Her Final Days I. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in deeply the crisp mountainous air. He paused before sighing with a white flash of vapor. Deep brown eyes took in the region as he reopened them, the mountains peaking high in the sky, capped with snow and cloaked in rich green forests, the exposed rock a cold stone gray. Doctor Thaddeus Polaris smiled warmly, sliding his hands into the pockets of his lab coat, its tails ruffling in the light breeze. It was not real, of course; the region existed, and the conditions were true, but it was an illusion; finely documented points in history displayed using a mass of photons. It was all a projection. The mountains faded away as the environment cycled to another region in the same time period. It had been like this for four weeks: each day Thaddeus awoke, clothed himself with his gray and white research uniform and his clean, white lab coat, and entered the laboratory and observation projection chamber. He would cycle silently through various environments from the past in order to prepare his preliminary analyses for the state of Earth’s current biosphere. It was not a difficult task; he had done it before, not to mention he spent far more time in the lab than was expected of him, but he had finished his actual work early, so the past week allowed him simply to enjoy the environments he had studied for years and held dearly. The ecosystems brought him peace. Thaddeus tapped a small panel on the floor with his lab shoe, cycling back to the mountain scape, his youthful eyes beaming as they took in the sight and the skin next to his eyes wrinkled as he held a pleasant grin. Polaris’ eyes were the only part of his body which never aged, at least not permanently, full of warmth only when viewing her: the Earth. His dark brown hair had begun to fade years before; highlights of gray now ran along the short, sharp edges of his hairline from his temple to his ears. Light wrinkles creased his forehead and the nooks of his face. He swayed back and forth a moment, the projection contorting to allow him a view at all angles of the surrounding region. A few specks of frost drifted by his face and he closed his eyes again. His ears pricked up. The tip of his lab shoe rotated ever so slightly as he maintained his balance, a slight inertial drag felt in his feet. He slowly opened his eyes, his head swiveling partly toward the chamber door as an eyebrow crept up inquisitively. “Must be close now,” he murmured, “Engines disengaged.” He buttoned his lab coat and rotated his wrist, glancing at his watch for the time just as a short rapping rang through the metallic door to the laboratory. “Just entered the system, Doc. ETA, five hours,” someone called through. Polaris nodded, still smiling as the other person moved on down the adjacent hallway. He unbuttoned his lab coat and pulled it off, folded it, and set it to the side as he sat down on the lab floor and folded his legs. He reached to the side and tapped on the small panel on the floor, freezing the projection frame on the mountainous environment which had been documented over millennia beforehand. Thaddeus then relaxed his muscles and allowed his wrists to rest against his knees. He breathed deeply and meditated silently for the next two hours or so, his eyes closed, as the intergalactic research vessel housing both Polaris and the laboratory sped into the solar system toward its destination: Earth. He reminisced on his past and his childhood just as he often did, recollecting his fondest memories of Earth long ago and his travels with his mother and father. His mother had been a botanist, specializing in the evolutionary patterns of equatorial vegetation in response to the ever rising atmospheric temperatures and subsequent changes to Earth’s water cycle. His father claimed the profession of geologist, whose specialty revolved around plate tectonic activity and lithosphere distortion due to inconsistent tidal forces from the expanding sun. It was through his parents that Thad had grown to love the planet Earth and all of her idiosyncrasies, none represented as finely by any other planet yet discovered and colonized. To him, and to his parents, she was the most beautiful and ever fascinating producer of life eyes could be laid upon. He recalled climbing mountains with his father in the North American west and Western Europe, the chilly, frost filled air nipping at their faces and hands as they surveyed the geological marvels and their accompanying valleys and occasional fjords, their peaks capped white and their bodies dressed in dense forests. His father spoke excitedly at all times when teaching his son throughout the years about the Earth’s varying layers and how they interacted with one another, always teaching Thaddeus something new to appreciate. With his father he grew to love the mountains, knowing the power which forced together tectonic plates many millennia beforehand to create such magnificence. With his father, too, he saw the raw power still held within the Earth herself, witnessing grand volcanic eruptions, which spewed lava high into the air and showered fire down onto the land. Even destruction was beautiful, because it still brought about new life. With his mother he recalled the dense tropical forests of South America, mostly, as they were the most spectacular to both Polaris and his mother. The exotic life teeming within those ecosystems seemed to sprout from every nook and cranny within the deep, warm forests, often times revealing to both Thad and his mother a new piece of life they had not yet seen. Those trips revealed just how much life Earth gave birth to and the diversity with which she worked. “It is fascinating,” she would often remark, “The number of species, species of all kingdoms, which lived alongside humanity for centuries, yet we had no idea until we discovered their fossils millions of years later.” It was their occasional trip to regions of plains, though it was not the focus of his mother’s work, such as the savannahs in Africa or the Midwest of North America, which revealed the graciousness of the larger organisms, such as herds of animals whose ancestors had been known as elephants and buffalo, to name two. “Life and graciousness are the epitome of beauty,” his mother also said. He agreed. It was their enthusiasm, their eagerness and yearning for discovery and understanding, and their humble respect for the very creator of their life which drew him to love what they loved. Mother Earth his parents only called her, and so too, he called her. He wished he had never left. He let out a soft, satisfied sigh as the light breeze from the mountainous projection ruffled his short hair. He cracked an eyelid just to catch a glimpse of his watch, breathed deeply, and stood from his seat on the floor. “Should be nearing Mars now,” he remarked, “Not too much longer at all.” He threw back on his lab coat, the tails swinging as his arms slid into the sleeves. He tapped a panel on the floor and a cylindrical console arose from the lab floor. It extended to just above his waist line. A small holographic image of the rotating Earth appeared above it. “Fantastic,” he murmured, pressing a button on the small screen at the top of the console before pulling a projection chip from it. He tapped a second button and the mountainous projection and the holographic globe faded away. The room was a clean white and silver. He