by Michael Kingswood
It was Sunday afternoon, and I was sitting under a peach tree atop a hill overlooking the bay.
The sun bathed the land in a warm radiance, unblocked by all but a few tiny puffs of clouds that hung in the sky, moving lazily if at all. A gentle breeze carried in from the bay, bringing the smell of the sea along with the far-away calling of gulls on the wing. And I just reclined back against the gritty bark of the tree trunk and sketched, my pad resting against my propped up knees as I ran a hunk of charcoal along the page.
The image I was creating was nothing special. Just the outline of the bay, with the finger piers of Carraway Yacht Club protruding out like the tines of a pitchfork and little ripples of waves caused by an offshore wind that was undetectable here. And a pair of boats under sail, close-hauled to the wind as they tacked out from shore to wherever they were bound.
Not special, but still unique. Or so my teachers liked to say.
Which, I suppose, was like saying the retarded kid has special needs. Sounds better, but lipstick on a pig.
It didn’t matter though. I didn’t draw with any hope of making money from it, and right then I really just wanted to clear my mind and relax. Thus, the charcoal and the page.
I lost track of how long I had been sitting there, just letting the image form on the page as I let my thoughts wander. It became a mechanical rhythm. Look over at the bay, back to the page. Make a few more lines on the drawing. Look back at the bay, then back to the page. Make a few more lines.
Over and over, without thought, as the image grew from a few little squiggles into something that was approaching coherent.
I barely noticed the sweat trickling down my head and wetting my shirt, or the fly that buzzed around occasionally, that’s how deeply I got into the zone of just drawing.
Until I heard the swishing of footsteps through the grass behind me; someone was ascending the hill.
Ignoring it, I leaned my head forward and focused in on the sketch pad. But I lost the flow state I was in, and I made an errant mark, turning one of the boats into something…
A body slid down the tree trunk to my right, and I smelled lavender, heard the rustling of skirts as the person adjusted herself before settling back next to me.
“Thought I’d find you up here,” Susan said, her deep—for a woman—voice sounding intentionally casual.
I knew it was her before she said anything; she always wore that perfume, and she had a distinct rhythm to her gait that I never could help but recognize. But I really didn’t want to deal with her right then. Didn’t want to deal with anyone.
So I said nothing, but rubbed out the ill-made mark as best I could, and glanced back down at the bay for a second.
I was just looking back to make my next mark when she spoke again, and whatever hope I had of getting back into the zone fled screaming into the distance.
“He didn’t mean it, you know.”
I didn’t reply, but the memories of the morning rushed back into my head, spurred by her words. The shouting. The threats. Then grabbing up my pad and running—I had walked, but I was really running—up here, to get away from everyone.
And it had almost worked. I’d managed to purge it all from my mind in the zone of my sketching. Until Susan had to come up here and ruin it.
I looked at her and scowled. Or tried to. But when my eyes met hers, the green of their irises seemed to beam compassion and understanding at me, and I found I couldn’t be angry at her.
Grant, though? I had more than enough anger for him, now that she’d made me remember it all.
“He meant every word.”
Susan shook her head, and the red-brown hair framing her face seemed to flow like a wave from the movement. “Jake, he’s your brother.” She laid her hand against the bicep of my right arm and squeezed lightly. “He just wants what’s best for you. And you know how hot-headed he is.”
I snorted. “Not sure how getting onto his crazy rocket ship and blasting off to some long-lost legend is,” I dropped my charcoal to make air quotes with my fingers, “best for me.” She opened her mouth, but I kept right on going, talking over her. “But anyway, I’m not going. So just leave me alone. And tell him to do the same. He can go have his adventure, or whatever, without his stupid little brother. We’ll both be better off.”
Susan’s lips compressed and I could tell she was angered by what I’d said. But I didn’t really care. I’d meant every word. Grant had never liked it here, not the entire time we’d grown up. He’d been scheming for years, frittering his money away. And now he apparently had bought a ship. And lo and behold he’d concocted an excuse to leave.
