Lydia leaned against the grey metal railing, staring out at the setting sun. As the deep red orb dipped low on the horizon, filling the sky with myriad shades of yellow and purple, she tried to ignore the bland rectangular industrial buildings that littered the landscape as far as the shoreline, imagining instead what the vista would have looked like centuries earlier, back when Earth was humanity's sole home in the Universe.
She'd seen countless pictures, old two-dimensional films, photographs, and, of course, the thousands of artists impressions that had been created over the years. She'd even walked the African countryside in a holographic facsimile of Earth, seen the weird and wonderful creatures that had once roamed the area in search of food and water, but try as she might she couldn't picture the landscape without the warehouses, the workhouses, the laboratories, the factories, the office blocks.
It didn't matter where she went, what windows she looked out of, all she could see was an endless sea of grey and black, plumes of smoke rising high into the air, monorails and shuttlepads. She knew that in the far north, in the frozen wastelands of Europe, North America and northern Asia she would be able to get a glimpse of what the world must have looked like long ago, but in those few places that weren't buried beneath thousands of tons of snow and ice, the air was so cold no human could hope to survive outside for more than a couple of minutes.
Shaking her head, she slumped down onto the metal bench behind her, biting into her lip, wondering what the planet would look like in another century. She wondered if life would ever return to the murky grey ocean, if the few remaining species of animal and plant life would survive, if the stars would once again be visible from the surface of the planet at night.
Folding her arms across her chest, she cursed her father, cursed his stubbornness, his greed, his abject refusal to do what she was sure he knew was right. She had spent months talking to him, pleading with him, trying to convince him to invest the money required to help restore the planet to its former state, but each time he had patiently offered excuse after excuse, explaining that it was out of his hands, that it wasn't cost efficient, that there was nothing he could do.
In the end she'd convinced him to allow an environmental group to take responsibility for the project, but given the amount of money required to make any meaningful change she knew it would be decades, perhaps centuries, before work started. If it ever did. If they didn't lose sight of the project and focus their attentions elsewhere.
A pip from the band around her wrist diverted her from her thoughts. Turning her eyes towards it she saw a yellow light flashing, cautioning her that it was time to get back indoors, that she had remained outside in the toxic atmosphere for as long as any human could without suffering ill effects. Rising from her seat she stepped towards the glass panel, waving her hand in front of the sensor, waiting for it to part and allow her inside.
Once back in the apartment she sat in a chair by the window and continued staring out, watching as the sun disappeared from view, knowing that it would not be long before the world, or at least all she could see of it, was plunged into darkness. Already some of the buildings had their lights on, the few that remained open, finishing the last of their work. Night was the only time when she could regard the view from the apartment as anything but ghastly, when the vista was consumed by blackness broken only by the ethereal blue glows from the various buildings. At all other times she was appalled by what she saw, and as she watched the last light fade she was grateful that she would never have to set eyes on the hideous view again.
Reclining in her chair, she reached for her glass of Janju juice, one of the few luxuries she'd brought with her from her home on Tyrius. She would have brought more if she'd known that her mother and brother were going to back out of the trip, but their last minute decisions had left her with no time to pack anything else.
She could completely understand her brother's decision. He was, after all, only fifteen, more interested in spending time with his friends, playing sports and meeting girls than taking a three hour trip to a barren planet that had little to offer. But her mother was another matter entirely. It had been her mother who had first brought her to the planet, when she was just five years old, a surprise visit on her father's fiftieth birthday.
She smiled as she remembered the moment she first saw the dull grey orb drifting silently through the blackness of space, surrounded only by the occasional pinprick of white light from a distant star. She'd seen pictures of what the view of Earth from space used to look like, the rich blue of the ocean, lush green land, a smattering of white at the polar icecaps, but, of course, that was the Earth of old, a long forgotten memory.
The planet she'd seen had been entirely unremarkable in many respects. There was a hint of blue in the water, the odd patch of green in the few remaining areas that hadn't been industrialised, and a sea of dirty-white covering much of the northern hemisphere. Her native Tyrius was, in many ways, a much more beautiful sight with its blends of pinks, oranges and greens, but still as she set eyes on Earth, her ancestral home, she'd felt her breath catch in her throat.