flipped the small chip between his fingers as he strode to the chamber door, exiting the laboratory and heading for the bridge of the space vessel. It was a short walk, though he still allowed the projection of the Earth to pop up from the chip in his hand. He found two of the other researchers on the bridge with the Captain, Rigel Antares. “Given the projected expansion of the Sun, at this point in time we have an absolute maximum time frame of two weeks for this mission. But given the variations in tidal acceleration and helioseismic activity that our sensors picked up a short time ago, my best guess is we’ll have to cut this trip a few days short,” Toni informed the Captain. Toni Sargas was an astrophysicist who specialized in helioseismology and solar evolution. Her short blonde hair was tied in a bun, an electronic pen tucked through it. “We can expect the atmosphere to continue heating, modestly but steadily, as per the projection as well,” she said, pointing to a holographic image of sun, which hovered above the secondary data projection table at the center of the bridge, right next to the primary projection table, which ordinarily displayed the navigation and system diagnostics. The image gave off slight light pulsations along with coronal mass ejections of various sizes, the image playing out over an accelerated time frame. “That being said, if the current changes in tidal forces persist, we may have to modify the maximum time frame to only a week and a half,” Kalif Alderamin added, his curly, brown hair bouncing as he turned his head. Alderamin was the geologist and volcanologist chosen for the voyage to the surface of the Earth. “Distortions in the tectonic plating may cause global volcanic eruptions in the next week or so, but I can’t say for sure without a consistent trend.” “And ordinarily, coronal mass ejections wouldn’t pose this much of a threat from a star such as this,” Sargas said, pointing to the projection of the sun, “There simply isn’t enough energy to strip a planet bare with a single CME, but given the level of deterioration of the atmosphere and magnetosphere over the past several decades, a decent sized CME could finally strip the rest of the atmosphere and magnetosphere away.” “Very well,” Antares nodded, “We’ll see how it plays out; volcanic activity as well as solar distortion of the magnetosphere could deal quite a bit of damage to the ship. If we have to lift off early, we’ll do so.” He glanced to the airlock to find Polaris walking in with a globe of the Earth rotating just above his palm. “Ah, Doctor Polaris, good to see you!” Polaris nodded as he shut off the hologram and stuffed the chip in his pocket. “As it is to see you as well, Captain. I suspect everything has been smooth sailing thus far?” “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Rigel responded, pulling up their projected path on the navigation table. “We’re on course and schedule; should be there in about an hour.” A holographic image of the vessel extended up above the table, the vessel approaching images of Mars and its moons, its projected course highlighted with a blue, curved line of light. The holographic map rotated to give multiple angles of the hologram. The bridge itself was an oval, its greatest curvature located at the point of entry to the bridge and along the viewing windows at the front of the room. Computer screens and consoles lined the walls, and the main projection tables sat at the center of the clean white and silver room. “Our landing zone will place us just a few hours from sundown,” Rigel informed the others, “I suspect you’ll maximize your time and get out there for at least a few hours?” He clicked on a small panel beside the secondary projection table and a large globe snapped into existence, spinning slowly, their landing zone highlighted with a small blue dot. Their projected path curved around the rotating globe, extending to the point of touchdown. “I plan to,” Thaddeus replied, moving toward the center of the bridge to examine the holograms. “It would be in the team’s best interest,” Kalif nodded. “We’ll be able to get some basic readings for our preliminary work tomorrow. We’re gonna grab food down in the mess hall first, though, and suit up as we land.” Kalif looked to Polaris and then to Toni uneasily, and nodded at the doorway. She followed his lead and whisked away. “Want anything, Captain?” Alderamin asked. “No, I’ll be alright,” Antares replied as Kalif disappeared through the airlock. He looked at Thaddeus. “Joining the others, Doctor?” “I’m not much hungry,” Polaris responded, studying the number sequences on the display. “I’d rather stay here, if that’s alright with you.” “Not a problem, I enjoy company,” the other responded, moving off toward the viewing windows. He stopped in front of the two navigation terminals, shaped like L’s, one rotated clockwise once and the other rotated but pointing in the opposite direction. “I appreciate it,” Polaris told Antares. He flicked his fingers along a few images on the screen, reading the data outputs for the orbits of Mars’ moons as the images expanded. “I don’t fit in with the others much.” He contracted the images. “I understand,” Rigel replied. Polaris paused, looking through the images before turning to face the Captain. Rigel turned to meet the Doctor’s puzzled expression. “I haven’t spent nearly as much time on Earth as you, Doc, but there’s a reason why I’ve volunteered and secured this pilot position for decades,” Antares responded, folding his arms. “Earth is... Earth is something special. And that’s something the others don’t see.” “They don’t appreciate Earth for all that it’s given them,” Polaris said. “Not many people do anymore, Doc.” “We’re a dying breed.” “We always have been.” Polaris breathed deeply through his nose and walked toward the front of the bridge. The image of the vessel above the table slowly left Mars and her moons behind, another small globe appearing in the far corner of the primary display. They could see her off in the distance as they approached, her moon slowly coming into view as well. The men watched in silence as the planet expanded in size, covering up the glare from the sun at a steady pace. “You’re of a different kind, Doc, you always have been,” Rigel said, staring ahead, “One of the last few actually born on Earth; the only one still alive, too. That’s an appreciation even I can’t have. I wish I could have experienced her before the forced migrations.” “You and I may as well be of the same kind, Antares,” Polaris responded, clasping his hands together behind his waist. “Just glad to have you aboard for this last run, Polaris,” Rigel responded with a sigh. The ship turned ever so slightly as it approached the Earth’s atmosphere from the left side of the planet, swinging around to meet the curvature of the sphere. The sun crowned the horizon with an amber glow. “She’s nothing else if not damn beautiful, Doc,” Rigel said as the two took in the sight. “That she is, Captain; that she is,” Thaddeus agreed as his young eyes danced back and forth, excitedly taking in the colors and the features of the Earth. The research vessel dropped within the atmosphere and curved with the planet, passing through the day light and heading for dusk on her other side. “We’ll be touching down at the Northern end of the Hardangervidda Plateau in about fifteen minutes,” the Captain said after flipping on the intercom. “Pretty