By Andrew Massey
He had traveled an eternity, driven by questions that remained for the most part unanswered -- and even for those questions which he had resolved, the passing of time and distance had swept away their meaning. His humanity had been subsumed and sustained by the technology around him, as had the spirit within; yet the desire to return had burned continually.
He now found himself, for only the second time in his life, staring down at what had once been his home, Earth. The part of him that was navigation assured him it was so; the ashen, gray globe beneath him was home, and the bloated red sphere to his back was the life-giver, the sun. Had it been so long? But he did not want the answer. It had been as long as it had needed to be.
He had set off one day, long ago. A gentle April rain was coursing down the side of his vessel as it rose from its field in Adelaide, and he left to see what lay on the outer edges of the solar system, and beyond. He was a combination of the animate and inanimate -- machine and flesh -- integrated so thoroughly that it was impossible to tell where man ended and where man-made started. He felt no regret at leaving the seething, boiling masses of humanity in his wake, only for his self-imposed exile from the green-blue ball that was shrinking rapidly behind him. Riding the cusp of relativistic travel, the universe aged around him whilst the man/machine did not.
Of life beyond Earth he found relatively little, most of it being confined to low mounds of algae and lichen-like forms eking out existence where life should have flourished. Higher forms he had encountered only four times, two of which were more concerned with feeding on themselves to be concerned with him. The third, being rooted physically to their planet and unable ever to leave, were so consumed with envy and anger they had refused to communicate with him in any way, save to vent their venom.
Only once did he meet what could be called highly developed sentience, close to the center of the galaxy, and he had been warned away, told he was not yet ready to enter, not truly "unbound," still a child of the soil and not of the stars.
In other places in the galaxy there was no lack of ruins, however. Many times, on many planets, he had seen traces of civilizations, some bearing the signs of conflagrations on a planetary scale that had seared life from the very surface, while others appeared to have choked on their own filth. A few races had, seemingly, quietly given up, and drifted into oblivion as their spirits died, and for some worlds the universe itself had conspired against the life it had nurtured, sending death from the heavens in untold ways.
All was death, and where he had found life he found no companions, no peers, no solace. Mankind, he had considered during his homeward journey, was truly alone in facing its future.
And now he could see that the promise of his species was naught. The atmosphere was stripped by the solar winds; seas and life had been burned by the radiation of the sun. His home was a cinder. No man or woman walked the surface, no work of Earth's many civilizations had survived. What had been raised up, was now cast low -- the highest and the basest desires of humanity all availing nothing.
He had outlived his father, which was as it should be, but he had also outlived his children, a tragedy by any other measure, except that he had also survived his children's children, and theirs, and so on. Older than his country, and his civilization, he was now all that remained of his race, the sole reminder of the brief and vainglorious rise of life in this small part of the galaxy. Though a man/machine, he wept bitterly; he was truly alone now in the universe, more than he thought possible. There was no Earth to be bound to, none like him to mourn the greatest loss. He was now a part of the cosmos, whole and complete in himself. He remembered, then, a place once unprepared for, now perhaps admissible. He turned his face to the galaxy's core, and left.
Story copyright © 1998 by Andrew Massey <email@example.com>
Artwork "Red Planet Scout" copyright © 1998 by Eric Seaholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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