The dusk deepened as she walked up the winding trail through the trees. At the top of the hill, at the edge of a clearing, a cliff with a steep drop to a river gorge created a break in the woods and allowed a view far into the distance, and there this dim dusk among the trees would brighten again to the last light of a summer evening, coloring the sky and clouds overhead in warm shades from coral to cobalt.
She had discovered the lookout while hunting, and visiting this place to watch the sun set and the stars appear had become a comforting routine for her. This time of day, the progression of the sun to the horizon and slipping below it, the gently deepening darkness and the animals preparing for sleep or beginning nocturnal habits, was so much like home that she could forget she was in a new place. Visiting, and frequently, eased the deep sadness that she would likely never see her home again.
Adjusting to the differences had not been so difficult as she had thought. In most ways this place was just more primitive, which they had known and prepared for. They’d all had to rely on a combination of the anthropological history they’d learned and survival skills some of them had picked up by choice, enjoying breaking free of the highly technical rigors of modern life to walk away from it for a while.
Ironic, too, how many of them had learned their survival skills in professional team-building sessions, never knowing they’d end up using the primitive skills as much as the team-building.
Reaching the top, she walked to the edge and stood, her gaze scanning slowly from one side to the other, rolling over the panorama, stopping briefly on recognizable elements in the landscape, their little settlement, a particularly large tree, a small stream, then lifting her gaze to the sky around and above her, looking from the brilliance of the early sunset to the deep blue on the opposite horizon.
The day had been hot; this new climate was challenging. The cool touch of the evening breeze now brushed past her rising from the valley below, ruffling the tall grasses like a playful hand and sifting through the trees beyond, refreshing and relaxing her, the open space soothing as she stretched and breathed deeply the rising dampness of the coming night.
This time of day had always been pensive for her, and finding this spot had given her the place to go to review the day. Nearly a year had passed since they’d landed here, and on the day they’d arrived the evening had been much like this, so much like home that she had felt welcomed, and buoyed with hope that they had done the right thing.
Four seasons had transpired, slipping one to the next much more quickly than they were accustomed to, but they’d still had time to prepare shelter and food and adequate clothing. In that time they’d honestly managed to pull together as a team and build a small community, a fact which, upon reflection, had surprised many members, thinking they were already a tight group. A shared need for survival can either bring people together or put them into competition with each other. This first year had brought out talents, built relationships and formed leaders, though not without hot debate and some raised hackles now and then.
Only three members had been lost to accident. Learning to function in the wilderness none of them were accustomed to, these deaths had been difficult and frightening and brought a big dose of cruel reality to their experience, but they had managed to hold together, grieve together and bury their dead together. There had been a two natural deaths, too, a cancer none of them could do anything about in this primitive place despite all the modern tools and medicines they had packed in preparation, and heart disease left untreated by medication no longer available, a frustrating predicament for people as advanced as they had believed themselves to be.
Only one person seemed to have snapped from the stress of it all, and he had angrily decided to leave the group, packed as many provisions as he could carry, and took off following the river. He was angry because no one was willing to explore beyond a day’s journey and look for civilization in this place, other people, cities, modern conveniences rather than sitting and waiting for death. He was the only truly single person in the group and determined this was his role because he’d leave no one behind.
His outburst had come about after one of the accidents, a horrible fall down a cliff that had left one of the women paralyzed but screaming in pain, and all they found they could do was sedate her and keep vigil until they determined it was time to use the euthanasia drug they had brought with them for instances like this.
It was true, before that accident they had been approaching the whole thing as an adventure, as if it was one of their team-building wilderness sessions that would soon be over with assistance and rescue right over the next ridge if necessary, because of course they would be going back one day. Watching her suffer, a beloved friend, unable to do anything, they had suddenly realized how alone they were, how limited, that one by one they would all die in one way or another and in some future years there might be no trace left of them at all. And as if each of them had come to the same understanding as a group through that incident, also the idea that traveling back home, or even communicating with their home planet, was unlikely to happen, in their lifetimes, if ever.
But they were so few, down to twenty-seven now, and to send anyone off into the wilderness was simply to suffer another loss. Three children had traveled with them, and no doubt there would be more, but it would be ages before there were enough of them to spare a small group to travel and start charting the area beyond their small valley. They were scientists, had been trained for this and had brought their instruments, but plain old survival took more time than they liked to admit. They had decided not to hunt animals because of the risk, but still all of them really needed to search and gather, and cook and preserve food, and make and mend clothing, not to mention the nightly challenge of attempting to communicate with equipment that didn’t work well in this climate and needed maintenance they could barely provide.
She knew that her not-so-long-ago ancestors had lived like this, and while she had known their life was difficult she had never realized just how difficult, how fragile life itself was. Her confidence—no, arrogance—as a scientist had led her to think her race would never have to endure that again. She wondered how her ancestors had ever managed to not only survive but flourish and accomplish things not found anywhere else in the universe with these everyday challenges of just getting enough food to eat.
