Dune Circles, by Ehrad

The Planets I Have Visited
by Lee Beavington


Dave stared idly at the stars. So small and insignificant. His outstretched pinky fingernail was able to cover several of those tiny, twinkling lights.

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are...

Dave didn't have to wonder. In his sixty-four years, he had been closer to them than any other man.

In reality, those specks were raging infernos, large enough to consume the seven planets. He should know. Unlike most of the spectators here, he had lived his life outside this observatory window.

He tried to spot Jupiter, the one-hundred-and-twenty-seven other space stations obscuring his vision. Most likely she wasn't within his limited field of view. No matter how large or curved the plane of glass, an observatory could never match being surrounded by three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of black.

Infinity in every direction.

He turned away. Infinity would have to wait, because his life was very finite. A dozen others were in the observatory, looking through starscopes.

"Spoiling it for yourselves!" he muttered.

A woman glanced his way, then went back to her cheatscope. Dave shook his head. Some things shouldn't be substituted by technology.

"Why don't you look for Pluto?"

He smiled. Pluto was one planet they would never see from here. Dave had done much more than that -- he had been there.

There were roughly 100,000 humans in existence. None, he thought with pride, had explored further than Astral Dave.

He twisted in his chair, shifting his weight. The arthritis in his hip ached, reminding him of his limited time left for exploration. This room, the largest on the station, still felt confining. Sure, the station orbited Mars. But orbits always repeated themselves. Three weeks he'd been here. Twenty-one trips around Mars. Twenty-one too many.

Since his arrival, he had spent barely half a day together with his son, Jeremy. The truth was they were as different as Mercury and Mars. Dave was hard, steely, and fearless; Jeremy predicable, average, and -- at the very least -- dependable. Jeremy's mother provided the link between them. When Julia passed away, the two of them drifted apart like a satellite circling an antigravity planet.

The door to the observatory hissed open. Dave cringed. But it wasn't Jeremy. His tall -- at least for his age -- and gangly grandson, Adam, skipped happily over the threshold. Probably sent here by his parents, so they wouldn't have to deal with their precocious child or his restless grandfather.

Adam went to a food generator, getting himself some porridge. Eating, like most things aboard a station, was a chore. Synthetic protein, lipids, and carbohydrates were neither appetizing, nor a very natural diet for a growing boy.

Adam halted in mid-step. Their eyes met in a collision of joyous youth and venerable cynicism. The boy must've finished his lessons for the day. Too smart for his own good. He had a spark in him though. Dave admired that.

"Hi, Grandpa," Adam said. He didn't sound enthused. Couldn't blame him. It took a brave soul to approach this old curmudgeon.

"Well, what do you want to talk about?" he promptly asked the eleven-year-old. Dave wouldn't move from the observatory, or his chair for that matter. If he and Adam were going to spend time together, they were going to sit and talk.

Adam opened his mouth, then paused, his lips forming a flattened "O", uncertain of what to suggest or how to go about doing so.

"Nothing at all? That suits me just fine."

"Grandpa Dave," the boy finally said. "Could you tell me about how you've been to all the planets?"

So Jeremy had told him. Heck, he didn't give himself enough credit. Astral Dave's explorations were probably part of the school curriculum.

"Did the teacher speak to your class about me?"

Adam swallowed. "One of the older kids said you've never been further than Jupiter's moons."

Dave harrumphed. "Fortunately, he's been misinformed. I can tell you the real story. But you'll have to demonstrate to me the first rule of an explorer."

In response, Adam positioned himself on the floor next to his chair, waiting expectantly.

"Patience. Correct."

Dave peered out the observatory window. Where to start? The red planet rolled into view. He thought he could make out the Tharsis Bulge, craters and all.

That's as good a place as any, I suppose, Dave thought. He focused on Adam, but it was the windblown desert sands of Mars that he saw.

"Like most, I've been to the Martian surface many times. I tend to stay away from the colonies. I can't believe those fools still build cities. Sooner or later a sandstorm will rise up, and they'll have to start all over again." Adam opened his mouth to object. "I don't care what they teach in your classes. Humans are not a planet-dwelling species. We belong in space."

Adam was silent.