Though her mother had planned for them to spend the entire weekend on the planet, three days of rest and relaxation, they'd spent no more than a couple of hours with her father. It had been just long enough to eat a meal with him, to watch him open his presents, to share a piece of cake, and then he'd had to go, back to a meeting or to complete some paperwork or some such nonsense.
Now she was older, Lydia understood the pressures her father faced on a daily basis. For nearly two decades he had been President of Transcorp, the second largest company in the Human Confederacy, and his position required a great deal of his attention, but at the time she had been upset by his rapid departure, at not seeing him at all the following day. By the second full day of their visit she'd been almost tearful at the lack of time she'd been able to spend with her father, so her mother had decided to take her on a tour of the planet to raise her spirits.
First they'd flown over Europe, her mother showing her pictures of what the places beneath them had once looked like as Lydia had stared down at the dull ice. After that they'd set down in Australia, towards the centre, away from the industrialised area, in the vast desert that consumed the entire centre of the continent. She had found the landscape entirely uninspiring, just a vast carpet of sand in all directions, but her mother's description of the creatures that had once inhabited the area kept her from becoming bored.
They'd stayed only a few minutes, of course, until their wristbands warned them that they needed to return to the safety of the shuttle, but whenever Lydia remembered the visit it felt like hours. The temperature had been far too hot for her tastes, the air far too dusty, but she remembered the experience fondly, mostly because of the vivid pictures her mother had painted for her with her words.
Their next stop had been the rainforest in Southern America. In school Lydia had learned all about them, hearing how countless cures for diseases had been discovered in the hundreds of miles of forest in the mid-twenty-first century, seeing pictures of the animals that had once resided there, many rarely seen by human eyes. She'd been disappointed when she found that all that remained of that great forest was a few acres, a landscaped habitat beneath a huge glassy dome, used primarily as a recreation area for the hundreds of thousands of workers who still remained on the planet.
There were few real animals, of course. Most she saw were holographic projections added for ornamental purposes only, but it gave her a taste of what the vast rainforest must once have been like, allowed her to experience the wonder of the woodland. Most importantly, it allowed her to wonder freely for a full two hours without having to worry about toxicity levels or radiation.
Finally they'd visited Mexico, or at least what remained of it. As they walked along the mile-wide sandy beach her mother had explained to her how it had once been a vast country, home to countless millions after the second Ice Age, a land brimming with culture and mystery. Lydia had enjoyed hearing about the history of the place, but even more than that she'd loved standing on the beach staring out over the ocean, watching as the waves crashed against the shore.
Of course, she hadn't been able to actually swim in the water. She'd wanted to, pleaded with her mother to allow it, but her mother had patiently explained that the water was polluted, toxic, that it would burn the flesh from her bones within seconds. Even so, for years afterwards she'd had dreams about paddling in those waters, sunning herself on the beach, staring up at the pale green sky.
That visit was the only time her mother had visited Earth in Lydia's lifetime. Though she always professed she'd enjoyed their little vacation, Lydia had seen how sad her mother was when they left. She hadn't been able to understand her mother's reaction at the time, but later, when she was a teenager, her mother had explained to her that it hurt her to see what had become of the planet, of the place where her species had originated, of the world her grandparents had lived on before they were forced to leave the world when it became too polluted to sustain human life.
It was in that same conversation that her mother told her about the resistance, about her grandmother's brother and his family, about the countless thousands who had refused to abandon the planet. Though they'd had the chance to leave, to resettle on a planet capable of sustaining life, where the water was not acidic, where the air was breathable, where the soil was fertile, they'd remained, determined that they could sustain themselves.
For three decades they'd been left on the planet, left with only the most rudimentary of supplies and technology, and when an expedition had been sent to find out how those who remained were faring they found the planet devoid of life, save for a few hardy native species that had adapted to the harsh environment. No trace was found of the humans who had remained, save for a handful of graves in the far north of Africa.
She'd married her husband, Lydia's father, when he was a mere executive at Transcorp, before they bought the planet and converted it into one of their major research and development facilities, constructing enormous cities of offices, factories, warehouses, mines and laboratories in every area of the planet where the temperature was neither too hot nor too cold. On the day the transaction with the Confederate Government was finalised, her mother had vowed she would never set foot on the planet, never see what had become of the world she'd grown up hearing stories about.
