...he heard the sound behind him, and he knew what it meant. His teeth clenched in anger, his hands reached for the butt of the pistol. He whirled around to face the leaping figure, tears in his eyes as he pulled the trigger, sending the lethal energy tearing through the Corer, blasting the suit apart in an explosion of heated flesh and blood...
Arthur jerked bolt upright in his bed, the scream caught in his throat, the sheets thrown aside as his eyes snapped wide open in the dark. His breath came in heavy gasps, the image freezing itself in his minds eye, slowly fading away into the starlit surroundings of his quarters.
"Son of a bitch..." he muttered to himself as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His leave of absence from the Spaceforce, which he thought would be for only a few weeks, had stretched into months. The psych boys refused to even let him near anything resembling combat duty, and the dreams still persisted.
He had grown to hate dreams in the past few months.
The rooms sensors had detected his awakening, and the lights came on to a soft glow. He glanced at the chronometer beside the bed - ships time read 0345 hrs. A quick check of the comm unit revealed that the starship was still jumping through n- space, and would warp down in approximately half an hour.
Even though he resented the way the Force seemed to be sweeping him under the rug, a part of him still wished that he had been given more time. He had actually begun to understand his brother and what tied him to the farm planet they had been born on. Helping out with Peters ministry, spending time with his mother, and Jenny - he was beginning to settle into domesticity, and starting to enjoy it.
He gave a low, derisive snort. Whore you trying to fool, Arthur? A few more weeks and you would have gone stir crazy. Are you forgetting why you left Sigma Eleven in the first place?
Enough. He had new orders. A mission to perform. Not quite the return to active service he had envisioned, but an assignment nevertheless, carrying with it a promotion to Captain. They need not have bothered with the rather obvious bribe. He had been trained too well - the orders would have been followed, regardless of any icing to sweeten the deal.
But as he dressed, he wondered, not for the first time, where the battlecruiser was headed. The sealed orders had been frustratingly vague on that point. You are to proceed to the Beta Pavonis system, where you will rendezvous with the cruiser Pilgrimage, en route to a classified location. You are to offer assistance where and when necessary.
But what kind of assistance? And when would that assistance be necessary? So far, for the past few weeks he had wandered the ship, doing absolutely nothing and feeling more helpless than he had ever done in his life. He had tried to ask the crew where they were going or what their mission was, but no answers had been forthcoming. A check of the cargo bay had turned up crates upon crates of machinery whose purpose Arthur could not even begin to comprehend. Further, by the colour coding of the uniforms, there were more technicians and science crew on board than actual combat personnel.
But again, he had been trained too well. There had been a time when he would not even have contemplated any questions. A good soldier, following orders to the letter.
Now the words "good soldier" somehow made him nauseous.
Pinning the rank flash to his breast, he stepped out into the corridor. He made his way towards the grav-tube leading to the observation deck.
And God said, Let there be light.
The sudden exploding brilliance illuminating the darkness of space between the inner planets of the single-sun system could easily have been mistaken for a supernova. Within moments, the flash of tachyons annihilating themselves as they entered, for scant nanoseconds, normal space dissipated into a soft glow. The starship glided gracefully out of the warp-hole, space rippling behind it as the tear between universes gently sealed itself.
For weeks now, the crew had been accustomed to the black and grey streaks of n-space as the Pilgrimage, stubbornly ignoring the laws of Physics, leaped light years in a matter of days. Now the familiar patterns of stars had returned, and the battle-cruiser felt the shackles of Nature latch onto it again. It had been on its way to the war front to battle the Core Nations in the thirty-year conflict which was still sweeping the Galaxy when it had received new orders. Now it had reached its destination, culled from ancient starmaps, in a sector that had not been traversed for hundreds of years.
And God saw the light, that it was good.
The chamber in the belly of the starship was a semi-circular room roughly forty metres in diameter. Its curved wall was made up of unbreakable duraglass, a window that opened up on whatever lay outside the ship. Arthur stood on the observation deck, watching the orange-brown sphere rotating serenely below them. And as it rotated, the shadows of night slowly transformed themselves into day as behind it, the distant yellow sun revealed itself, casting light into the darkness. Verses unscrolled in his mind, as if from a distant memory.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and morning were the first day.