"Now, the nice thing about Mars is that you can go exploring on your own. No need for a guide. 'Proceed at your own risk' the signs say. As far as I'm concerned, every planet should follow that simple rule."

Dave collected himself for a moment, closing his eyes.

"It ain't easy walking over those dunes in an oxygen suit. But I manage. The sand gives way to rock, and I find myself at the grandest of all volcanoes: Olympus Mons. Its base is wider than some moons. Towering into the sky, a man could spend years exploring every nook and cranny. I search for Pavonis caldera -- a rocky valley right inside that fiery mountain. Careful steps are required as I climb down, and soon steep cliffs surround me on all sides. I almost wish Olympus would erupt, just so I can see the molten rock form entire new valleys and hills. But this volcano, like all on Mars, has been dormant longer than humankind has been active."

He eyed Adam, but found no evidence of his grandson's attention waning. Adam wasn't being good just for the sake of being good. He seemed to have a genuine interest in planetology. They had a closeness that Dave and his son had never developed.

"Something happened then. A natural disaster of another sort. One still very much common on Mars.

"The sandstorm came out of nowhere. No sound. Just a crashing wave of red. It hit me like thunder. I flatten myself against the rock face, but the storm is in full control. The grains of sand run over my body in rivulets, cutting into my suit. There's nothing for me to do but cling to hope.

"Fate can be a strange thing. Being inside that cauldron of rock is what saved me. I took that as a sign. I had survived Mars. Now I was ready for the others."

He stared for a minute at his dutiful grandson, and the empty bowl beside him. "Are you sure you're ready to hear my other stories? Not all of them have a happy ending."

"I think so."

"You think."

"I mean, I am ready."

Dave gave him a glowering stare, just to make sure. Adam didn't flinch.

"All right then. My most recent visit was to Io and Europa. The latter moon has its own atmosphere. Perhaps in your lifetime it'll be colonized. I know, I know. It's the gas giant itself you want to hear about. Give me a second to dig up that memory.

"Back then, you couldn't pilot your own ship to any of the six other planets. A navigator would take a dozen people, which is a bit cramped for half a year's journey. You get to know each other pretty well. Speaking of fate, that's where I met your grandmother. A fierce woman. Wanted nothing to do with me, until lightning struck. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"You can't really say you've seen all of Jupiter, because she's so darn big! Three times the combined mass of the half-a-dozen other worlds in our solar system. I can feel the gravitational pull before we pass the first of her seventy moons, most of which are small enough to be ignored. She may be as lifeless as a Martian rock, but Jupiter bustles with activity. Countless oval hurricanes dot the surface, while convoluted cloud patterns stretch across the entire half-a-million kilometer perimeter. White, orange, brown, and beige -- colours so plain you wouldn't figure them to be mesmerizing.

"As we draw nearer, I notice the Great Red Spot. Big Red's a hurricane large enough to engulf Venus, if it ever had the inclination to do so. It's a darker shade of orange than the surrounding haze, a giant eye amidst the swirling clouds of gas. Scientists say it's been staring out from the surface for over a millennium; makes one wonder if some other force is at work, and I don't mean convection currents.

"The navigator keeps a good distance between us, lest we get snared in that whirling vortex. Yet this is no ordinary sight-seeing tour. We're going to the surface.

"Our antimatter propulsion has been shut off for days -- we simply let Jupiter pull us in. I have to say, going into that maelstrom is a frightening prospect. Who knows what's waiting for us below? But the next thing I know, we're inside.

"All I can see out the viewport is a jumbled mass of colour. Gold turns to bronze, and orange becomes a sinister red as the lethal clouds of ammonia and hydrosulfide thicken. All of a sudden we pass through, and the sky dims. But no one is looking up. Every eye is fixed toward the Stygian sea below.

"The all-encompassing ocean of liquid hydrogen glows an angelic blue. There are no waves. The pressure's far too strong. Anyway, there's no coast or shore, because there's no land -- this omni-ocean covers all of Jupiter.

"We stay there for a little over an hour. For once everyone is hushed, gazing down at the quiet and endless sea, while above us the billowing clouds race across the stratosphere. And then I get the shock of my life.

"I'm not one easy to scare, but everything was so serene, that I can't help but jump when the lightning strikes. I know what you're thinking. Lightning's not that dangerous. But this was a Jovian thunderbolt. Different from Mars. More like a giant web of condensed electricity.

