I was starting to get uncomfortable sitting on the floor. So I asked Sylvia if it would be all right if I got up. “Sure,” she said, waving me to the co-pilot’s seat.
Watching through the space-shield above the control panel, I could see that we were approaching something resembling a dark disk about the size of a tennis ball. The tennis ball gradually transformed itself into a black baseball, then a basketball. “Brutal Ardor,” Brian Eno’s variation on the Pachelbel Canon, unfolded slowly, inescapably echoing in my memory as I stared at the shape. When I realized that what I was seeing was an orb, it occurred to me that it was probably some moon or satellite. Mostly the color of black tar, its surface contained several dark brown blobs and patches, the color of nicotine stains. The place was uninviting and ugly. Just looking at it made me sick to my stomach.
We descended through a swirling storm of black soot. As she set the ship down, Sylvia holstered her blaster.
“We’re here. After you, Sam.”
The hull portal opened and we stepped off the mini-ship. Our eyes slowly met with a bleak, forbidding landscape like something out of a nightmare: strange, corkscrew-like rock formations, some of them more than a hundred feet tall, rose up everywhere we turned; these twisted accretions and the barren ground out of which they grew looked like they were covered with a virulent tar or creosote. A sky the color of gunmetal, inflexible and harsh, without depth or variation, blurred homogeneously at the horizon. No living thing stirred. A defensive shudder rippled down my spine. “Where are we?” I asked Sylvia.
“Home,” she whispered. Tears welled up in her brown eyes.
Home? What did she mean by that? The blunt realization slowly dawned on me, like a pang of remorse. All of a sudden I got weak in the knees and felt like I might leave my body. This…this was Earth, the Home of Mortal Man, which Sylvia and I were standing on.
“The Joracians have been using it as a dumping ground for toxic wastes.” Sylvia explained to me, slowly and carefully, how the Joracians were basically intergalactic marauders, entrepreneurial pirates who ravaged every planet they encountered, stripping it of all resources until they had sucked the system dry, leaving behind only a burnt husk of devastation and waste.
It was appalling. No clouds were visible overhead. There was no sky, no atmosphere of any kind. There was not a blade of grass or so much as a dandelion. No bird sang, no gnat buzzed, and no squirrel stirred. Everything was dead and cold. Alluring Gaiathe Blue Marble we had both adoredwas now reduced to nothing but a cinder, a terrible cipher. “Do you think all the animals are gone, Sam?”
I had no idea what to tell her. My own complicityduplicity!in this catastrophe was oppressive, to say the least.
“They can’t all be wiped out, can they?” Sylvia suppressed a few sniffles.
“There’s no Resettlement Program?” I carped. I still could not believe it.
Sylvia was fighting hard to hold back her tears.
“This is their Resettlement Plan!” she declaimed in frustration.
I remembered now, with a chill, what Àkbä had told me about the Joracian traitors: “Oh, they’ll be reconstructed and returned to useful productivity.” This was the higher activity and purpose for which human beings had to be…retooled! It was all a cynical euphemism for…The Reconstruction of Nature! I saw now why Joracians had expunged all the writings of Perry Miller and Hannah Arendt. They had knownhad seentoo much! Their workslike George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Nineteen Eighty-Fourmight have tipped someone off to the likely machinations of the Joracian High Command.
Someone like me.
We walked around, dismally, for a time, but could detect no change or variation in the landscape wherever we went. The ground was sticky, the color of coal.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
But Sylvia sat down on a black rock. “I’m not leaving.”
She had made up her mind to do whatever she could to bring the trashed planet back to life. Sylvia couldn’t believe that some life—animals or something—had failed to survive. I couldn’t talk her out of staying.
Leaving Sylvia there on that barren rock that had once been the planet Earth was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I didn’t think I could bear to tear myself away. I guess I was still in shock.
“Bye, Sam,” she said in a hollow voice.
When I had walked a few paces away, I stopped. “I’ll come back for you. I promise.”
By the time I got to the mini-ship, I knew exactly what I had to do.