region,” Polaris murmured. “It’s one of the best landing zones and just about the farthest to the south that we can get given our mission’s precautionary measures,” Antares responded, “The sun never rises fully up there at this time of the year, so the ship will sustain only a minimal amount of radiation during the days. But yes, it is also a pretty region.” “Playing it a little too safe, Captain?” “Don’t want to take any chances. The radiation even remotely close to the equatorial region is fairly corrosive.” “That bad?” “Most of the equatorial ecosystems have been receding, and their recession has rapidly increased over the past three years,” Antares replied, turning to the console behind the two men. He tapped a button and pulled up an image of the Earth which highlighted the regions of most intensive solar radiation and the recession of ecosystems across the globe. Holes in the magnetosphere and high atmospheric layering also were highlighted. “With the increased heat in the atmosphere the Earth’s been losing water steadily for about a decade now. The upper layers of the atmosphere are now too warm along the equator to actually condense water molecules. Globally the sea level’s lost anywhere from twenty to fifty feet. It’s remarkable any ecosystems continue to exist on the planet.” “On the contrary,” Polaris replied, turning to view the map himself, “The ecosystems across the globe have done well throughout Earth’s history as far evolutionary standards are concerned. The ability of the ecosystems as individual, whole units to adapt has been the sole reason for their continued existence up until this point.” “Unfortunately their adaptability will not spare them the conditions our sensors are predicting over the next two weeks,” the Captain replied. “Unfortunately not,” Polaris murmured, lightly grabbing hold of the console as the floor shuttered softly. “I suppose I’ll suit up now and get out there while I can.” The turtle shaped ship began its descent to the ground, its flipper-like engines flaring as it passed into a more dimly lit northern region of the planet, passing over a mountainous region before coming out over the Hardangervidda Plateau in Northern Europe. Polaris left the bridge and headed down the main hallway, passing his laboratory, and then down the stairs toward the hangar bay at the back of the ship. He passed by the mess hall with the other researchers seated inside. “He’s an odd one, that Polaris fellow,” Toni Sargas remarked, eyeing the biologist as he passed by the window and door to the mess hall. Sargas was the youngest of the researchers; bright, shy, and inquisitive, though she had experienced some of the most powerful astrophysical phenomena yet documented. The ship shuttered softly as it touched down. “The guy’s an arrogant asshole,” Victoria Kochab, the team’s atmospheric chemist responded, speaking out of half of her mouth as she continued chewing. A bratty, immature woman in her early thirties, Kochab barely took her own work seriously, much less others’. “I was speaking to him about why I’m aboard this ship, and he went off about how I don’t understand the importance of this mission and how I’m ignorant.” “He’s an out of touch old man,” Kalif interjected, taking a sip of his drink. “Are you kidding me? Polaris is the only one aboard this ship who was born on Earth,” Antares said, entering the mess hall. The others paused, their expressions conveying an uncomfortable level of confusion. “No one alive today was born on Earth, Captain,” Victoria replied, matter-of-factly. “He was in cryo for quite a long time,” Antares replied, grabbing hold of a piece of fruit from the counter. “How long?” Kalif asked. “About a hundred and forty years total,” Wallace Wezen spoke up. “Wally” Wezen was the team’s historian, whose assignment was to document the qualitative events over the next two weeks. “He was on two of several expeditions do the other side of the universe. Even with our advanced transportation systems, it still took around forty to fifty years both ways. He was alive before the migrations from Earth took place.” The others fell silent. “A living fossil,” Ricardo Castor, the team’s paleontologist, who sat at the farthest end of the table, joked dryly. “No wonder he is….” He tried to find his own way of phrasing it before reverting back to what Kalif said, “out of touch.” Castor meant well, though plagued by his incessant need for approval. The people he attempted to gain approval from, though, placed him much in league with Victoria Kochab. “Perhaps compared to your generation, he is,” Rigel said, his tone becoming blunter, “But on this mission he certainly is not. He’s the senior researcher, and he fits in better on this team than any one of us. He is arrogant,” he took a sip of his drink, “and rightly so; he’s right. You don’t appreciate this place.” Some of the others sighed and rolled their eyes. “And it’s that behavior,” Rigel pointed to each of them, “That shows you lot haven’t a clue the importance this planet holds. Judge the man all you want, but at least he remembers where he came from,” Rigel grunted as he grabbed a mug of coffee and took off toward the bridge. The others glanced to one another without speaking, the team members annoyed and embarrassed after the Captain’s scolding. They silently turned back to their food as the dull hum of the hangar ramp started up below. Doctor Polaris stood at the edge of the ramp as it lowered slowly to the ground, stepping off gently just as it touched the grass below the research vessel. He stood silently for a moment, surveying the land, the mountains and valleys stretching out to the horizon. The sun slowly slipped from its half arisen state back to the other side of the Earth. It was warmer than he remembered, but a cross breeze offset the temperature slightly, making it less uncomfortable. He stretched out his arms and allowed the breeze to flow past, ruffling his hair as he walked forward. The limbs of his research uniform flapped slightly as the grass squished softly beneath his boots. Above his head he spotted the very first stars beginning to come out for the evening, the atmosphere causing their light to twinkle. He breathed in deeply the smells of the Earthly surroundings and smiled. “It’s good to be home,” he murmured. He watched the sun continued to set for another fifteen minutes before pulling out a few gadgets from the edge of the ramp. He peered up into the hangar bay to find the other researchers pulling on their uniforms and heading for the ramp. He turned away from them and headed away from the ship, pushing buttons on the gadgets and cataloguing the readings on the small screens of each. He scanned the region with the electronic sensors and recorded his findings, keeping an eye on the others, who remained close to the ship, never venturing far as they surveyed the land on what to them was an alien planet. The time passed quickly, the sun’s rays receding as the evening progressed into night and the ship was covered in darkness, a blanket of stars covering the sky above. By the third hour Toni and Victoria began to pack up their equipment and place it back at the top of the loading ramp. Wally sat silently by himself farther up along the side of the ramp, one leg hanging off the side as he wrote about the surrounding environment and the researchers themselves. Kalif and Ricardo had long since gone inside, bored with their tasks