"It snaked down from the clouds so fast that by the time it disappeared I still wasn't sure I'd seen it. The lightning fell just short of the ocean of hydrogen. I cringe to think what might've happened if it touched down -- I wouldn't be here today, I can tell you that!

"No one else actually saw it; not observant enough, if you ask me. But they saw the flash, so bright the entire sky lit up. I wonder if it'd been cast down by the red eye, sending us a warning. We'd trespassed into her domain, and it was time to go.

"Except she didn't give us time enough to escape.

"The second strike came without warning, blinding one poor fellow who had just taken off his goggles to scratch an itchy eyebrow. I shut my eyes, but still only saw white. We waited in its wake for the thunder to crash. But it never came. I never thought silence could make my heart beat so fast.

"By this point, most everyone is in a panic. I just wait for our fate to be written. One of the other passengers, Julia, took a liking to that, and clung to me throughout the ordeal. When our navigator started pulling away from the fluid surface, I almost objected. It's not often that you're near the surface of Jupiter, with a beautiful woman in your arms. Little did I know that seven out of our eight lightning shields had burnt out."

Dave surveyed his audience. Adam sat, captivated, eyes unblinking. A man and a woman -- both in their late twenties -- stood to one side, holding hands, intent on hearing more. Star-crossed lovers. Enjoy it while you can, he thought. Odds are, it'll be the death of you.

"What happened next, Grandpa Dave?" Adam prodded.

"Next?" He paused for dramatic effect. "Next...was Saturn. A miniature solar system. Thirty-nine orbiting satellites. Do you know which is the largest?"

"Titan," Adam chimed.

"That's right. Titan. Bigger than Mercury. If it orbited the sun, we'd call it a planet. Now, I'm not going to talk about Saturn much -- or Neptune for that matter, this was actually a dual visit. I hate to say it, but they were less than spectacular. After Jupiter, they were more of the same on a much smaller scale.

"Did I mention that Julia's our navigator? Graduated from flight training the year before. What a beautiful mind -- and body -- she had. I'll admit, it's no coincidence that I booked this particular flight.

Something important did happen on the way home. Something unexpected, which is a given for most expeditions. Except this leaves us with very few options."

Dave pretended to think it over. In reality, he loved stretching the tension.

"What happened?" Adam finally pleaded.

"We lost power. The antimatter propulsion refuses to respond. So we are drifting. As luck would have it, we were smack dab in the middle of the Asteroid Belt. When you're right in that kaleidoscope of ice shards, rock fragments, and frozen gases, each of those bits becomes your enemy.

"The first impact just shakes the hull a good deal. The next is enough to jolt our trajectory. I can't help but mumble a quick prayer.

"Julia, bless her soul, gets the antimatter propulsion up again. We're safe! It's smooth sailing the rest of the way home. With one problem. The only system Julia can't get back online is waste management. Disposal bags suddenly became a valuable commodity! Those with slippery bowels bartered as best they could. A gold watch got you three bags. Everyone lost their appetites mighty quick. The last week, I think we all fasted."

Dave chuckled. "Not all of us were concerned with food. Your father was born not long after we got back to Mars. I dedicated myself to the family for five years. But the cosmos never stopped beckoning."

He turned to look out the window. The stars continued to shine.

"Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky."

Dave hadn't meant to speak aloud. He eyed Adam suspiciously, but his grandson was the one who looked embarrassed. Recognition passed like a shadow over his face. Probably thought he was too old for nursery rhymes.

"Does your Mom ever sing that to you?"

Adam replied with a sheepish smile.

"No. But my Dad does."

Of course. Julie would've passed it on to Jeremy.

Dave was silent a moment.

"A few historians believe our solar system once had more than seven planets. In fact, another gas giant could be found somewhere between Saturn and Neptune. The so-called Uranus.

"As the story goes, something knocked it out of orbit. Uranus collided with another planet, creating a second asteroid belt between Venus and Mars. Even if there's a grain of truth to it, I can't see the point of devoting your life to what is no longer there."

Adam nodded attentively.