Though everyone doubted now that anything resembling civilization existed here, they had gladly given their friend what he felt he needed and sent him off, not expecting to see him again but secretly hoping he would somehow find civilization and bring it back to the valley.
He had returned, however, just a short while ago, followed by three, well, were they people like themselves? They looked half animal with an abundance of hair and no spoken language, but they walked upright and wore rudimentary clothing, their hands were strong and dexterous using tools they had made, and they had wordlessly led members of the group around to various plants and shown them what to do with them. Although the learning curve had started quite high, they had quickly discovered the point was valuable foods and medicines beyond the capability of their own scientific equipment brought for the purpose. They did their best to express their gratitude and set up travel and communication between their two living areas, exchanging members to live in each others’ groups.
The sunset colors had reached their peak of brilliance as the sun passed behind strips of dark purple cloud edged in glowing gold, rays of light reaching upward and downward in pink and yellow, trees, rocks and the grass on her outlook glowing with the coral of the deepening evening. She waited until the sun was halfway below the horizon to the west, then turned and looked above the horizon to the east, and there it was, glowing red against the vivid deepening cobalt of the eastern sky. She’d also noticed this the night they’d arrived, like a welcoming beacon, and the clear view of it was one of the reasons she returned frequently to this spot.
It seemed to pulse, signaling perhaps. It was home, the fourth planet from the sun, the planet they’d left a little over two years before, traveling by the craft that had been built for the purpose of interplanetary travel, though their trip had been somewhat extemporaneous. That first night she had wondered if the pulsing red glow was the holocaust they had left behind still burning, the populations of their race killing each other in a misbegotten firestorm they had barely escaped, or to be honest, had simply run from. If so, the place was still burning.
The ship had stood stocked with medical supplies, food and clothing, oxygen, water and all else that would be needed during the someday trip to the third planet with the climate so like their own. It was opportune that they who had designed and built the ship and trained to pilot it were all stationed conveniently close, and by their position had been closer to their government’s plans than others as well. They had guessed that this annihilation was a possibility.
In the last few days when, despite the rhetoric that negotiations were ongoing, these leading scientists could see the missile silos being prepared for use. They passed the word among staff to get families together, pack what they could and get ready to leave if necessary. Was it selfish to save their own and use their training to take the chance on flying out, hoping they weren’t hit by a missile, and getting above the atmosphere before it became too toxic, the air polluted with radiation, carbon monoxide and debris unusable to convert to hydrogen fuel? Or was it reality that they would be the most likely to survive it if they undertook this mission and, because of that, because someone should represent their race in this universe, they should.
So they had followed the mission they had trained for, watching their planet glow with outrage until its atmosphere was so clogged with smoke and debris that they could no longer see it as they silently moved farther and farther away. They traveled without incident and landed safely in the northern hemisphere of the planet, avoiding the huge sheets of ice that blanketed the north and south poles of the planet. From studying this planet they knew the spot they landed would have been a fertile plain surrounded by low mountains and several bodies of water, safe for landing and easy for travel, perhaps rich with food similar enough to their own that they could move right in.
Of course, they had no intention to stay. Each night they signaled home base, never receiving a response which was something they had, somehow, never expected. They had planned to go back as soon as possible, even if only to see the destruction, but as time wore on they could see now that maintenance to the ship, fuel, food…so many things stood in the way that instead of months, it might be years, or generations before anyone could go back. Perhaps none of these travelers would ever know the outcome of that horrible war. How strange to go from the seeming omniscience of constant, instant communication and information to this mocking silence.
She watched as her home planet glowed ever more brightly in the deepening sky, pulsating slightly with the beat of her heart. As it rose above the horizon and the night sky deepened, the little planet was soon surrounded by stars in their familiar constellations.
They had survived almost a year here, had made contact with natives, had built a society and would someday have children of their own no doubt. Soon they planned to begin growing edible native plants rather than gathering what they needed and possibly to attempt to domesticate a few animals that resembled those from home. They’d build small towns and the struggles of power and desire would emerge, and only time would tell if they had also brought with them the potential to destroy this civilization, too, or if they had left that potential behind in the lifeless destruction on that beautiful, glowing red planet.
This story began to build itself far back, when I was still in college and reading Omni magazine, enjoying the futuristic science fiction of the late 70s and early 80s. It was to be my first novel, and I began writing in earnest immediately after graduation, dreaming of continuing on with my Master’s degree.
But life caught up with me and family issues took the time I’d carved out for writing, and I lost touch with the energy to write an entire novel. I carried the beginning draft for years, occasionally rewriting it, then in 2010, when I took the photo of the evening star which I used to illustrate this story, I decided that nothing would stop me from at least writing a short story, and so I did. As with most of my creative writing I let it sit for a while, tortured it with rewrites a few times, let friends read and critique it, and finally deemed it ready for publication, at least on my own blog.
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