of surveillance without a proper light source. Thaddeus had seated himself upon a rock formation a short distance from the ship, facing out over an adjacent shallow canyon, and had been meditating for some time while the others grumbled about back by the ship. He was just far enough to tune out whatever irrelevant and unnecessary things the others decided the say. His ears perked up. As the rest of the gear was placed on the ramp, Victoria glanced over at Thaddeus and turned to Toni. “Look at that guy,” she grumbled, “if he loves the Earth so much, why did he leave it in the first place?” She gave a short, uncomfortable laugh as Toni remained silent, staring at the man seated farther out. “Go get him, Toni; Captain wants us all inside within the hour,” Wally told her. “Oh,” she responded distantly, nodding with a delay. The other two walked up the ramp and entered the vessel, leaving only Toni and Thad outside. “Doctor Polaris!” she shouted. The man did not move. “Doc!” she shouted again, beginning to move closer, assuming he could not hear her. As she neared the older man, she called out again, “Doc?” He turned his head slowly. His eyes were closed but one eyebrow rose as she slowed to a stop beside him. She hesitated, “Captain wants us inside.” Polaris raised his other eyebrow and nodded before turning his head away. She waited. “Coming, Doc?” He turned his head, opening his eyes, and thought before he spoke. “Beautiful night,” he said. Unsure of what to say, Toni did not respond. “What do you think?” he asked her, peering up at the night sky. She hesitated again, “Look, Doc, I’m just here to examine the effects of the solar expansion on the Earth.” “I know,” Thaddeus responded. He persisted, “What do you think? Toni pursed her lips. “Well, it’s…um…” she peered at the sky, pondering for a moment, “calm.” “You’ve seen more chaotic night skies,” Polaris said, stating exactly what was on her mind. “Well, yes,” she replied, “much more chaotic and spectacular. But this is…” “Humble,” they both said together. Polaris turned his head to peer at her. “Sit and enjoy it,” he told her kindly, patting the ground beside him. She opened her mouth, closed it, and shrugged her shoulders before sitting. “It’s a quiet region, indeed,” Polaris told Toni, “a small corner of the galaxy all to herself.” The two sat in silence for a few moments as Toni took in the evening sky, the corners of her lips beginning to tighten into a smile. She thought for a moment, the smile disappearing. “Why did you leave Earth?” she managed to say, nervous that he would become upset with the question. He remained silent for a bit before replying, “I thought leaving on my own would be better than being forced to leave.” He turned to her to reveal eyes filled with tears. “It most certainly was not.” He looked out at the dark horizon again. “Oh, I missed my home.” “What was it like when you were growing up?” Sargas asked. Thad smiled. “Stunning in ways you cannot imagine.” As the time passed he told her all about his past and his parents, describing the beauty in the life on the planet and the raw power held in all corners of the Earth. He spoke excitedly, just as his father had, his youthful brown eyes beaming as he spoke. When he finished they sat in silence once more before he began to get to his feet. He brushed some dirt from his pants leg and helped the younger scientist to her feet. She hesitated, puzzled by her lack of words. “Thank you,” she said warmly as they walked to the ship. Polaris nodded, flashing her a kind and wise smile, as they walked onto the ramp and into the hangar bay. The hatchway swung open ahead of them, Rigel appearing just beyond it. “You two! Go get some sleep; we’ve got a full two weeks ahead of us!” he barked. The two scientists exchanged smiles with the Captain, whisking past him and moving off toward their quarters as Rigel raised the ramp. II. The next day the researchers set out in their separate directions using three ground speeders, smaller vehicles with enclosed cockpits capable of high speeds and easy transportation. Polaris and Kochab were to travel to the rainforest regions of Central America in order to investigate a few peculiar readings from the atmospheric and ecosystem sensors. Sargas tagged along with them. Toni had never intended to leave the ship on the expedition, but given her budding friendship with Doctor Polaris and her new found interest in the planet, she decided to have the data and projections compile on the ship automatically. The three set off, closing in on the location within about two to three hours’ time. Thick smoke billowed from the region ahead. The three watched intently as they came over the region, the forests below ablaze. “The equatorial region has seen the greatest impact from the increased solar radiation and loss of water in the atmosphere. This is what was projected to happen,” Kochab informed the others. Polaris only stared. They brought the speeder down to a flattened, blackened clearing away from the toxic smoke and fires. The team disembarked, stepping out on the steaming piles of ash and burnt Earth, wisps of smoke still rising from the ground. Thaddeus released his bio sensors into the air and closed his eyes, feeling the hot air blow over his face and body. “This place was beautiful back in the day,” Polaris told them later on as they surveyed the land and recorded their findings. “Lush forests teaming with life, and the air always seemed moist. The water dropped from the canopies and leaves nearly every moment.” Sargas could feel the pain in his voice as he stared at the fires in the distance. “All gone now,” he murmured. “It was only a matter of time,” Kochab replied, matter-of-factly. “You saw the projections, didn’t you?” she asked, coldly. “Yes,” Polaris replied. “Then why mope about things you cannot change?” Victoria asked, annoyed. “If you knew it would be like this, then why did you bother coming back?” Polaris looked back at the rude woman with a sorrowful gaze, “Would you not come to your mother’s side when she was on her deathbed?” He looked away again. Victoria cocked her head back, almost insulted by the comment. She shrugged her shoulders, glancing to Sargas as if to say, “really?” before moving away from the two. “You wouldn’t understand,” Sargas mumbled to her. “Hmph, and you would?” she laughed, “You’re just like him! Glorifying the Earth!” she exclaimed, not caring to lower her voice, allowing Polaris to hear every word. “Here we are on a dying rock, so let’s all just bow down and worship this place.” she cackled and signaled her flying sensors to report back to the speeder. “Are we done here?” Kochab asked, walking back to the vehicle. “Yes,” Polaris replied after a moment without turning back to her. “You will never understand,” he muttered under his breath. Toni joined him in his laboratory that evening, and the evenings to follow, learning to meditate as he did. The projection of the mountains, the same Polaris had been observing on the day of their arrival, came into view around them. “It is my most favorite place on the planet,” he told her at one point, though he never told her where it was. III. The next four days involved travels to the Rockies, the plains in North America, and the Alps in Central Europe. Sargas once again accompanied Thaddeus in his travels along with Alderamin and Castor. They traveled to the Rockies first, dispatching at the northern end to