He felt sure that all this had something to do with the mysterious passenger on Deck Three. And now there was another piece added to the puzzle, the planet now below them. An orange-brown globe of dust-swept plains and wrecked landscapes. A world that, if not dead already, was certainly dying. Arthur recognised death easily. He had been thinking about it a lot, lately.
He heard the door to the observation deck slide open behind him. Arthur turned to see someone shuffling in the gloom of the deck. As the figure drew nearer, the starlight revealed his features - gnarled, antiquated, the wrinkles spreading like cracks on an old and broken mirror. He appeared incredibly aged, and it almost seemed that if you were to touch him, he would instantly crumble to dust.
"We should be within orbital range within an hour or so," said the old man, stepping next to Arthur, "If what the bridge informs me of is correct."
Arthurs gaze had never left the old man. His eyes had subtly changed when they had seen the planet, drifting away somehow. Distant, as if seeing something that wasnt quite there, at least not yet.
"Youre him," Arthur said finally, "Youre the passenger from Deck Three."
"Guilty as charged," he smiled, "My name is Joshua."
Arthur stared at the withered hand that was offered. The old man waited, then sighed.
"Go ahead, Captain. Im not going to bite you."
Arthur shook it. The grip was not quite as weak as he would have imagined.
"A pleasure, sir," he said, mechanically.
Joshua nodded, "Look. Ill make a deal with you. I get to call you Arthur instead of Captain, and you call me Joshua. Then we should get along just fine."
Arthurs eyes wandered back to the planet. Joshua nodded in its direction as it grew larger.
"I suppose youre wondering why youre doing here, son. And why this starship is going to that pile of rock that used to resemble a living planet?"
"Nobody seems to want to talk about it," Arthur said, irritated, somehow, with Joshuas sudden familiarity, "I suppose it must be important, although I dont see how."
Joshua raised a hand to the glass, tracing the outlines of the planet that was rapidly growing larger as they approached.
"Thats a dead world out there, Arthur. And Im maybe the last person in the Galaxy who cares. They owe me, and Im finally calling in the debt. Im going to make her live again."
"But why? And why this world?"
Joshuas hand gripped the railing tighter.
"Because we owe her. And because we used to call her Earth."
The silence of centuries was broken as the sky roared with the sound of fusion engines. Shuttles carrying payloads of machinery and robots streaked through the sky after having been dropped from the Pilgrimage, going to predetermined destinations. Above them, unseen, the battle-cruiser was also deploying satellites whose purposes would become clear later.
Arthur and Joshua watched from the planets surface, protected by environmental bracelets, whose force-fields provided life support. The initial report was not encouraging. Most of the atmosphere had bled away into space and the air pressure was nearly non-existent. No vegetation, and in fact no multicellular life was to be found anywhere, and the average planetary temperature ranged from fifty to eighty degrees Celsius.
Joshua sat on the edge of the shuttle hatch, resting his hands on a rather anachronistic walking stick. Arthur stared across the vast lifeless landscape. In the background, robots had finished the first of a vast array of vaporators stretching into the desert, which soon would begin spewing huge amounts of water vapour into the air.
"All this," Arthur spoke finally, shaking his head, the Confederation actually approved it? In the middle of the War?"
"Im owed a few favours here and there," Joshuas said, deadpan, "Do you consider it a waste, Arthur?"
Arthur turned back to face the old man.
"I think its a luxury we cant afford. To regenerate a planet thats obviously lifeless."
"I dont think Life is a luxury," Joshua shrugged, "A privilege, perhaps, but never a luxury. Nothing on this scale has been attempted before. There are a lot more planets out there better off than Earth. If our methods work here, they should work there as well, with equal if not better results."
Joshuas face wrinkled up as he smiled.
"However, I am wondering what makes one of the best starfighter pilots in the Galaxy suddenly get busted to a ground- level assignment. Would you consider that a waste, Captain?"
Arthur did not reply. He just glared at Joshua for a moment, then turned and walked away. Joshua chuckled inwardly.