"In between my trips, science and technology kept advancing. Each successive voyage became faster and a little more comfortable. By the time I started preparing for the Pluto visit, taking my own ship became a possibility. Despite the requisite months of training, there really isn't much to piloting nowadays. Everything's preset. It's a wonder navigators haven't become obsolete.

"Pluto was first. Frankly, I've seen bigger moons. Many don't even consider her to be a planet anymore. Just an asteroid that happens to be in an area where there aren't many asteroids. Most likely she used to be one of Neptune's satellites. And you gotta see the creation before you see the creator.

"It's one long year getting there. Since I'm on my own, there's no one chattering. It's a bit surprising how much you miss things like that, even if it's something you can't stand!

"I did, however, have a companion for part of the journey. The Noom asteroid is making her once-in-a-lifetime appearance. Two, if you're lucky. A rocky diameter larger than Pluto's is all you see from Mars. Hidden is the tail, long white streaks that trail endlessly behind."

"So I'm on my way to Pluto, with this asteroid by my side. The Noom's going a lot faster than I, but she's far enough away that I can follow her with my eyes. One morning just a white dot behind me; by next day's eve only her snowy path through space is visible.

"What's strange about the Noom is that she's a nearly perfect sphere, more so than any other asteroid or comet. The leading theorists say she was originally a moon around a planet. And she was called The Moon. I can't think of a sillier name for a satellite. Like calling Mars The Planet. The Noom's orbit is pretty stable now, and her visits are always right on time. She'll be back in time for you to see her again.

"By the time I reach Pluto, the sun isn't much brighter than your average star. I can see the myriad hills and valleys covering the dark, maroon surface. It looks gloomy and cold from space. A forgotten world.

"I take over from the autopilot. In the sims, they throw every possible scenario and malfunction your way. Here, the hardest part of landing is finding a safe site to set down amongst the jagged foothills. I spot a clear region, and touch down without a hitch. For several minutes I just sit there, stunned. Then it hits me. I'm actually on Pluto.

"Looking out the viewport, I see that my chosen landing site is a vast wasteland of ice. It glows a pale blue, so I dub it the Azure Plains. This far from the sun, what else would you expect but an icy planet?

"The best part about navigating solo is that I'm free to act however I want. And that means I'm slipping into my oxygen suit and going outside. You see, spacecraft cut off your senses. You can't hear the moaning of a ghost world, or touch its alien surface. There's no feeling. Now the oxygen suit does limit those things. Yet being able to stand on another world gives you a sense of what it's really like.

"I step off my ship and onto Pluto, careful of the icy footing. All I can hear is the hissing of the oxygen tank, and my own shallow breathing. Outside the suit, a deathly silence surrounds me.

"To either side stands some sort of formation. Maybe low-lying mountains? Except they are covered in sparkling pinpoints of light. Thousands of them in fact, twinkling, like blinking eyes. I haven't come all this way to back down. So I head towards one of the formations. It's pretty easy-going over the Azure Plains. My suit just feels like an extra layer of skin. With the aid of gravity, or rather its near absence, I can probably take thirty-meter jumps if I want to.

"As I get closer, I notice these aren't jagged hills at all. Towering over me is a mountainous range of frozen methane. The sparkles on the gigantic crystals remain a mystery, until I realize it's just reflected light. Five-billion kilometers away, and the sun's rays still provide a twinkle. I can see Neptune, a mosaic of turquoise. The blue and green are familiar. More natural. It's unsettling how much bigger that planet looks, sitting next to the sun in Pluto's sky.

"I turn to head back. But my ship is gone.

"All I can see are glittering lights. In every direction. Suddenly I'm not sure which way I'm facing. I stumble around in a panic. I'm at least fifteen minutes from my ship, and I've got thirty minutes of air in the tank.

"Finally, I figure it out. My ship's hull must also be reflecting light. Camouflaging, if you will. Of course, that doesn't help me. In my haste I almost propel myself off the weight-deprived surface. I fall to my knees, hugging the ground. That's where I find my saviour.

"It's so simple. A clear trail of tread marks is lying there for me. All I need do is follow my own footprints back to safety."

Adam was smiling. Dave smiled back. The observatory door slid open, and Jeremy entered with his wife, Susan. They looked well, Susan's belly swelling with another life. A carefully planned pregnancy. He felt some discomfiture at the dissimilarities to his own life. Jeremy and Susan joined Adam, Susan giving him a hug. He nodded to them and got back to the story.