observe volcanic and tectonic activity. "Yellow Stone," Polaris remarked as they disembarked from the speeder and entered the dormant volcanic region, "absolutely stunning, as per usual." They sent off their sensors, which zipped through the air, scanning objects and sensing elements within the air and ground below. Castor and Sargas trailed behind Polaris and Alderamin as the group traveled over the land, surveying the forests, lakes, and mountains. "Had quite a bit of activity here over the past few weeks," Kalif informed him. "Given the planet size it could pack a lot of power, but I've seen bigger forces on other planets." "Planets capable of life?" Polaris asked. "Well, the largest volcanoes? No," Kalif replied, staring down at the readings on his data pad, "But I've seen some similar in size to this on other planets." Polaris nodded. "Stunning that this volcano, despite its raw power, never managed to kill off life like the others you've observed." "We’ve found life on some of those planets." "Intelligent life, such as mankind?" Kalif hesitated, "No." "Makes you respect something like this, no?" Polaris asked. "I suppose so," Kalif replied, "Remarkable we lived as long we did on this planet; long enough to escape it; to preserve our species." Polaris sighed. It was a version of the response that he had wanted. Though, Alderamin did not truly understand the point Thaddeus was making. "Yes," Doctor Polaris affirmed. "Remarkable, really, that life such as ours could have flourished at all with volcanic activity such as this." Kalif studied his projections on the tablet before looking up. "Agreed." Polaris gazed at the mountains in the distance. He's better than Kochab, he thought to himself. At least he appreciates it a little bit, he thought. The group surveyed the land for a few hours more, traveling over the hills and mountains to survey the region before returning back to the research vessel for the evening. The next day the group headed farther south along the Rockies. There Polaris and Alderamin stuck closer to Sargas and Castor as the paleontologist led them to cliff sides and valleys to survey the geological and paleontological features of the region. His probes had been using lasers to clear away rock and dirt from fossils near the surface since they had arrived on the planet. He had catalogued over fifty new species thus far. A few hours into the surveying, Castor remarked, "The species here are obviously much more familiar to us since mankind is from earth. Though, I find them to be less interesting because of that, and this is not nearly the height of paleontological discovery for this planet." "Every moment is a height of paleontological discovery for any planet, including this one," Polaris snapped back. "Throughout history species have lived and died alongside mankind and we never knew half of them existed. They may as well have been species from other planets, Ricardo." Ricardo fell silent, lacking the will to respond if it meant he could be chastised like that again. Though annoyed, he knew Polaris had a point. Stubbornly, he simply nodded his head and got back to work, the others following him through more valleys before they headed back to the speeder. The following day they returned to North America again, this time surveying the topography and biological standing of the Great Plains. Alderamin tagged along to view the geological aspects of the plains whilst sending his probes off to the west to continue surveying the Rockies’ volcanic activity at the northern end. Herds of animals roamed and grazed in the plains as the researchers traveled over it. The team recorded their findings and catalogued the quantitative aspects of the environment, such as the composition of the air and soil, species counts, as well as changes in vegetation makeup within the environment since the previous voyage. The group chatted as they worked and Polaris shared stories from the past. Sargas enjoyed them thoroughly, Alderamin expressed interest but was not dumbfounded, while Ricardo was complacent and nodded his head and mimicked Polaris’ enthusiasm. A few hours into their work, Ricardo remarked, "It's as if they haven't a clue as to what is happening to the planet. Like nothing is happening," pointing to the herds grazing. "Calm as can be." He gave a laugh. "What do you think, Doc?" he asked, hoping for a friendly response. "Perhaps," the older man replied quietly. Sargas gazed at Polaris, who only watched over the land. He did not bother correcting the younger paleontologist. His gaze did not waver. “Doctor Polaris,” Ricardo began, “Why do you seem so distant…and upset?” Polaris responded after a delay, his now-serious eyes falling onto the other man, “Have you ever lost your home, Ricardo?” “No, sir,” Castor responded, uncertain of how he was supposed to respond. “Good,” Polaris replied, looking away, “Because the pain is indescribable.” Ricardo sighed quietly and slouched, feeling the pain in the older man’s words. He nodded and turned to face the horizon with the others before leaving the graceful region. On the fourth day together, the team was in the Alps, once again surveying the ecosystems, the paleontological sites that the probes had established, and the tectonic activity beneath the mountains. By midafternoon, Sargas and Alderamin's projections had reduced the maximum time frame for the research trip to one week and three days. IV. The next two days Polaris spent with Wallace, exploring regions which had once been more urban, but had since been taken back over by the environment. They traveled to Central and Northern Europe, regions which had once been known as Germany, France, and Great Britain. They surveyed the area, Polaris sending out sensors to catalogue the expansion of vegetation and overgrowth into the urban sectors, once populated by thousands of people decades and decades before. Thaddeus was surprised to find out Wallace's passion for the rich history of mankind, one Polaris shared. Though, he noted, Wallace held a love for humanity and its history, but left a gap in appreciation for the Earth. "The birthplace of humanity," Thaddeus remarked, "The graveyard and keeper of its life; the mother of all on its surface. Home to all of mankind’s struggles, the great wars, the innovations," he told Wallace. "In all of human history, she is the most shining beacon of life, of beginning, and of allowance." Wallace thought for a moment, battling for a moment against his favorite parts of mankind's history: the spread into the cosmos, the colonization, and the discovery. But he nodded and agreed. He had to and he knew it. Polaris was right. "Without it, mankind would never have existed," Wezen replied as the two walked along the cracked and plant covered avenues, staring up the great monoliths and skyscrapers in the once famous cities. The buildings were faded, cracked, some crumbling, but the humanity in them existed still. Polaris grinned, thinking back to times he had been in these cities before, the crowded streets and shops, the busyness of it all, yet all so calm and quiet now. "For what," he asked, "Were we busy all those years, building all of this, knowing some day we would leave it all behind?" "Oh, we were certainly too materialistic to do that," Wallace replied, "Even you know that for years we had been taking the indigenous plant life and animals for preservation, and some of the greatest symbols and buildings