the evening star

The dusk deepened as he walked up the winding trail through the trees. At the top of the hill, a cliff with a steep drop to a river gorge created a break in the woods and allowed a view far into the distance, and the dim dusk among the trees would brighten again to the last light of a summer evening, coloring the sky and clouds overhead in warm shades from day to night. He had discovered the lookout while hunting, and visiting this place to watch the sun set and the stars appear had become a comforting routine for him. This time of day, the progression of the sun to the horizon and slipping below it, the gently deepening darkness and the animals preparing for sleep or beginning nocturnal habits, was so much like the place he'd left that he could forget he was in a new place, and would likely never see his home again.

Adjusting to the differences had not been so difficult as he had thought. In most ways this place was the same as home but much more primitive, which was what they had predicted and prepared for. They had all had to rely on a combination of the anthropological history they'd learned and survival skills some of them had picked up by choice, as some less-developed regions had been carefully preserved near home, and some of them had enjoyed breaking free of the highly technical rigors of modern life to walk away from it for a while.

Ironic, too, how many of them had learned their survival skills in professional team-building sessions never knowing they'd end up using the primitive skills as much as the team-building.

Reaching the top, he walked to the edge and stood, turning slowly from one side to the other, letting his eyes roll over the panorama of the landscape, stopping briefly on recognizable elements in the landscape, their little settlement, a particularly large tree, a small stream, these landmarks of their expeditions, then lifting his gaze to the sky around and above him, looking from the brilliance of the early sunset to the deep blue on the opposite horizon. The day had been hot; this new climate was challenging. The cool touch of the evening breeze now brushed past him, lifting the tall grasses and sifting through the trees beyond, refreshed and relaxed him, the open space soothing as he stretched and breathed deeply the rising dampness of the coming night.

This time of day had always been pensive for him, and finding this spot had given him the place to go to review the day. Nearly a year had passed since they had traveled here, and on the day they'd arrived the evening had been much like this, so much like home that he had felt welcomed, and buoyed with hope that they had done the right thing.

Four seasons had transformed, one to the next, much more quickly than they were accustomed to, but they had still had time to prepare shelter and food and adequate clothing. In that time they had honestly managed to pull together as a team and build a small community, a fact which, upon reflection, had surprised many members, as if they had doubted they could really work together for any length of time, that the bond might snap from overuse and the members might simply go off on their own.

Only three members had been lost to accident. Learning to function in the wilderness none of them were accustomed to, these had been difficult and frightening and brought a big dose of cruel reality to their experience, but they had managed to hold together, grieve together and bury their dead together. There had been a two natural deaths, too, a cancer none of them could do anything about in this primitive place, despite all the modern tools and medicines they had packed in preparation, and heart disease left untreated by medication no longer available, a frustrating predicament for people as advanced as they had believed themselves to be.

Only one person seemed to have snapped from the stress of it all, and he had angrily decided to leave the group, packed as many provisions as he could carry, and took off following the river. His outburst had come about after one of the accidents, a horrible fall down a cliff that had left one of the women paralyzed but screaming in pain, and all they found they could do was sedate her and keep vigil until she died of the trauma; scientists thought they were, and knowing she had no chance of living, they couldn't bring themselves to end her suffering by some brutal means like stabbing. He was angry because no one was willing to explore beyond a day's journey and look for civilization in this place, other people, cities, modern conveniences rather than sitting and waiting for death.

It was true, before that accident they had all been approaching the whole thing as an adventure, as if it was one of their team-building wilderness sessions that would soon be over with assistance and rescue right over the next ridge if necessary. Watching her suffer, a beloved friend, unable to do anything, they had suddenly realized how alone they were, how limited, that one by one they would all die in one way or another and in some future years there might be no trace left of them at all.

But they were so few, down to twenty-seven now, and to send anyone off into the wilderness was simply to suffer another loss. Three children had traveled with them, and no doubt there would be more, but it would be ages before there were enough of them to spare a small group to travel and start charting the area beyond their small valley. For the most part, they were scientists, were very knowledgeable about mapping and charting and had brought their instruments, but plain old survival took more time than they liked to admit. All of them really needed to hunt and gather, and cook and preserve food, and make and mend clothing, not to mention the nightly challenge of attempting to communicate with equipment that needed maintenance they could barely provide.