"My sojourn on Pluto is relatively short, considering the length of the journey. But I'm not one to stay in one place for long."

"How come?"

Dave didn't answer right away. The question didn't take him aback. But he knew his answer could be critical to his heritage.

"Well, Adam, I think I've got the explorer gene in me. I don't know where we started as a species. But it wasn't this sterile space station. Had to be a planet. Not Mars. Maybe Venus before the greenhouse gases ate up her atmosphere. In any case, our ability to explore and adapt is what brought us here. Now we live in these floating prisons. Ironic, in a sense. But the ones who become dependent on the stations, they'll make up the bulk of the next mass extinction."

"Dave, please! Don't tell him such things."

"Sorry, Susan. Just telling it like it is. Now where was I? Oh right. I was about your Dad's age by the time I returned from Pluto. The doctors called me a crazy fool. Too much space travel isn't good for you! But I've outlived most of them. Then there were the tests. I let them do far less than they wanted, but far more than I should've agreed to.

"I stayed close to home over the next while, resigning myself to Phobos and Deimos visits, as well as the less-traversed regions of Mars herself. Didn't want to get my flying license revoked. Heaven knows I was due for some family time. I put in ten good years.

"I never planned on visiting Mercury or Venus. But since I'd seen the others, I figured I might as well see them all. With Jeremy all grown up, the time seemed right."

"Did my Dad ever go on one of your expeditions with you?"

"No. I think the explorer gene skips a generation. So you should be fine, Adam," he explained with a wink at his grandson.

"In fact, your Dad said I couldn't go. Pretty strange, huh, Adam? A son telling his father what he can't do. But as it turned out, your Pa was right. This was one voyage I should've skipped.

"We compromised: I would take a navigator. If you're paying someone to do something, I figure it can't be that dangerous."

He caught Jeremy shaking his head.

"What's more foolish? Traveling to the seven worlds in our solar system? Or staying cooped up in a space station your whole life?"

"Hold on a second, Dad. Couldn't you tell a story a little less..."

"...real? No -- it's best to speak the truth. A lesson I learned far too late in life."

He faced his grandson. "As it turned out, the same navigator that had taken me to Saturn was piloting the ship to Mercury. That's your grandmother, Julia, if you remember. After saving my life and all, not to mention having my one and only child, I couldn't be happier.

"We move through the orbit of Venus without actually seeing her. That clever planet is hiding behind the sun. Despite the reinforced heat shield, I swear I can feel the temperature in the ship rising. Fifteen million Kelvin -- I bet you can convert that, Adam -- how could you not feel that blazing inferno? I start to make out dark sunspots and long black scars. It's disconcerting to think the source of energy for all life has imperfections. I guess none of us are perfect, me least of all.

"The brilliance blinds our view of Mercury, until Julia manages to put the scorched planet between us and the sun. It's not much of an eclipse, mind you, but at least we can take off our solar goggles for a bit.

"Mercury is a world in ruin. A small, dense kernel of heavy metals. Her copper-coloured surface is one of vast devastation, pocketed with impact craters. Only a few small lava plains have survived the bombardment. The atmosphere is so thin that it feels more like approaching a small moon. Julia takes us inside a crater a hundred times the size of this station, setting down near a huge ridge of rock, the Discovery Rupes escarpment, which neatly blocks out the glaring sunlight. A faint band of cosmic violet light -- dust illuminated by invisible sunbeams -- rises up above the scarp. Looks like heaven, perhaps. But lemme tell you, she burns hotter than hell.

"We only stay on the surface for a few minutes, else we'd melt and become a part of it. Julia flies us over the desolated cinder. Mercury's been dead, geologically speaking, for billions of years. A big volcanic boulder crisscrossed by long ravines. I'm not that sad to leave the child of the sun. It's not a place meant for humankind.

"To prove that point, no more than an hour later our hull breaches."

Susan coughed. Dave paused, looking down at Adam. No, the truth was best.

"I don't know if it's the heat, or an impact, or a framework flaw, but the oxygen is being sucked out of the ship. Julia gets us to the other end of the ship, and seals off the navigation section. That's where the rupture is. Everything looks fine for the moment. The air is too thin, but releasing all the oxygen from the suit tanks solves that. Out the viewport, I can see Mercury falling from view. A good sign. Except the sun is dead ahead.