of the human race, perhaps for preservation, perhaps more so for nostalgia." "But should we have?" Polaris asked. "Should we not have left what made us who we are today in the very place it had all come into existence?” "That’s a question my generation may ask but not answer," Wallace replied, “It was not up to us." They surveyed the cities again the next day, completing the first week of the research trip. Perhaps not all is lost, Thaddeus thought to himself later that evening. Toni joined him in the lab again shortly thereafter to meditate. It was nice, he felt, to have someone meditate with him. In fact, he found her to be quite wonderful, someone aboard who wanted to share in his experiences, thoughts, and his enthusiasm. Antares and Wallace shared his opinions and enthusiasm as well, but Sargas understood him more than the others, it seemed. In only a few days she had become his last and only true friend. He was happy to have met the young woman. V. Polaris left the lab door open after Sargas left for her room for the evening; the others were asleep, he saw no reason to close it, no one would bother him at this time of the night. The mountain scape filled the room as usual, though the open door brought him back to reality, a reality in which a youthful scientist now shared his enthusiasm for the planet. He smiled. A hum sounded somewhere down the hall. It was followed by a high pitched, soft ping. Polaris listened as the pinging continued, chiming every few seconds. He stood slowly, striding from the lab and down the hall, following the pinging as it brought him to the bridge. He strode to the central projection table, eyeing a small blue circle of light which pulsated with each ping. He tapped it with a finger. Several different data projections snapped above the table, casting blue, green, and red colors against the walls and instruments on the bridge. The images were expanded views of the inner solar system, a projection of the sun in its current state, and a projection mapping the area around the sun and Earth. He studied the images for a moment, reaching out with a hand to let his fingers pass over the images, the light particles forming models of what was to come. His eyes settled on a single line of text below the images, a warning and sensor reading, the words and numbers blinking with a deep red hue. Polaris breathed in deeply as he read the message, turning slowly to lean against the table. He closed his eyes and let himself slide down against the projection table, bringing his hands to his face as he shuttered. The older man sank to the floor and rested his head back, opening reddened, wet eyes and wiping them with a hand. His shoulders shuttered as he breathed in and out, his teeth clenched as he tried to muffle his crying. His fit subsided after a few moments while he wiped his sorrowful eyes. Doctor Polaris breathed in deeply, letting the air out as a sigh before staring at the ground. Wiping his nose with a wrist, he presented a weak but warming smile. His throat shook with each breath, but the feeling grew fainter by the moment. Ten minutes passed with Polaris on the floor before he stood, dusted his clothing off, and tapped the glowing blue button on the table's console. The images snapped away. He strode back to his lab, shutting down the projection and grabbing a few instruments before then heading to his room. Thaddeus gathered a few more sensors, instruments, and other items and placed them in a small research pack. He moved through the ship almost silently, as to not wake the others, finding himself soon in the hangar of the vessel, stowing his bag in a ground speeder. Polaris climbed in and piloted the machine out of the bay and down the ramp almost silently. He punched the speed up when he was a little ways off from the ship. No one even knew he had left. Sargas' eyes snapped open eight hours later, a small device on the night stand by her bunk whirring softy, a red light pulsating at the center. She snatched it, squinting as she struggled to read with still-awakening eyes. She gasped. "Captain! Captain Antares!" she yelled, throwing on her clothes and rushing to the bridge. She slid to a stop in front of the bridge's projection table, tapping the blue pulsating light as Antares appeared at the bulkhead between the bridge and the hallway. He wore a look of concern on his face. "Coronal mass ejection, a massive one!" Sargas exclaimed. "Solar seismic activity reached a critical point a few hours ago, triggering surges in the tidal forces and magnetic fields. There's a hell of a lot of solar mass heading our way, a few billion tons of plasma, give or take, in addition to the solar winds.” Several images popped up above the table, revealing a model of the coronal mass ejection and the solar winds casting off from the sun and heading toward the planets in their respective orbits. “The tidal forces have already readjusted the earth's projected path. It's pulled us in further; we'll see drastic changes in temperature within two days." "Are you guys seeing this?" Kalif called to the others as he rushed onto the bridge, a hologram of the earth in his hand. "We've got tectonic activity all over the bloody planet. Lookin' at global volcanic eruptions right now, too! Yellow Stone just blew sky high. Tracking ash clouds and volcanic debris for miles around the epicenters as we speak." "So what's our time frame, now?" Antares asked, snapping up a mission log on another, adjacent console as he stared at the data above the main table. "Little less than two days for the CME, if that," Toni replied. “Around a day before the volcanic activity reaches us, give or take,” Kalif told them. Rigel stretched up and flipped a switch on the ceiling console above. "Rise and shine," Antares said, turning on the intercom, "We need complete readings from the last eight hours and precise projections for the next twelve." Sargas jogged out of the room and down the hall, "Polaris! You're going to want to see this!" she yelled, stopping by his lab first before moving to his room. Both places were empty. "Polaris?" she called out. She headed back to the bridge, "Captain, I can't find Doctor Polaris." "He's around somewhere, I'm sure," Antares responded, pulling up a secondary mission log and inputting several lines of information. "He may have snuck back off for a bit of meditation with the sunrise. I'll search for him in a bit. For now, just work on getting that data." Toni pursed her lips, her brow knitting, but she reluctantly nodded and got to work, expanding the projections and cataloguing the readings. Captain Antares finished adjusting his mission parameters after another twenty minutes and then compiled the data that Sargas and Alderamin had already collected, which accounted for the last eight hours. Another half an hour passed before Rigel closed the data log and pushed away from the table. He sighed, puffing out his cheeks while he glanced at his watch. The other researchers entered the bridge, data tablets in hand. "Have you seen Polaris?" Rigel asked them. The others halted and stared back, shaking their heads. "He's not already here?" Wallace asked, puzzled. Rigel sighed and brushed past the group, "Thanks for getting up with such speed," he remarked, disdain and sarcasm mixed in his tone, "Get to work." Antares moved down the central hall, stopping at Thaddeus' lab and then his room, just as Sargas had done. No sign of