Right when I had finally got out from under the yoke of school and teachers and was ready to get going with my own thing. And I was just supposed to say screw it, leave my whole future behind and head on off with him?
Susan must have seen the resolve in my face, because she just let out a little sigh, instead of the rebuke I thought was coming. “You’re not stupid, Jake. No one thinks that, especially Grant. But he’s right. This place is – “
“My home,” I finished for her. “He’s always hated it, but I don’t. He wants to leave? Fine. But I’m staying.”
With that, I pushed myself to my feet. I took a moment to brush bits of grass off my pants, then I tucked my pad under my arm and turned away from her. I started descending the hill toward the bay. There was another good place where I’d done some other sketches before, on the other side of the Yacht Club.
Farther away, so maybe they’d leave me alone.
I didn’t hear Susan get up to follow me, and when I reached the base of the hill and looked back, she was gone.
* * * * *
The storm rolled in almost without warning, and caught me halfway through my walk from the Yacht Club back home.
Dark clouds seemed to materialize overhead, so grey they were almost black, absorbing the red-orange light of the setting sun greedily and letting nothing escape back out. The wind whipped up in time with the clouds’ appearance, and I had to lean far in to make any headway at all.
And then the ran came. Great drops as big around as a peach pit, it seemed, falling slowly but steadily at first until, after a few minutes, converting into a torrential downpour that was like standing beneath an upturned bucket.
The wind grew even more intense, and thunder rolled across the terrain like a great bass drum, coming right on the heels on lightning bolts that seemed to be keeping their own intense rhythm in the madness.
In five minutes, maybe less, it went from a balmy day to this conflagration, and I became completely soaked.
Grimacing against the onslaught, I hunched my shoulders and ran, fast as I could against the assaulting wind, toward home. I covered my head with my sketch pad to get at least some relief from the rain, heedless of the effect the pelting would have on my drawings; there would be no way to save them anyway. Not in this, not dressed as I was in lightweight slacks and shirt, not even a windbreaker.
I put thoughts of my creations out of my mind and slogged on.
It was almost as dark as night, despite at least another hour before twilight should have fully sent in, and homes and businesses would have turned on their lights. But the intensity of the rain made it difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction.
I began to worry that I would get turned around, and lose my way home completely.
If I’d been wearing my watch, which interfaced with the global locating system and the wireless net, that wouldn’t have been a concern. But I’d left it behind in my room when I’d fled Grant earlier; didn’t want him to call and harangue me some more.
Now I regretted that decision.
I was beginning to think I’d be better off to just stop and find some shelter somewhere until the worst of the storm passed when I saw a light, ahead and to the left. Dim, but that didn’t mean much in all this.
I splashed through ankle-deep puddles toward the light, and all at once it turned into a great lit-up storefront sign: “Povel’s Pleasant Pastries.”
Seeing the sign evoked a sigh of relief. Povel’s was just down the street from Grant’s house, where I still lived. I was home free.
Newly oriented, I turned to the right and hurried on into the somehow still darkening gloom.
Three minutes later found me scampering up the hand-crafted wood stairs to the front porch. As I passed beneath the porch’s awning, I felt the loss of the rainfall on my head almost like a forty pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But it had been replaced by a different weight, altogether.
I stood there for a long couple minutes, looking at the red-painted front door with its old fashioned brass knocker and modern locking device, complete with cypher pad and biometrics scanner, and felt the strange conflict between those two things.
Much like the conflict between Grant and myself.
He yearned to spread out, get in his ship and go, see the stars. Embrace all the tech in the universe, and explore.
A simple knocker was all I needed or wanted. At least for now. Maybe someday… But no, not even then. Grant bristled at the “backwater” home our grandparents had cut out of a barely-terraformed world. Looking at the door, I remembered vividly arguments between him and Dad, before Dad had passed on.
And now the arguments had just shifted over to me.
Well, I wasn’t going to –
The door swung open, and Grant was pushing through. He was slipping a heavy weather jacket around his six foot three inch frame, high-powered hand torch in one hand and a GLS locator beacon in the other. He was looking over his shoulder as he came out.