"The autopilot is malfunctioning, unable to compensate for the decompression. And for some inexplicable reason it has chosen that raging inferno as our new destination.

"Julia tells me to keep everyone calm. Then she opens the hatch to navigation and pulls herself in. Before I can stop her she's locked herself on the other side."

Dave stopped. He had told this story before, but always omitted the last bit.

"The hatch stays closed for two weeks. The rescue officers transfer the crew to their ship. But I'm adamant that I be there when they break in. Julia is slumped over, still at the console. She left us where we were safe, while navigating the ship away from the sun with the last moments of her life. A brave woman, your grandmother."

Dave closed his eyes. Brave, perhaps. But damn foolish to put up with a man like him.

He glanced at his audience. Jeremy and Susan seemed distressed at his latest tale. Adam, on the other hand, didn't look at all fazed. It somehow made Dave proud. But the more he felt it, the more his regret swelled. He had never been much of a father. Why feel guilty now?

There were over a dozen people listening to him talk, and another five or six pretending they weren't. It was time to move on, and a pity that things had to come to an end. But he'd saved the best for last.

"The veiled inferno. Julia had always wanted to go. So I decided to make the trip for her. The journey itself is uneventful, so let me take you right there.

"Venus looks beautiful from space. Peaceful and elegant, covered in creamy white clouds. Yet as I get closer, I realize that all isn't as it seems. The opaque clouds are concealing a hidden underworld.

"I plunge right into the billowing shroud of sulphuric acid, hoping my ship's hull won't be corroded away. Amidst the ivory clouds flashes of light flicker all around me. Then there's the sound, a tremendous roaring that grows in intensity, like thunderous waves each with a crescendo louder than the last.

"A minute later I break through the cloud barrier, and enter the abyss.

"Mercury is a dead world. Venus is in the midst of being ravaged. Volcanoes spit black smoke, sprouting lava that flows in rivers across arid plains. Craters dot the surface, and a massive trench stretches beyond sight, an open wound in the planet's shell. Lightning erupts, and the deafening sound crescendos once more, the result of the perpetual thunder brought forth by a ceaseless display of electrical fireworks. Acid rain falls from the sulphur-laden clouds, evaporating before the drops reach the blistering surface. The Planet of Love, at least at her core, more resembles the netherworld.

"I set down on the Ishtar Terra highland, a proto-continent overlooking the rolling plains. After the turbulent upper atmosphere, the windless surface is almost jarring. I can feel the weight of the atmosphere, a thousand times greater than on Mars, pushing the ship down. The framework isn't as strong as the navigator ships, but it holds. I made a mental note to thank the engineer who'd installed the antigravity device.

"I soon realize this isn't the safest place to be, and decide not to press my luck any further. As it turns out, on this day, luck is my only ally.

"Shortly after I take off, about to re-enter the veiling clouds, I am engulfed by a blinding light. Perhaps lightning struck the ship. I don't have time to think. Sparks fly inside the spacecraft. One of the warning gauges bursts, and another is blinking at me: my antimatter fuel is leaking. Something jolts the ship, and the next thing I know I'm surrounded by darkness.

"At first I think I've entered Hades itself. I shake my head, and see that I've passed from the morning to the evening star; from the bright hemisphere of Venus to her sunless side. Everything is black. Only the instrument lights on the control panel assure me that I'm still in my ship. Yet when I look carefully, I can make out dim flashes in the pale background. The intermittent lightning briefly turns the clouds from ebony to ivory.

"I figure I must've blacked out for awhile -- how long, I'm not sure. But my antimatter is almost gone. I take over the controls from the autopilot and thrust directly upwards; the fuel starts declining twice as fast. The cloud layer goes on and on. There's another eruption of light and sound, close enough to shake every fibre of my being. The propulsion is slowing. Already I can feel the ship started to reverse direction, being pulled back into Venus....

"I figure I'm done for. The navigation system is beyond salvation, and the hull eroded in a dozen different sections. But one thought keeps me going: Julia's spirit. Never give up hope.