the older man. Polaris' research pack was missing, though, along with a few tech devices which had once been around his room. Antares knit his brow as he turned and headed for the hangar, checking quickly the mess hall as he passed. The Captain unsealed the bulkhead airlock on the hangar bay and entered. "Polaris?" he called out, striding down the ramp about half way. "Polaris!" he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. He shook his head and stared out at the land, the sun just barely peaking over the horizon. "Where in the hell did he go off to?" Rigel muttered. He turned his head, catching something in the corner of his eye. He turned and faced the hangar bay. Antares let out a short, internal laugh, breathing the air out through his nose and shook his head. "That bastard." To his left, one of three ground speeders from missing from its docking station. He glanced around the rest of the hangar, but everything else seemed to be in its place. "Guess I’ll have to track down the brute instead." Rigel took a second glance at the horizon before heading back inside the ship, striding calmly back to the bridge and taking a seat at a console along the left wall. He snapped open a communication channel to Polaris' transponder. "Doc, we've got some serious readings popping up; you're gonna want to get back to the ship, pronto." Antares waited a moment, snapping open a navigation tracker on a side screen, and then spoke again. "Doc, come in." The others began to turn their heads, awaiting a response as well. Rigel shook his head and tapped a few icons on the navigation screen. "Doc, if you can hear me, I’m pulling up your identification tracker and the nav. tracker on that speeder. Someone's going to have to come and get you if you don't respond within the next hour. You need to see these readings," Antares paused, "We don't have much time." A transponder tracking system appeared on the screen in front of him. His name and the names of the other researchers appeared in the corner of the screen, a small icon showing their physical appearance next to their name. The coordinates of their positions were marked by the points on the screen which represented their actual location on a live feed of the region. The trackers for the ground speeders and other important vehicles and devices showed up on the screen as well. The image showed the Captain and the researchers on the bridge within the vessel at their current location along with the trackers for the other speeders and the other equipment still aboard or close by on the ground. Rigel tapped the Doctor's name and watched the screen pan out, bouncing back and forth for a moment before freezing up. Polaris' name flashed in the corner as a box popped up beside it. "Transponder not found. Transponder disabled," the text read, the computer then reading it out loud. "Oh no," Rigel muttered. He tapped the screen to find the ground speeder. The computer gave the same message. "Captain?" Sargas asked worriedly, moving away from the projection table and over to him. "He's disabled his tracker and the tracker for the speeder," Rigel replied. "Why would he do that?" Kalif asked, tapping a projection of volcanic activity along the North American west coast. "Idiot," Victoria muttered in response. Wallace held his head while Ricardo stared blankly through Alderamin’s projections. Sargas shot Kochab a dirty look before turning back to the Captain. "Permission to go and find him, sir?" she asked. Rigel nodded, "Finish your analyses and report to the hangar bay; I'm goin’ out with you." Victoria scoffed, "Really? He just left, and you're going to drop everything to find him?" "We can’t just leave him out there," Ricardo mumbled sincerely. "Do you see the bars on my shoulders?" Rigel asked Victoria as he tapped a few other screens. She nodded. "What does that mean?" he asked further. "That you're the Captain," Victoria replied. "Correct," Rigel responded, leaning over to pull the last few days’ worth of navigation data for the ground speeders. He turned and stared straight at Victoria, "So shut up." "Sir!" she began, raising her voice. "Or I'll leave you on this planet to meet its fate," he said, raising his voice above hers as he strode off the bridge. Kochab shut her mouth and got back to work. "Send me live feeds of your projections as you get them," Antares yelled from down the hall. He prepped a speeder, gathered a few supplies, and loaded them in the vehicle. Sargas joined him an hour later, just as he brought the speeder down the ramp and left it hovering above the ground below the aft of the ship. Sargas handed him her tablet as they met at the middle of the ramp. "Alderamin's projections; they're getting worse by the moment,” she informed the Captain. “The surge in tidal forces is wreaking havoc. Severe tectonic activity and it’s only going to get worse in the next twelve to twenty four hours." "And the CME?" "Still coming at us. Peak will be in approximately twenty-six hours, though we’ll be blasted with solar winds by then, and the magnetic field is going to start to be distorted and stripped by the eighteenth." "Which means we need to be out of here in order to avoid interference and damage by the sixteenth hour." "Or sooner." "Let's hope not." The two climbed into the speeder and punched forward, soaring over the land. Antares keyed in the navigation data from the last week and brought up several maps. "Best bet would be to search the regions you all traveled to," Rigel told Toni, "He chose those as the locations for study; seems only likely he would travel back to them." The two spent the next ten hours zipping through the various regions that Polaris had traveled to with the others. They visited the decimated rainforest regions in Central America and the plains and Rockies in North America, along with the Alps in Europe. The temperature of the air in all of the regions was rising slowly. Reports from the other researchers streamed in every twenty minutes or so. Kochab was reporting that the atmosphere was already beginning to be stripped away. Atmospheric element levels were dropping faster than anyone had imagined. Alderamin reported vast, widespread volcanic activity along the western coast of North America and the Eastern coasts of Asia. The plates were shifting rapidly. Sargas' own projections showed the Earth's path nearing the expanding sun at a faster rate than she had previously calculated, along with the impending coronal mass ejection and solar winds still hurdling toward the Earth. "Alderamin just signaled for the temporary probes to report back to the ship, while the permanent ones will remain and report information as we take off so we have readings up until the Earth is consumed," Toni mentioned. Antares wore a look of defeat as he glanced to his watch. "We need to be getting back, too." Sargas snapped her head in his direction and glared, "We can't just leave Thaddeus out here!" Rigel shook his head. "There's nothing more we can do. We tried. But now we have to leave." Sargas slouched back in her chair and folded her arms, looking in the distance as Antares punched the throttle and headed back for the ship. They reached the vessel just before the twelfth hour, finding two researchers outside, wrapping up their readings and observations while the two others remained inside. Antares brought the ground speeder up the ramp and docked it before rushing for the bridge. Sargas