He knew that his not-so-long-ago ancestors had lived like this, and while he had known their life was difficult he had never realized just how difficult, how fragile life itself was, and he wondered how his race had ever managed to not only survive but flourish and accomplish things not found anywhere else in the universe with these challenges.

Though everyone doubted now that anything resembling civilization existed here, they had gladly given their friend what he felt he needed and sent him off, not expecting to see him again but secretly hoping he would somehow find civilization and bring it back to the valley.

He had returned, however, just a short while ago, followed by three, well, were they people like themselves? They looked half animal with an abundance of hair and no spoken language, but they walked upright and wore rudimentary clothing, their hands were strong and dexterous using tools they had made, and they had wordlessly led members of the group around to various plants and shown them what to do with them. Although the learning curve had started quite high, they had quickly discovered the point was valuable foods and medicines beyond the capability of their own scientific equipment brought for the purpose and they did their best to express their gratitude.

The sunset colors had reached their peak of brilliance as the sun passed behind strips of dark purple cloud edged in glowing gold, rays of light reaching upward and downward in pink and yellow, trees, rocks and the grass on his outlook glowing with the coral of the deepening evening. He waited until the sun was halfway below the horizon to the west, then turned and looked above the horizon to the east, and there it was, glowing red against the vivid deepening blue. He'd also noticed this the night they'd arrived, and the clear view of it was one of the reasons he returned frequently to this spot.

It seemed to pulse, signaling perhaps. He was an astronaut and had studied the skies since he was a child and knew exactly what the brilliant beacon was. It was home, the fourth planet from the sun, the planet they'd left a little over a year before, traveling by the craft that had been built for the purpose of interplanetary travel, though their trip had been rather extemporaneous. At first sight he had wondered if the pulsing red glow was because of the holocaust they had left behind, the populations of their race killing each other in a misbegotten firestorm they had barely escaped, or to be honest, had simply run from.

The ship had stood stocked with medical supplies, food and clothing, oxygen, water and all else that would be needed during the someday trip to the third planet. It was opportune that they who had designed and built the ship and trained to pilot it were all stationed conveniently close, and by their position had been closer to their government's plans than others as well. They had guessed that this annihilation was a possibility. In the last few days when, despite the rhetoric that negotiations were ongoing, they, the planet's leading scientists, could see the secret missile silos being prepared for use and passed the word among staff to get families together, pack what they could and get ready to leave if necessary. They had selfishly taken their own and used their training to take the chance on flying out, hoping they weren't hit by a missile, and getting above the atmosphere before it became too toxic, the air polluted with radiation, carbon monoxide and debris unusable to convert to hydrogen fuel.

So they had followed the mission they had trained for, watching their planet glow with outrage until its atmosphere was so clogged with smoke and debris that they could no longer see it as they silently moved farther and farther away. They traveled without incident and landed safely in the northern hemisphere of the planet, avoiding the huge sheets of ice that blanketed the north and south poles of the planet. On their planet, the spot they landed would have been a fertile plain surrounded by low mountains and several bodies of water, safe for landing and easy for travel, perhaps rich with food similar enough to their own that they could move right in.

Of course, they had no intention to stay. They planned to go back as soon as possible to see if they could save anyone, but even if only to see the destruction, but as time wore on they could see now that maintenance to the ship, fuel, food--many things stood in the way that instead of months, it might be years, or generations before anyone could go back. Perhaps none of these travelers would ever know the outcome of that horrible war.

He watched as his home planet glowed ever more brightly in the deepening sky, pulsating slightly with the beat of his heart. As it rose above the horizon and the night sky deepened, the little planet was soon surrounded by stars in their familiar constellations.

They had survived almost a year here, had made contact with natives, had built a society and begun to have children of their own. Soon, no doubt, they would begin growing edible native plants rather than gathering what they needed and attempt to domesticate a few animals that resembled those from home. They had build small towns and the struggles of power and desire would emerge, and only time would tell if they had also brought with them the potential to destroy this civilization, too, or if they had left that potential behind in the lifeless destruction on that beautiful, glowing red planet.

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