“When I find him I’ll – “
Grant’s words stopped in his throat when he turned to look forward and saw me, dripping from head to toe on the porch.
Our eyes met, and not for the first time did I think how similar in tone the deep hazel of his eyes were to mine.
And then he engulfed me in a bearhug.
“Thank God you’re back safe,” he said into my ear. I could hear the worry, and the relief, in his voice. But damn, he was crushing my ribs.
I tried to say something in reply, but all that came out was a pained grunt.
That was enough, though, because he released me and stepped back, a sheepish half-grin, almost apologetic, on his face. “Come on inside,” he said. “Let’s get you dried off.”
* * * * *
Three more storms came crashing through in the next two weeks, just as bad as the first. By the time the last one faded out, shortly before sunrise on a Thursday, the roads running through our little town by the bay were a pitting mess of mud and detritus from all sorts of vegetation and dead animals that had flowed down from the highlands on the rush of the stormwater.
I could barely make it down the street to the bend in the road around Povel’s, and I had on knee-high boots. But I tried; word had come back that the bay itself was higher than normal. Noticeably.
That was inconceivable. A ludicrous rumor. But certain as I was in that assessment, I still had to see for myself.
But there was so much runoff still washing down the street, so much rubble, and so many drowned creatures plugging up the path that I ended up tromping back up to the house.
I kicked the boots off just inside the front door and stomped across the living room toward the stone fireplace that Grandpa had built with his own hands—or so he’d told me when I was just barely able to walk. A merry flame was flickering over the logs within, and one popped as I got up close to it, sending little embers flying. One struck the steel mesh that separated the fireplace from the polished hardwood flooring of the living room, and glowed there for a moment before dropping into the growing ash heap beneath the wrought iron cradle that held the logs in place.
I watched it with fascination for a moment, then held my hands out to the soothing warmth exuding from the fire.
Grant was sitting as his desk, over in the far corner from the front door. His workstation monitor was up, and I could see three graphs up: two line graphs and a bar graph, multicolored to better contrast the various data points in each. He was leaning forward in the padded swivel chair he liked so much. I couldn’t see his face, but I was certain he was squinting at the screen as he looked the data plots over.
He always squinted when he did that.
From the kitchen further back in the house, I heard clanking. Pots and pans, no doubt, as Susan tidied up from breakfast. Her voice, low and melodious, barely carried through to my ears as she hummed to herself.
I smiled at the simple pleasure her humming portrayed; the enjoyment of mundane work, a contentment with the everyday.
Then I glanced back at Grant, and that momentary empathetic pleasure faded at the intense focus his hunched body gave off. He could never just…enjoy.
And that wasn’t the only problem.
Glancing at the doorway leading back into the kitchen and dining area to make sure she wasn’t going to come out, I said, “Are you ever going to marry her?”
Grant gave a little jerk and turned to look at me. He appeared startled, almost baffled. “Huh?”
“Susan. Are you going to marry her?”
Grant blinked twice, then gave a shake of his head and snorted softly before giving me the standard condescending look that screamed, “I’m ten years older than you. Don’t presume to question me.” He didn’t say that, of course. He never did.
Never had to.
“How about you let me worry about that, ok?”
I just looked at him, but he didn’t seem bothered by that at all. Instead, he changed the subject.
Pointing at the data graphs on his screen, he said, “We’ve got more important things to worry about right now.”
He gestured for me to come look. With some trepidation, but also with a bit of honest curiosity, I did. When I reached his side, he gestured at the two line graphs.
“The storm intensity is definitely increasing, compared with ten years ago. Just like I’ve been saying.”
I frowned at the graphs, but couldn’t deny that at least on the surface, it appeared he was right. The one was a plot of major storm measured rainfall. The second of measured wind velocity. Glancing downward, I saw that the bar graph was a frequency plot of total major storm occurrences.
Assuming his data was accurate, there was a definite trend there.
He looked at me, a grave expression on his face. “The terraforming is breaking down,” he said, certainty in his voice.