"I jam the autopilot on an upward course and hop into the escape pod. I know I have to time it just right. So I wait. The walls of the pod are shaking terribly. But I wait. An explosion of glass and metal burst on all sides. But I wait. My brain can no longer handle all this stimuli. Once I know my consciousness is slipping, then I eject.

Dave laughed at his grandson's look of dismay. "Don't worry! If I hadn't survived, I wouldn't be here telling you this tale, now would I? My pod had enough momentum to break out of the stratosphere and into the starlit cosmos, and I got picked up and brought back home. I tell you, more than ever, I found myself longing for the red sands of Mars."

Dave stopped there, satisfied with his story's ending and the scattered applause it garnered from his audience. He turned to stare out the observatory window.

"Grandpa?" Adam turned silent a moment, uncertain. Then he asked, "What about Earth?"

"Adam!" Susan scolded. "You know better than to speak of such things."

Dave furrowed his face in thought, searching for a memory that didn't exist. "You don't think I'm that old, do you? Don't worry, Mom. Adam hasn't offended me. He's actually starting to make me feel proud. Now Adam, before I answer your question, tell me what your schooling has taught you about Earth."

"Teacher says we aren't allowed to talk about it."

"I gathered as much. Like an old, disagreeable myth, they want it forgotten. I'll do my best to remedy that for you.

"To picture Earth, imagine a planet with the most promising features of the others. It's the size of Venus, except the clouds are pure and white. Her surface resembles Mars minus the craters, and the extensive plains are smooth, bounded by mountains capped with snow.

"Water is present in liquid form, because Earth orbits at a precisely appropriate distance from the sun. And what water there is! Vast oceans cover most of the planet. But there's plenty of landmasses as well, covered by short, green plants. This makes the ground easier to walk upon. Rivers snake over the continents, supplying water so clean you could drink from it. Water even falls from the skies!"

A wave of laugher erupted from the crowd.

"I know, I know. The very idea is absurd. But let me continue.

"As the story goes, on Earth trees grow on their own. No need to genetically engineer them. Forests run from one side of a continent to the other. The soil underneath and atmosphere above offer everything they need. Everything humans need.

"And the animals. Species after species of every size and shape imaginable. I've only ever seen microscopic ones in the station biolab, but some of those on Earth dwarf the size of humans! They live in the deepest ocean or even fly above the surface without the aid of a ship."

"Then there's the most fantastic thing of all. You can breathe on that world, and swim in its many oceans, without wearing an oxygen suit. Visiting all the planets was my calling in life. But I would take it all back, just for a glimpse of Earth. Just for a moment, to walk in bare feet on a planet surface. To breathe the air being carried by a gentle breeze. And look up, over the verdant landscape, above the rising mountains, and gaze at the sky, whatever colour she might be."

"So Earth was real?" Adam asked eagerly. "Some of the other kids told me that's where we came from."

Dave looked into his grandson's eyes. "Some say it never existed. That it's just a fairy tale told to keep children dreaming. And you know what? They're absolutely right. If there was ever a time we called that impossible world home, we never would have bothered to leave such a heavenly paradise."

He suddenly grew tired. Time to retire. The stars, after all, would still be here in the morning.

"Storytelling is finished for the day," he said, getting up. "This old man needs his sleep."

Jeremy came up beside him. "I liked that last story."

At least they agreed on one thing. He may have embellished the others -- that's what a good storyteller did -- but sadly, the one about Earth was far more real than he cared to admit. Yet such a secret had to remain so. If people knew what they had left behind, what they had ruined, what incentive would there be to go on? To explore, and make a new home for themselves?

"I'm glad you've come to stay with us, Dad."

Dave stopped at the threshold, and looked at his son. "So am I. But I imagine I'll be leaving soon. It's in my DNA to wander."

"Won't you stay a little longer? For Adam's sake?"

Before stepping out of the observatory, Dave turned back. His grandson was standing up against the window, eyes wide with wonder. Outside, the stars still twinkled.

"Like a diamond in the sky...do you remember how the rest goes?"

Jeremy cleared his throat.

"Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark;
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so."

Dave smiled. "Maybe a little longer," he said.



Story © 2004 by Lee Beavington agentsage@hotmail.com

Illustration © 2004 by Ehard THUNDERSHUMA@aol.com

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