stayed outside for a few more moments. The wind was picking up, ruffling her clothing as she watched the sun on the horizon. The coronal mass ejection and the solar winds were so vast that she could actually make them out in the sky along the horizon. Toni could see, too, the ash clouds moving along the horizon in several directions. The volcanic activity was heightening, throwing dirt, ash, and fire into the atmosphere. Within two hours it would be upon them and could very well damage the vessel. She wiped her eyes and stared off, occasionally watching Victoria pull in her atmospheric equipment and a few weather balloons while Wally continued scribbling into his log. She turned slowly away and walked back up the ramp and into the turtle shaped vessel, her heels dragging beneath her as she wiped her eyes continuously. Sargas took a seat on the bridge by one of the projection tables, pulling up her readings and losing herself in them. Antares bounced back and forth, starting the main sequences for flight while checking the functionality of the vessel's navigational instruments, propulsion drives, and flight systems. The intense flight lights came on outside, casting out from the bow of the ship just below the bridge and illuminating the region below it. The ash clouds continued to roll into the sky over the next hour as Antares prepped the ship and the others readied for takeoff. "Ten minutes!" he called out over the intercom. Rigel peered at the mission clock on one of the consoles as well as the solar and volcanic projections. The others finished loading up the equipment and hauled it into the hangar before heading through the air lock toward the bridge. The Captain placed his hand above the screen, his finger hovering above the button which would close the ramp. He paused to stare at the name of the missing researcher and his picture. Sighing, he tapped the button. The ramp whirred and sealed back up, hissing as it locked in place. Captain Antares engaged the secondary engines for lift off and the ship shuttered, beginning its ascent. He brought the landing gears up as the ship slowly rose higher above the ground. The others headed onto the bridge and joined the Captain and Toni, watching the land fall away from them through the bridge's viewing window. A sensor beeped, alerting the Captain to the incoming ash clouds and debris. His brow knit, and he piloted the ship higher into the sky. A screen began pinging to the Captain's right. He viewed the display to find a steady stream of data filing onto the screen. Antares gave a sharp laugh at the sight of the files with the name "Dr. Thaddeus Polaris" at the top corner. "Polaris, you nut, where the hell are you?" Antares asked, quickly opening up a communication channel. "I've activated my tracker in order to transfer my files back to the ship, and you'll find my reports and observations streaming in now," Polaris’ voice rang through. "But don't come and get me." "The hell we're not coming to get you," Antares told him, turning the ship toward Central Europe. "No, you're not," Polaris told him. "The ash clouds have just about reached me. You all need to get off of the planet." "Polaris, we're not leaving without you," Sargas yelled out. "There is nothing more you could have done, Ms. Sargas. I never intended to return from this expedition to begin with." The researchers looked to one another. Victoria rolled her eyes while Antares and Sargas wore expressions of defeat and helplessness. Alderamin now stared through his projections, wide-eyed, while Ricardo placed his head in his hands. Wezen wiped an eye and began scribbling in his notes on the tablet in front of him. The ship moved diagonally away from the ground now, heading for Polaris' position. "It's been a pleasure, though," Polaris told them. A moment passed, neither side of the communication line speaking. "It's beautiful," Polaris informed them. "The wildlife is no longer grazing or wandering. The animals are lying down, in herds and packs. All is calm. Peaceful.” He paused for another moment. “It is not a lack of knowledge that leads them to serenity; ignorance is not the source of their bliss; rather, their acceptance of fate yields their tranquility." Ricardo nodded in silence, understanding the response. The researchers listened to Polaris. Toni’s eyes began to tear up again as Rigel hung his head. "And the trees," Polaris continued, his voice growing softer as it began to tremble, his eyebrows rising as he spoke, "Are bowing down; the rock beneath my feet, rumbling ever so softy." The ship continued through the air, approaching Thaddeus' position. "Doc, are you sure?" Rigel asked. "Such graciousness, such majesty… such humility," Polaris said distantly, "Even in death is there beauty." "Doc?" Sargas and Antares called to the ever distancing man. Dr. Thaddeus Polaris stood atop the peak of a mountain, amidst the Dolomites of South Tyrol, mountains which had stood for billions of years. They rose up, stabbing high into the sky, their bases cloaked with forests, their peaks remarkably white and gray capped, and the valleys below, surprisingly green and filled with life. It was his favorite place on the Earth. Thaddeus had taken his lab coat with him and wore it now, the tails ruffling in the cool wind. His young brown eyes took in the stunning, beautiful sight. Tears streamed from his eyes as he gazed at the land, the dark, black clouds of ash rolling through the sky steadily toward him. As the sun descended upon the horizon and cloaked itself behind the approaching clouds, Polaris could just barely make out the outlines of solar material heading for the planet. "I was born of this Earth, and with her, I, too, shall die," Polaris replied firmly. His voice was smooth and calm, despite the tears on his face. "Thank you for this last expedition," Polaris said, turning off the communication channel shortly thereafter. Rigel nodded and brought his hung head up, staring back at the teary-eyed Toni Sargas. She looked into his eyes and nodded, closing hers, and he did the same. Rigel turned to the control consoles. "Let's say goodbye." Polaris watched the ship thunder through the sky toward him. He squinted to see it in the crowning light just barely peeking over the ash clouds now. The headlights on the bow flashed twice while Captain Antares throttled the engines, and they roared like lions before the ship swung down and arced back up into the sky, escaping the ash clouds and the doomed planet. Polaris gave them an informal salute before turning away and observing the environment in peaceful silence. Wallace took a seat beside Toni on the bridge of the vessel as it soared higher in the sky. He placed his tablet in front of her. "I'm finishing up our accounts here, but, would you like to craft the final words of the log?" he inquired. Sargas slowly turned to look at him with reddened eyes, meeting the warm smile on his face. She smiled back and quickly typed in the line on the tablet before standing to watch as they rocketed away from the world. "Slowly, as the atmosphere was stripped and ash filled the air, all life bowed down, quietly and humbly, and overnight she died," it read. Thaddeus could see the animals laying calmly, waiting, the trees bowing down, waiting, the ground, rumbling softly. He closed his eyes and lowered himself to the rock beneath his feet, crossed his legs, and breathed deeply. Home, he thought, my home.