As he stared into the barren, dusty sky, he remembered his words, spoken under a different sky. Were not killers! Were better than that! Youre the real aliens, the real monsters. We have the ability to kill, but we can choose not to exercise it. Youre not even alive - what gives you the right to say whether we live or die?
"And what gives us the right now?" he whispered. The robots continued their construction work. Arthurs hands closed into fists, and they trembled, wanting desperately to feel, but there was nothing there. As empty as the sands. As empty as the sky.
And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters... the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
"God created the world in seven days," said Joshua, "We, on the other hand, have a slightly more flexible time-table."
It took two weeks to fix up the last of the oxygen generators and set the foundations for the biome factories, terraformers that would create life-sustaining landscapes. They brought Arthur and Joshua back up to the Pilgrimage for the next stage.
"First things first," Joshua explained on the observation deck, "Weve got to cool her down, induce rainfall and create oceans. The vaporators are already setting up cloud patterns, and the satellites will create the necessary storms for us. But thats not enough. We need lots more water. And this is the fastest way to do it."
Arthur felt the entire cruiser lurch for a moment as the gigantic magnetic rail cannons of the Pilgrimage seemingly opened fire on the planet. Arthur watched a giant ball of white streak its way towards the surface.
Ice, he thought, numbly, Theyre shooting ice at her!
The ice meteor landed with what must have been the force of several hundred nuclear devices. Arthur saw a gigantic cloud of frozen water and dust rise from the impact spot. The cruiser fired again, and again. Arthur watched, spellbound, as the barrage continued. It would go on for nearly a week.
"What am I doing here?"
He found Joshua in one of the bio-gardens on the recreation deck. The vegetation was not merely decorative, but also provided some of the oxygen for the ship. Arthur repeated his question.
"Because I asked for you," Joshua shrugged, dismissively. Arthur fought back the sudden anger he was feeling. Joshua and the crew had pussy-footed around his questions for weeks.
"And why," he said through clenched teeth, "Did you ask for me? No more runarounds. I want a straight answer."
"Tell me about yourself."
"Thats not a straight answer," said Arthur.
"Ive read your records," Joshua continued, ignoring him, "But some of it is classified. Im wondering - you were one of the best fighter pilots in the entire history of the Spaceforce. An up and coming star, with the highest number of confirmed kills in deep space."
Arthur tensed up. He knew what was coming.
"And then something happened. Within the space of a few months, you go on extended, unrecorded leave. The psychologists at Fleet Command ground you. You complain of nightmares - Ive seen your alpha wave charts since youve come on board, Captain. They are not pretty, I assure you."
"Youve been monitoring me? What gives you..."
"My sources say there was an ambush by the Corers. And you crashed on a planet. Lost your nerve after that. But that explanation doesnt wash. Youve crashed before, I know that. What made that planet different, Arthur? What happened there?"
Arthur walked to the door.
"Go to Hell," he said, quietly, and left the chamber. The door slid shut in his wake.
Joshua glanced back through the duraglass. The water levels had risen enough on the planet for the satellites to begin weather control. Phase Three had begun, with induced volcanic activity making land-masses rise out of the primitive oceans.
"Storms starting," he said, "Now well see."
Arthur spent most of his time now in the bio-gardens. He felt better there - some of the plants reminded him of things that grew back on Sigma Eleven. And of Jenny. He wasnt entirely sure of what she meant to him, or how she would fit into his life. It looked like he would never find out, if this kept up. He heard the snap of a twig behind him, and looked up.
"I suppose," Joshua sighed, "I owe you an apology."
Arthur threw a pebble into the artificial brook they were beside. It sank to the bottom, the ripples following it vanishing quickly. He got up, straightening his uniform.
"You owe me answers," he said, simply, "Thats all Ive ever wanted. Im seeing what youre doing but I dont understand it."
"Theres a problem there," Joshua pointed through the duraglass at Earth, "And Im addressing it. Theres a problem here," he tapped the side of Arthurs head, "And Im addressing it also. Youre the problem, Captain. You wont tell Fleet what happened on Phi Fourteen, and thats killing you."
"Youre a psychologist?"
Joshua chuckled, "Im just an old man."