Until her husband's fiftieth birthday.
Lydia had a rather different view. Though she joined her mother in mourning for all that had been lost on the planet, she loved it nonetheless. Each visit was a painful experience for her, but it was one she felt she should endure, and the rewards had always proven greater than the costs. In the fourteen years since that first visit she'd been to the planet a dozen times, always with her father, often staying in the same apartment building, rarely having the opportunity to venture further afield.
Often the visits proved monotonous, endless hours spent sat in the apartment waiting for her father to finish work and come home, but still she returned time after time. It had become like a pilgrimage to her, and though her heart ached every time she looked out of the window and saw what had become of what had once been a great world, it was the only place where she felt truly at home.
As she saw a handful of the stark blue lights flicker out, she wiped a tear from her cheek, knowing that never again would she be able to return to the planet. If her father had agreed to the demands of the various environmental lobbies and funded the project to restore the planet, to restore some of the lost species of animal and plant life, to purify the air and the oceans, perhaps she would have felt better about leaving the world for the last time, knowing that life on Earth would continue, but instead they were leaving the planet as it was.
A dead grey orb floating silently in space.
As more lights died, Lydia climbed from her seat and returned to her room, gathering the last of her belongings and packing them into her suitcase. She let loose a heavy sigh as she tugged it shut, lifting the bag and carrying it to the hallway before returning to fetch her father's from his room. As she returned to the hall with it the front door opened, her father greeting her with a broad smile she could not return.
“Time to go kiddo,” he said, not a trace of remorse or regret in his voice.
She nodded to him, but said nothing, just handed him his bag before picking up her own. Stepping out into the corridor she watched as her father closed the door behind him, inexplicably locking it before turning towards her and beckoning her towards the elevator.
She walked slowly, her heart heavy, her mind consumed by memories of her time on the planet, dreams of seeing it as it once was, certain that in her lifetime the planet would remain as she left it. Her father tried to make conversation with her as the lift carried them down to the ground floor, but the few times she responded to his efforts she offered just single word answers, hoping that he would see the pain he was causing her and agree to fund the Planetary Regeneration Project after all, but if he noticed her melancholy he said nothing.
Down in the lobby she followed him through the glass doors and out of the building, beneath a sheet of protective glass, over towards their waiting shuttle. Rather than sitting with him at the front of the craft, Lydia found a seat at the back where she could watch the planet for as long as possible, until it disappeared from view, determined to burn the memory into her mind.
She waited patiently for take off, glancing up at the dozens of other shuttles that were already departing the planet, carrying with them the few hundred remaining workers. She knew from what her father had told her that his would be the penultimate shuttle to leave, the last reserved for three workers, three men who had been selected to carry out one final task on the planet.
As she waited for the shuttle to lift off, she found herself wondering what was going through the minds of those men, whether any of them truly appreciated the gravity of what they were doing, the historic nature of their actions, but she was sure they wouldn't. To them it would be just another job, a task without ceremony or celebration, a task they simply had to complete before they could return home to be with their families once more, or perhaps move on to one of the other planets owned by Terracorp to take up new jobs there.
Lydia closed her eyes as the shuttle engines buzzed to life, opening them again only when she felt the craft lift gently off the ground. She stared out of the rear window, at the ugly apartment block her father had lived in during his time on the planet, the building she had stayed in during her visits, suddenly wishing she could walk its corridors one last time.
As the shuttle climbed slowly through the opening doors of the glass dome above them, Lydia stared down at the darkened streets, at the buildings, at the few remaining blue lights, her hand involuntarily brushing the window as they climbed towards the fragile atmosphere. She opened her mouth, fully intending to say goodbye to the planet, to the place she considered her real home, but as the city became a grey blur, became nothing more than a landmass, she found she had no words, nothing she could say.
And so she simply watched.
“Go for shutdown,” she heard her father say at the front of the shuttle.
Lydia winced as she saw the lights on the planet flicker off, entire continents plunged into darkness for the last time.
Such a simple word. Abandonment might have been a better choice, for in her mind that was exactly what they were doing. Abandoning the planet that had nurtured humanity until it reached the point where it could venture into space and find other worlds to colonise, until they had raped every natural resource, destroyed all the wonders it had to offer, leaving behind a barren rock, a dead world, an empty shell.
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