This again. I shook my head at him. “That’s not for certain at all, from that data. It could be anything causing those storms. A fluke. A natural oscillation that we’ve not been on the planet long enough to know about yet. You’re jumping straight to that…” I sighed, almost groaned at the same old discussion we’d had a thousand times already. “If the terraforming wasn’t taking, don’t you think the governor or Senate would have told us?”
He frowned, then shook his head. “Not if there was no way to fix it.”
“So what, they’re just going to sit there and let everyone die, instead of ordering an evacuation or something?”
Grant nodded. “They would if there weren’t enough ships to go around.”
We’d had this discussion before, but Grant had never brought up this sort of paranoid thought process in the past. What was he getting at?
He saw the disbelief on my face, and rolled his eyes. “You know how long it took me to find and buy my ship. It wasn’t because it was too expensive. In fact, it was cheap. I’ve been having to make repairs to it these last few weeks. It’ll probably be another several weeks before it’s safe to fly.” He shook his head. “No, there simply weren’t any ships available for sale. At all. Anywhere. Believe me, I looked.”
“So.” He leaned forward, fixing me with a level stare. “When’s the last time a ship came from one of the other colonies?” It was a rhetorical question. The last offworld ship had come through ten years ago; I remember because it happened on my birthday, and it had been such an unusual event it had been all over the news. Since then, though, nothing. “There’s only the ships here planetside. And there aren’t enough for the whole population. The political class will be getting out. Them and their cronies. The rest of us are out of luck unless we make our own.”
Ah, so now it was a grand conspiracy. I shook my head and turned away from him, back toward the fireplace. I was still chilled from the walk outside, and the damp.
To my back, Grant said, “Pull your head out of the sand, Jake. We have to get out of here before it’s too late.”
“And go where?”
“There was once a planet that people didn’t have to terraform. Where – “
“Where the human race originally evolved. Yeah, I’ve heard that bedtime story before.”
“It’s not a story, Jake. It’s real.”
I scowled into the flames for several long breaths. Our fight from two weeks before was still a fresh memory, and I didn’t want to have another one like that. Finally, I looked back over my shoulder at him. “Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa are buried out back. Susan’s family is here. Your job is here. So is my new job. Everyone we know is here. But you want to leave over a little rain and paranoia, to find a place that no one knows where it is, or if it even exists at all?”
My snort was loud, and conveyed every scrap of meaning I could put into it.
Grant just looked at me, and scowled.
* * * * *
Four weeks of good weather followed, but that didn’t seem to please Grant. It was like the contradiction of his predictions of woe was intolerable.
Or maybe just my pointing out that he was wrong.
Either way, I resolved to keep away from home for much of the day. I left early for work, and then after my shift I waved off going to the pub with the other guys on my crew. Instead I went to my hilltop, and the peach tree.
My old sketching pad had been ruined by the deluge, as had all of my older drawings. Fortunately, new pads were always available, and as long as there was charcoal, so were new drawings.
I spent my evenings sketching until the last lobe of the sun was just barely visible above the hills on the opposite side of the bay. Then I got up and trudged back to Grant’s house. Technically it was mine as well; we had both inherited half of it. But I couldn’t really think of it as mine. Too much of our parents, and now Grant, in it.
As I trudged back to the house, beneath the slowly dimming sky as the colors of sunset drained away into the grey of twilight, I considered that maybe it was about time to get my own place. Both Grant and I were being rubbed raw by our constant proximity, and the disagreements over his obsession with conspiracy and flight.
I was able to save most of my paychecks, so I was accumulating a decent balance in my account. Another few weeks and I’d have enough for a deposit, and for some furniture.
I resolved to tell Grant I was moving out that evening.
That’s when the ground began to shake beneath my feet.
* * * * *
The house lay in ruins, but compared with the sight of Susan lying on a paramedic’s gurney, unconscious in a neck brace, the destruction of my childhood home seemed pale.
Grant had a stunned look on his face, like he couldn’t believe what was going on, as they wheeled her into the ambulance and then sped away to the hospital.