"I told them what happened. The convoy we were escorting was ambushed by a Corer fleet. My craft was damaged and I had to initiate a emergency landing on the planetoid Phi Fourteen. On the surface I encountered a downed Corer pilot. I neutralised him. Theres nothing more."
"You killed him."
"Thats what I said."
"And you can handle that."
"Look, this is irrelevant. Im a soldier. The Corer was the enemy. I was in a combat situation, and I did my duty. Thats what youre supposed to do, isnt it? Kill the enemy?"
"Is it? Youre a liar, Captain. Theres more to this than just war. Theres something inside you thats screaming for release but you wont let it out. Youve got to come clean as to what happened on that planet. Youve got to tell somebody whats eating you. Or you will definitely go mad."
There was a long pause before anyone spoke.
"Let me tell you," Joshua said, "How we killed her."
There was more than a hint of sadness in his eyes.
"Leonard Doppler, a lonely, paranoid genius, started it back in the early 21st Century, but he never saw his grand plans reach fruition. He only gave us the formulae that, theoretically, would allow space-time distortion, and postulated the existence of n- space, which would allow faster than light travel, thought by the post-Einstein physicists as impossible. But within half a century of Dopplers suicide, they actually managed to open a warp-hole at one of Jupiters gravitationally stable Lagrange points. And twenty years after that, they made the first jump. Earth to Proxima in two days."
Arthur tried to imagine those days, those cramped, bulky spaceships, with pilots that had to know every inch of circuitry that snaked through them. More engines than crew space. More machines for transportation rather than actual habitats.
"We had our n-drive. We had faster-than-light travel, because of the n-space shortcut. Mankind had the stars within his reach. Everyone was happy, so we packed our bags and started to leave home. No one saw the consequences, of course, until much later. But by then it was too late."
Joshua raised the walking stick, pointed at Earth beyond the window, the satellites swarming around her like insects. Cloud patterns swirled across her face, and Arthur could see flashes of lightning as the machines did their work.
"The Exodus Spaceward they called it. Earths best and brightest, those who the newly set up Terran Star Command thought would be tough enough to make it in the colonies they were setting up in Proxima and beyond. All of them left. The corporations piled tons of cash in off-world markets. Space factories. Mining facilities. Everything good went. The economy collapsed. Were not exactly sure who or what was left behind - but in another two hundred years they left as well. And this time nothing, and no-one remained. Except a broken, discarded husk of a planet that had been left to rot. She wasnt the enemy. By the time we realised that it was too late."
A young officer stood at the entrance of the deck. He saluted Arthur, nodding at Joshua.
"Excuse me, sir. You wanted to know the status of the operation. Bioscans report that unicellular life has been detected in the oceans. Shall we proceed with Phase Four?"
There were tears in Joshuas eyes. He nodded. The lieutenant saluted once more, then left.
"Phase Four?" Arthur asked, "Joshua? What is it?"
But Joshua was not listening anymore. He was on his knees in front of the duraglass, looking at her. He was whispering in a voice that suddenly seemed young, a voice in reverent prayer.
"And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
"And the evening and the morning were the third day."
"Have you heard of Gaia, Captain?"
Arthur sat up. By now, he knew that Joshua never called him Captain unless he was trying to get his attention.
"No," Arthur said, "But Im sure youll tell me."
Joshua laughed, "Dont get cocky with me, son. Theres not much to tell, really. The Gaia hypothesis was formulated by a scientist called James Lovelock back in the twentieth century, when he was working for NASA. Its a way of describing and understanding how the ecology works."
"I remember something about it from the Academy. Planets, biospheres as living entities. A bit far-fetched, I thought."
Joshua shook his head, "Not really. Only if you take it literally. Look at any thriving planet with any biomass worth speaking of. Its alive, no doubt about that. Gaia says that everything is connected, that life has a regulating effect on the environment. It forces us to view an ecosystem not as disparate elements of land, sea, air, lifeforms, and so on, but as a single system. Constantly evolving, constantly in flux. And everything balances everything out - if the system works right."
"But introduce Man..."
