard of them. What were they like?"

"Can you describe a rainbow to a blind man?" I asked. "If you know what I'm talking about, you don't need me to say anymore. If you don't know what I'm talking about, nothing I could say would ever make you understand." All of the youthful cameramen were watching me now and looking uncomfortable. This wasn't the quick in-and-out stop with the quiet old veteran they'd been expecting. I shouldn't have treated them like that, but it was a small glimmering moment. One of them had tracked that damned rusty-black Eden mud onto my floor, anyway.

"It's just like Earth," I said, the words tumbling out before I knew what I was saying. "I can't show it to you, I can only wave pictures and spit words at you and hope they stick." I shut myself up before I could say anything even more embarrassing. Several seconds of awkward silence passed.

"What place do you remember the best?" The kid was a trooper. I admired his perseverance.

"I wish I'd made it to Paris. Notre Dame...Versailles. The pictures were always so beautiful."

I was better behaved for the rest of the interview, dodging only a few questions. They used less than a minute of tape in the show. I'm told that all the footage of all the interviewees was saved in an unedited form for future cultural excavators. Maybe there's hope for history after all.

The children don't understand, despite our best efforts. They can't feel the loss of things they never knew. It's not real if you can't touch it. They can never touch it. It isn't real.

* * * 

One of the students in the ten- to twelve-year-old morning section caught me crying today. I didn't hear her slip back into the classroom. I would never let one of them see me like this–the brave, stoic facade has to stay in place at all times. It is so.

"Teacher," she said softly. "What's wrong?"

I looked up, startled by the sound of her voice. I was found out, caught and frozen. There was no point in trying to hide my sorrow.

"It's Earth, dear," I said quietly. "Earth." That face, the smooth roundness and dark wet eyes and long, black hair, slightly stringy from the grime and weather of the long summer, reminded me of another face that I'd never wanted to leave behind. The smile was missing.

She looked back at me with a look that only an innocent child can maintain. Her face reflected my despair; her features quivered with the sympathetic vibration of my own sobbing, the way only the face of a child can shine, reacting to an emotion deeper and older than anything it can yet understand.

"Don't cry, Teacher," she said. "We'll find it someday. It's out there, waiting for us. We'll find it, and everything will be all right." She started to cry then, the blubbering honest cry of someone who doesn't even know why she's crying. She cried for a place she'd never seen and never would see. I held her in my arms until the front of my shirt was soaked through from her warm, tears. I could feel the oceans of earth washing out of her eyes, smelled the salt spray of the warm Pacific. That was the closest I've come to Earth since that terrible first day.

* * * 

It's their day now, the same for both - the ones who believe in something they've never seen and the ones who ask stupid questions and don't care about the answers. Sometimes I can't tell them apart. I don't know if the Earth and the old ways mean anything to them. Some soak up everything we tell them like a new gospel. Others shrug off every word and live for the moment. Have we always been like this?

I think about everything we've tried to do, building a foundation for the future, but I see that we were trying to build a future for ourselves, not for them. It was our past we were trying to preserve, a lost world that no longer has any relevance. I hope we didn't overlook the important things. I hope we taught them the right lessons. There's more to a life than remembering. We taught them remembering, but after that, what legacy will we leave?

I see that flawless smile and that great ship disemboweled into empty space. I see those dirty fanatic hands and those pleading dark brown eyes, rimmed with tears. A robot speaking broken Shakespeare. A frame of mind, that never was and never will be. Dolphins leaping twenty meters into the sky, gasping for more air.

There are no scallops or maple syrup. No Eiffel Tower or Great Wall or Central Park. There are no truffles and no Pyramids, at Giza or Teotihuacan. There is no Louvre or Cognac, no Parthenon, and not even a mediocre Riesling.

There are only memories now, and the children, and that's all. Perhaps that will be enough.




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