I walked up to him, but he barely noticed me. He just stared after the flashing red lights as they receded into the darkness, his mouth slightly agape and tears welling in his eyes.
“Is she – ?” I began.
He gave a little jerk, then finally focused in on me. He blinked twice, then shook his head. “They’re not sure. They don’t think it’s life-threatening, but…” He trailed off, and I looked him over more closely.
He was a mess. He had a bruise on his forehead above his right eye, and his shirt was torn in two places. One of those tears was stained red; he had cut himself, but apparently not badly enough for the paramedics to bother with.
But then, looking up and down the street toward the other collapsed buildings in our town, I got the feeling that if someone was able to walk around on his own, if he had a hunk of wood sticking out of his side the paramedics would just leave him be, for other, more serious cases.
“There’s never been an earthquake in these parts,” I said, hearing stunned disbelief in my own voice as I shook my head at the devastation.
“Terraforming’s failing,” Grant said, then he got started down the road, quickly moving from a walk to a jog to a full-out run.
“Where are you going?” I called after him, then immediately kicked myself inwardly for being stupid.
I ran to catch up with him. I thought for a second about his car, but gave up on that immediately. Too much rubble in the streets, and anyway there were so many ambulances out and about that we’d just be in the way.
And besides, the Hospital was only a mile and a half away.
So we ran.
* * * * *
When we reached the Hospital, it was a mad house.
The building was not all that big. Just three stories tall and a hundred feet or so on a side. But it didn’t need to be; our town wasn’t all the large, so there were few patients to be admitted at any one time. Normally.
Tonight, the parking lot was full of people waiting to be let into the building. Some were injured but ambulatory. Some had to be helped by friends or family. Others, like Grant and myself, were healthy and whole but obviously in distress for loved ones.
The ambulance entrance was in the rear of the building. After a brief look around at the milling crowd, growing larger by the second, Grant looked at me and then nodded toward the nearest side of the building. I understood at once, and followed him as we skirted the crowd and headed toward the rear.
It was dark; power was out throughout the town. But the Hospital obviously had an emergency generator. Still, many of the building’s windows were dark, as were its security lights outside. So quickly, as we got away from the handheld torches people in the crowd were carrying and the emergency lights that had been set up out front, we descended into shadow. But as we reached the rear corner of the building, we could see the Emergency Room ambulance door, standing wide open.
An orderly in scrubs, or maybe a nurse—who could really tell?—stood to one side of the doors, talking with a paramedic in blue coveralls. There was a single ambulance in the driveway; the paramedic’s ride, not doubt.
Grant stood tall and strode toward the doors, and the two medical personnel. For a second I thought he would just waltz right on through, but at the last moment the orderly sidestepped in front of him, holding her hand up at his chest, palm out.
“You can’t come in here sir. Hospital staff only.”
“My fiancé just came in an ambulance.”
Fiancé? I blinked, confused. When had Grant asked Susan to marry him, and how come he hadn’t told me?
The woman’s stern expression softened slightly, but she shook her head all the same. “I’m sorry, sir. But you’ll have to wait with the rest of the people out front.”
Through the ER doors, I could see that the place was busy to the point of chaos. I’d been to the ER before a time or two; what boy didn’t as a teenager? When I’d been there it had always been a calm and controlled place. To the point that it seemed to me patients were more likely to die of boredom than from the injuries that brought them in.
All that composure was gone now. Medical personnel were bustling to and fro, and there was a feeling in their movements like they were only just barely holding it all together. Like any small thing would bring their entire process down on top of them.
That scene put more of a chill up my spine than anything I had seen so far this evening. I reached out and put my hand on Grant’s arm.
“She’s right,” I said. “We can’t help in there. We’d just make it worse.”
Grant scowled his displeasure, but he couldn’t disagree. He grunted submission, and then we turned to go back around to the front, there to wait with all the other desperate and frightened people.
* * * * *
Half of the houses in town were destroyed. The other half were damaged, to some extent or another. Families with intact houses opened their doors to their neighbors, but even with that there wasn’t enough room for everyone to have a roof over his head.