"Yes," Joshua acknowledged, "Imbalances, especially artificial ones, screw up the system. Of course, there are those who may argue that Mans creations are part of the natural order as well, but thats too deterministic for my taste. Take what happened here last month, for example. We miscalculated the effect of the volcanic activity. Temperatures we had been struggling to keep down were on the rise again. But we managed to stabilise it because of the increased rainfall, the oxygen rising because of our own mutated life in the oceans, and the jungles that are growing now because of the more conducive environment."
"And thats Phase Four."
"Growing the vegetation is Phase Four. Weve had the technology for years, but weve never tried terraforming - not on this scale before. Weve been content to mess around with our own little biospheres, controlled environments maybe fifty miles in diameter at the most. Weve never tried this on a planetary level. Its rather gratifying to see it work."
Arthur thought for a moment.
"Is that your job? What you do?"
Joshua raised his hands.
"Guilty as charged, although I thought you would have figured it out by now. Im an Earth scientist. I designed the self regulating life-support systems installed on Theta-class ships like this one. Not bad for a hundred and fifty year old man."
"But you still havent explained why. Why this operation? Why now? Why Earth?"
Joshua motioned for him to sit beside him.
"How old are you, Arthur?"
"Do you know how long you can expect to live?"
Arthur considered this for a moment.
"Dont bother," Joshua cut in, "I can tell you. You came from Sigma Eleven. Thats a farm colony, established during the Second Phase of the Exodus about five hundred years ago. Third generation stock, Earth-like planetary environment. Three hundred years. Maybe three fifty, if you take care of yourself."
A sad smile creased his features.
"A far cry from three-score and ten. Im a hundred and fifty because of modern technology, but it can only do so much. Im dying. They tell me Im not but I can feel it. You cant lie to yourself. And do you know why, Arthur?"
"Because Im human, and youre not. Dont look so shocked. Youre not human. Not Earther stock, like I am. Youre Spacer material. Youve been genetically improved over the centuries by living in space. Your parents were altered to live in the environments you were supposed to work in for optimum survivability. There was no malevolent intent behind it, no brave new world. It was necessary."
Arthur looked down at his hands, as if that were some indication of his humanity.
"And look at you. Youre stronger than homo sapiens used to be. More endurance. Stronger bone-structure. More efficient respiratory and cardiopulmonary systems. More intelligent. Better looking, definitely. The superior Spacer man. Homo stellaris, perhaps. I was never good at Latin."
Joshua sighed, "And its changing more everyday. The Confederation is thinking of specifically engineering for environments rather than wasting time with terraforming or biospheres. If youve got a water planet, let them grow gills. High gravity - bigger muscle tissue. Methane breathers. The proper term for it is pantropy - grow everywhere. And thats what humanity wants to do. Grow everywhere, change everything. Only Im not sure if in the end humanity can be really called that."
His voice was sadder now, and some of the age seemed to have crept back in. Arthur saw now the link between Joshua and the planet below them, the life and death connecting them both.
"Im the last one, Arthur. After me, no others. The last pure-strain human being. This is going to be my final gift. My legacy, to give back what we took. I want to show the Spacers my idea of redemption. That in the middle of this mess called War, Life can be built. This is our chance to make up for what we did. Our chance to be remembered.
"And to be remembered is all we ask. When, in centuries to come, when your seed scatters across a million million galaxies, all different. When the diversity of life reaches infinite mass - spare a thought for us. Remember where you came from."
Joshuas hand held Arthurs tightly, asking for a response.
"Now to my word," Arthur murmured, "It is "Adieu, adieu! Remember me". I have swornt."
It was the end of the fourth month. Phase Five had begun, the thawing out of cell samples and the cloning of animal life to be planted on an Earth that was rapidly becoming habitable.
"We were riding shotgun for a convoy of supply ships bringing food and medicine to the Frontier. Somehow, the Corers knew our route, and blasted us out of n-space. Some gravity bomb they had developed. The Corers fought like madmen, swarming all over us before we even had a chance to get a shot off. With my own gravity controls shot out, I couldnt even maneuver in zero-gee. I was dead. My only chance was this planetoid. Phi Fourteen. As I moved in for a atmospheric entry, I noticed another Corer interceptor was making its way there too. From the readouts, it was also damaged."
