SIXTY-THREE, 2.0

Thomas looked out the window, but of course earth was no longer in sight. The view was blackness, stars dotting in occasional patterns that spun quickly past as he increased the rockets. It was an odd feeling that only two weeks ago he was sitting on the hills in Dublin overlooking the seas. Now, he was millions miles from the planet on which those seas’ waves were crashing down. He’d been the last, as far as he could tell, of the explorers who had tried to find survivors on the planet.

On her.

He called earth “her” because that’s how everyone else referred to her. The months that Thomas spent scouring for life were some of the best of his life, as far as he was concerned.

Her greens were still green, and the blues were still blue, as written in the Textbooks. The ground under his feet was not a metal that clanged with each step, but dirt.  Soft, and the crunching was a satisfaction he’d not felt before in his life. There were birds flying, and each flap of their wings gave Thomas a flutter in his chest, as though his heart was flapping beside them.

But he hadn’t gone there to travel and enjoy. He was to observe, to collect, and to report. If there had been survivors, he was to take them aboard and bring them to the outpost for further breakthroughs and interrogation. But of course there had been no survivors. Thousands upon thousands of years it’d been since humans were reported on any planet. Earth had become too toxic, and people had not bothered to replenish the good.

At least, not fast enough.

They had chosen instead to take care of themselves, seeing it as a lost cause, too late to make the changes. Self-reflection and time taught people like Thomas, and the Explorers, that humans could have remained on earth if they’d given it as much care as she’d given them. But the Old Ones, they did not consider their lack of nurturing to be a problem.  Earth was the primary responsible party, the one driving them away.

Thomas hoped his generation, if not his children’s, would learn from this mistake. Even though Thomas spent most of his entire life upon the Outpost, it was only on earth that he felt a connection beyond daily routine. He was one with the land, and breathed in the air, tasting the salt of the sea and smelling the fish from under the water. He considered, for a while, settling down, leaving the Outpost entirely. He could commit to the planet and all she had to offer.

Including her problems.

The nighttime lasted longer than the day. Or maybe that was just the presence of dark clouds that washed over the lands every few hours. Night felt more present entirely. And the weather was unpredictable. Rains washed down daily during his stay, but there were chemicals in the rain that then remained in the humid air for hours long after.

These chemicals were difficult to ingest, either through nostrils or accidentally in his mouth. Each drop caused a heaving sensation, and vomiting would occur instantaneously. That, or a warm, queasy sensation, like he’d failed to remember something vital. The rains turned out to be poisonous, as Thomas concluded after many tests. For the remainder of his stay, he was forced to wear protective gear.

But even after those tests, Thomas enjoyed his time on earth.

He fell in love with the good days on her. Mostly the intermittent sunshine. He learned to adapt to her weather patterns. The stubborn winds off the coastal regions. The complex terrain around her equator. For Thomas, the risks were worth the reward.

But he knew it would be difficult to realize that once he reported back to the Outpost.

As soon as he left her, Thomas looked at the numbers. None of them added up to a logistical positive for the case to settle on earth. Every good thing she had to offer was available on other worlds.

Thomas knew the only option was to keep seeking, to avoid the unpredictable nature that would come with earth over time.

As he entered the code for light speed, he took one last look out the window, at the remainder of the Center Solar System. It’d been a long time since a human set foot on any of the planets within the system, and he was happy to have had the chance with her.

In time, perhaps, another Explorer would come along and revitalize the planet, or planets, and continue the journey. Earth could be alone for only so long, but Thomas’s generation, his Outpost, would not be the one to settle upon her.

When he reported as much to the Outpost, the Generals were in agreement. While she appeared to be a comfort, and had already taken care of human life for thousands of years before, there was a reason there were no survivors on the planet any more. The reason, though, was hard to pinpoint.

Either survivors had failed to take care of themselves, or earth herself had taken advantage of their relaxed attitude towards her offerings, and washed them all away.

The decision was made to move on, in search of other planets with survivors. A final home to eventual settle onto. This was the inevitable outcome, and Thomas was quickly at peace with it.

Earth would linger as a memory for the rest of his life, one full of turbulence and unrest. But also a quiet comfort full of vision, wonder, and majestic mystery.

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