Some folks stayed on boats in the Yacht Club, whose owners also opened them for use. But for the rest, emergency services set up a tent city.
But Grant and I stayed in his ship.
He had it tied down on a landing pad set back in the woods to the west of town. It wasn’t exactly a secret, either that the pad was there or that Grant had a ship on it. But no one paid it much mind.
Susan was released from the Hospital after a week, and she joined us aboard. We had a celebratory dinner made from the best emergency services-supplied protein squeezes money couldn’t buy.
The ship had internal power, and it was designed to withstand the high g’s of takeoff and reentry. So it had come through the quake pretty much unscathed. So we got to watch the news feeds. We didn’t do it very often; it was too depressing. Other places on the planet had been hit by quakes too, with damage similar to what we’d experienced.
It made me begin to wonder if Grant wasn’t right in his paranoia, after all.
Then the first ships began to blast off for space.
It happened without warning. Just one day, two weeks after the quake, when it looked like the rebuilding was starting to get going, people at the yacht club reported seeing a smoke trail rising from the north, veering up in a ballistic arc. The next day, they reported two more.
Upon hearing the news, Grant grunted. “It’s starting,” he said, and raised an eyebrow at me.
I didn’t have to ask what he meant: the exodus of the able. Of the rich and powerful.
And again, I couldn’t call him wrong.
The newscast that night just solidified it.
The regular anchor wasn’t on the broadcast. Instead the cast was headed by a pockmark-faced guy in his early 30s with black hair and darting grey eyes. He had on a suit, but it was rumpled like he’d been sleeping in it, and he looked like he hadn’t been sleeping well.
He stammered as he read the opening message. “Citing looting and violence in several cities damaged in the recent global earthquakes, the governor has issued an emergency order today declaring martial law. Orders have been sent to local guardsmen in all precincts that looters are to be shot on sight, and the use of deadly force to defend lives and property is authorized.”
The substitute anchor swallowed, then the screen went black; Grant had shut it off.
He looked at me. “It’s coming apart, Jake. And it won’t come back together again. I’ve got one last system to fix, but we can take off without it. I think we gather up every bit of food we can tomorrow, and then get out while the getting’s still good.” He raised an eyebrow. “We do not want to be here when people start to catch on to what’s really going on, and the guardsmen decide better they have my ship than we do.”
I didn’t want to agree with him. The entire concept struck against the core of my being, and everything that I wanted my life to be.
I had a vision of settling down, continuing on building the roots that our grandparents and parents had laid on this world. Have a family, live simply. Not go galavanting around in Grant’s ship.
Inwardly, I rebelled against the entire concept. But I couldn’t help thinking, somewhere deep down, that he was right, after all.
* * * * *
That evening, I left the ship and hiked through the woods. I brought a hand torch with me, and used it as a guide to make my way up a shallow rise that I had visited before in the daylight. There was a clearing on top that offered a good view of the town to the east, and the bay beyond.
During the day, when I’d come up and looked out on that view, it was like looking at a scar on the face of the planet. Whereas in previous visits, back when Grant had first bought the ship and brought me up here to show it off, the town’s spires and buildings had been bright and colorful, picturesque in and of themselves as they seemed a part of the scenery, like a natural growth that belong there. Now, there was rubble and torn up dirt and, in a few places, rising smoke where fires from buildings that had collapsed still smoldered for one reason or another.
Even the bay looked darker, like the scars of the land had run off into it, befowling it.
And they probably had. There hadn’t been another huge storm, but there had been rain. Who knows what sorts of solvents and chemicals and other things that we never would have allowed to tarnish the natural water in better times had been cast into it by those rains?
I was hoping, as I made my way up to the top of the rise that night, to see a better view. Something more peaceful, more beautiful. Something I could sketch by the light of the stars and my torch.
I stepped out from beneath the tree canopy and up the last few steps to the peak, and looked east.