Arthur swallowed, and continued.
"There were... aliens on the planet. More mind than body. Ghosts, maybe, I dont know. They played with my mind. Made me have flashbacks of humanitys past. I became a caveman, killing his neighbour. A solder in the Vietnam War. A Negro being burnt to death by racists. A Chinese shot by a Japanese firing squad during the Second World War. What they did to the Corer I can only guess."
"Why did they do this?"
"Curiosity, perhaps. Wondering what was making us fight. What war was all about. They made us fight each other. Me and the Corer. I didnt want to, at first, but he came at me, and I had to kill him. That seemed to satisfy them."
"And you were rescued."
"I had never seen a Corer before that. Not face to face. I smashed his faceplate in and I saw him. All puffed up and bloated and awash in slime. He was ugly, and I hated him the moment I saw him. They seemed to feed on that hate - they seemed to like it, and they got us to do their dirty work for them."
"But you were a soldier. You killed the enemy."
Arthur smiled, that was a cheap shot."
"Sorry," Joshua said.
"Yes. I killed before. But not like that. Not personally. I pushed the buttons. I blew them out of the sky. But I shot this one at point blank range. I felt his green blood and his alien flesh splatter against me. I saw his body fall. I saw him die, damn it."
His hands were trembling.
"All through it I was telling myself. This was war. A killed or be killed situation. Like Patton said, centuries ago. You dont win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other bastard die for his country. So why did I feel so soiled? Why did I feel that it wasnt necessary? That he didnt have to die? We dont even know if he was a he - we know so little about Corer physiology. It could have been a female for all I know. I could have killed a woman."
"Would that have made a difference?"
"No. I suppose not. I hated the feeling of helplessness. As if we were part of this larger game that we didnt even have a choice as to whether we wanted to participate or not."
"But thats not the worst part."
"No. Thats not the worst part. The worst part is - God help me - even though I swore I wouldnt kill him, even though I didnt want to... I liked it."
He fumbled for more words.
"And Im wondering - what does that imply about us? Were supposed to be the good guys in this War. They attacked us first, so we retaliate in kind. Theyre the savages. Theyre the ones who are evil. I told the aliens that. I told them we were better. We are, arent we? Better?"
Joshua did not reply.
"But we arent. Not really. Not in any sense of the word. For all our philosophies and our talk about the glory of the human spirit, the soul. Were no better than animals. Were no better than them. We still kill in the same old way weve done for millions of years."
"And well still continue killing," Joshua completed the thought, "In the same old way."
"Yes," Arthur agreed, his voice breaking.
"Maybe," Joshua said slowly, "Knowing that is the first step toward fighting it. I think the problem inherent in humanity, or any sentient species with such high ideals is the denial of their animal, their feral past. It never works, because eventually it comes back to haunt them. The instinctual, reptile brain."
"And theres no turning back."
"Of course there is. We have the edge, because curiously enough, we are aware of the fact that we have a feral side to us. Make no mistake. It exists, and we can never deny it. But we can control it. We can use it to serve our purposes, channel it into something more positive."
Joshua rapped on the glass.
"She didnt deserve to die. By the time we realised it was already too late for her. We are all responsible. But by giving back Life, instead of Death, maybe we can redeem her - redeem ourselves. Shes more than just a planet. In a very real sense, shes the only planet that truly matters."
He turned to face Arthur.
"And when you manage to convince yourself that inside of you a human being exists, that is not just a plaything for your animal past, when you understand that Death is conquerable merely by the process of living, of returning Life to the universe that spawned you - then maybe your soul can find redemption."
By the end of the sixth month they could walk on Earth without life-support bracelets. Joshua pointed out the diversity of vegetation all over the planet, and the animal life they were planting in different climates all over Earth.
"Of course," Joshua said enthusiastically, like a boy playing with the biggest toy in the universe, "Were cheating. The only point of honour I had was to prove Millers experiment in the 1950s was not just a fluke. That from lifeless chemicals - water, methane, hydrogen, ammonia, reacting with ultraviolet radiation and lightning, you could create amino acids, the enzymes necessary for forming proteins. And from there evolve DNA, and unicellular life. We can accelerate evolution only so much. Were planting cloned birds, and mammals, and reptiles. Not the pure-strain type, unfortunately. A lot of the extinct species cell samples are not available to us. But weve managed to come up with reasonable facsimiles. And theyve been altered for high mutation and advancement rates. Were planting maybe thirty or so different genuses on Earth. Within a few centuries we hope to see thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of species."
"Genesis again," Arthur said, "And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven... Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth."
The terraformers were being dismantled. Now that the planet had been given her chance, self-regulation would take over. Mans job was done. It was her turn. Birds flew past them - colours and species Arthur had never seen before. When he had visited the vast plains of what used to be Africa, he could feel the shaking of the land, the thundering of hooves as buffalo trampled across the continent. Joshuas face was pure happiness.
"You never told me," Arthur said, "Why you asked for me, specifically, for this project."
Joshua thought for a moment before he replied.
"I needed someone who would understand what I was trying to do here, to be receptive to what I was going to show the Spacers, the whole Confederation. When I heard about you - how the psych boys were going to write you off - and read your profile, I had a feeling you were the right man. And at the same time, you needed healing as well. Looks like I was right on both counts."
They climbed to the top of a hill, where they could see the lush green valley they were in. Joshua spread out his arms, embracing the living world. He cried out.
"And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
"And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
"And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day."
"I didnt understand why the Corers were doing what they were doing," Arthur told Joshua, the wars been going on for over twenty years and we still dont know why its going on."
"They attacked first. For some people thats all the justification they need."
Arthur shook his head.
"Thats rubbish. Theres got to be a reason."
Joshua shrugged, "Is that really so important to you?"
"Yes. If I die, I want it to make sense."
Arthur stirred the embers of the camp-fire. Joshua finished up the last of the rations. The moon hung high in the night sky, and they could hear the chirping of crickets around them.
"Then you seem to be the only person in this entire Galaxy genuinely curious about why the Corers are doing this."
"Do you know?"
"Me? Im just an old man. And whatever they tell you, age does not necessarily bring wisdom. Only experience. I dont know. Do you still feel guilt over that Corers death?"
"I keep thinking, if I had been more in control, maybe all that could have been avoided. But I went back to Sigma Eleven after that. Made peace with my brother. Met Jenny - Ive shown you her holo. And what youre doing here. These past few months. Seeing Earth again. All that has helped."
"Control is a very tenuous thing. Not all of us have the good fortune to be in total control all the time. Sometimes, it is better not to. You lived. He died. I for one am very glad that it was not the other way around. I think you are, too."
"But that doesnt make it right."
"Youll make up for it. You have a life ahead of you. A lot of time to discover the answers - if indeed a lifetime is ever enough. Me, Im just an old man. I have reached my Promised Land, and I have shown it to you. It is finished."
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
And in the seventh month Joshua ended his work which he had made; and he died in the seventh month from all his work which he had made.
And Arthur buried him in the seventh month, and sanctified his grave in the world that he had given life: because in it Joshua rested from all his work which he created and made.
Arthur spoke into his comlink.
"Pilgrimage. Take me home."
"Whats going to happen to her, sir?" asked the lieutenant.
"Joshuas will was quite specific. The Sol system will be sealed off. No one will be allowed to approach, or to colonise Earth. Any life on her now will be allowed to develop on its own. Sol still has about five billion years before she goes nova. Maybe this time they can get it right."
Arthur looked on Earth one last time as she receded into the distance. They were approaching Jupiter now, and the warp-hole. It would take weeks to get Arthur back to Sigma Eleven.
There was a life waiting for him there. At least for a little while, at least until the next assignment that Fleet would send him on. He was still a soldier. That he could never escape from. But perhaps now he understood the reasons why he was who he was, and what he was.
And if he ever had a son, he knew what to name him. That was Joshuas last gift, that the ban would not apply to Arthur, or the members of his family. And one day, he would return here - maybe even with little Joshua, whenever he would arrive - to this birthgrave on the outer rim of the Galaxy. To where it all began.
Back to the Promised Land.
this story first appeared, in edited form, in Tesseract and takes place after A Certain Lunacy, seen in The Nightmare Factory.
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