The second moon was up, a waxing crescent halfway down from its zenith to its resting place on the other side of the bay. Its pale pink-white glow burned with a wholesomeness that I hadn’t seen or felt in days. Weeks.
Looking down from the heavenly body, I saw it reflected off the shimmering water of the bay, and whatever tarnish the disaster had leant the water was invisible. Only serenity seemed to waft from that direction now.
Even the wreckage of the town was less ugly. Torches that lit houses and the tent city were dimmer than the normal lights, giving the impression of campfires, almost, despite their true electrical origin.
Insects buzzed in the night, and the smell of growth and life from the woods all around me seemed to draw the cares I’d brought up the slope with me right away.
I inhaled deeply. Held it, then exhaled, and felt a lot better. Seeing my home like this, in the peace and beauty of the night, seemed to lift a heavy burden from my shoulder.
Looking out there, right then, I imagined that Grant really was just paranoid, like I’d always said. Times would be hard for the next while. Probably a long while. But the town—the entire colony—would get through, and then we’d be better off than we ever had been. Our family roots could continue to grow deeper into the soil of this place until –
A flash of light, nearly blinding it was so much brighter than anything else in the night sky, erupted to the south.
Raising a hand to shield my eyes, I looked that way, blinking away spots.
As my eyes adjusted—really as the light dimmed—I saw glowing trails of light lifting into the sky. Two. Three. Five.
Seven in all. Each a ship, I knew without having to ask, rising toward the heavens on a pillar of fire.
I flashed back to the peach tree where I had been sketching before, and the sailboats tacking away from shore. I never had found out where those boats were bound for, but they’d never returned to Carraway Yacht Club, that I’d ever seen. Cruisers, out exploring the planet like Grant wanted to explore the cosmos.
But these ships weren’t exploring.
They were fleeing.
Two more joined the departing flotilla. Then a tenth.
And I turned and hurried down the rise toward the ship, my heart in my throat. For I knew there could be no denying what was happening any longer.
* * * * *
Vibration and acceleration forces pressed me back into my seat, and I had to strain to lift my head. But lift it I did; that was the only way I could see out the little porthole next to my couch in the ship’s bridge.
It was tiny, the porthole, but it was enough that I could see the clouds—white and puffy, just like on the day when I’d gone sketching—falling away beneath us as Grant’s ship roared upward to the heavens.
Below the clouds, the patchwork ground was receding at an ever-increasing rate, and I felt like my heart was flying away with it.
My home was leaving, going far from me; but no that wasn’t right. I was leaving my home.
For a moment, I longed to be able to leap through that porthole and fall back down to the land that had grown and nourished me, where my parents and grandparents’ bones were buried.
But then I raised my eyes toward the rapidly-falling horizon, and I saw the other clouds gathering, rushing forward on winds so strong they would have precluded us from taking off if we’d waited any longer in our countdown. Clouds so tall that they reached higher than the ship had yet climbed, so dark that they were almost black, even here from the side. Clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon and crackled with pent up energy released in jagged lightning that crashed to the ground, rending hills, trees, mountains, and flesh beneath its thunder.
There was no end to that storm that I could see, even as we rose higher than the cloud tops and the planet’s curvature became noticeable, and then obvious.
It was a storm like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of, and it would erase all that man had wrought on the world of my birth.
“My God,” Susan said, from her couch, mounted to my right.
“The collapse is accelerating faster than I imagined,” Grant said, from the other side of her. He looked my way, and our eyes met. His were sad; a deeper sadness than I thought to see on this occasion that he had been dreaming of for so long.
I guess you were right after all, I almost said. But I didn’t. It didn’t need saying, and I could tell it would actually just add to his sadness.
Instead, I said, “Do you know where we’re going?”
Grant shook his head. “I only have a name. Terra. Where we all came from, back in the beginning.” He shrugged. “Maybe one of the other colony worlds will have more data than we did. Maybe they can point us in the right direction.”
“And if not?” Susan asked.
“Then we decide: move on and keep looking, or choose another colony to settle down in.” He paused, his voice turning wistful. “I know what my vote will be.”
So did I.
So did I.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: