The Earth has grown old since man abandoned her.
In those brief billions of years she has given birth to other races, countless other children. Each lived and grew its natural life-span then died its natural death, leaving the field clear for its successors. As each race died, even the memory of its presence faded from the scarred landscape, its works overgrown and eroded, eaten away by the sharp teeth of time and nature.
Now forest covers the surface of the tired globe. Over the sluggish hills and within the shallow valleys the scene is always the same. The thick canopy absorbs the light completely, hiding the sun. Only the sickly phosphorescence of the unbroken fungal carpet holds back the darkness, a dim glow that stretches unchanging across the furthest reaches of the forest floor. The miasma of decay it releases gives the air a thick and soupy texture that clogs the nostrils and catches in the throat. The dim light and the stagnant air allow no other undergrowth to penetrate the thickness of the fungi, only the widely spaced boles that support the vaulting arches of the canopy rise above the thick green fog.
Linked by root and branch into a single tree, the thick squat trunks are the supporting system of a world girdling forest. Armored by a tough and thickly creviced bark, they rise barely a dozen feet above the forest floor before the canopy reaches down to kiss them and they divide into steeply tapered fingers supporting cathedral arches. The trees and the fungi are the only lifeforms remaining. Across the entire globe nothing moves save the occasional branch in the breeze and nothing is heard save the fluttering fall of a leaf.
The Earth has grown old, heavy with the weight of time and the accumulated fall of meteors. Her once molten and fiery heart has grown hard and cold, and on the slopes of mountains slumped into hillocks there remain only two species of life, the trees and the fungi. It is a biosystem reduced to its very basics, nature herself too weary to make more than a token gesture at life. Of all the wondrous multitude of lifeforms that the world had brought forth there remains only the trees and the fungi.
And somewhere, man.
Of all natures creations, man has left the most enduring signs. Here and there dotted about the forest floor are low mounds and shallow hollows, much overgrown, whose lingering regularity betrays their artificial origin. It takes a sharp eye to see them and a mind behind the eye that knows what to look for but the last traces of mankinds presence can still be sensed beneath their phosphorescent shroud.
Among the more mundane of mankinds remains are others which carry with them a cargo of meaning and memory. One such place is a wide shallow bowl perhaps fifty feet across and two or three feet deep in its center. Once it was deeper but time has filled its volume with the dead husks of the fungi and the rotting corpses of the fallen tree limbs, packed solid by the rain. Apart from its perfect circularity, the depression is noticeable for the almost coincidental way the trees avoid growing from its space, their regular pattern gently distorted to allow the trunks to surround the space without invading it. No single tree grows from within that circumference. The slightly lager than usual span of the canopy above echo the depression below with a branch ribbed dome that draws the eye to the center like the alter of a cathedral. Its original function is long since forgotten but now it is to be used as a beacon. Man is returning to his home planet after his billions of years of absence and unconcern.
At first we see nothing. Then, as our eyes and our minds adjust to the novelty, we see that the shallow bowl is filled with a half seen galaxy of phantom stars, spinning lazily about their axis. This is man.
Man has changed even more than his homeworld in his billion years of absence, this fairy constellation is mans' new form. Yet within this body of light, his soul is still mans' soul, fed by the same emotions and fueled by the same drives. This is a man who once walked these hills when they were still green, and deep inside he still carries the memory of the form he wore then. Already the change is starting.
The central stars in the galaxy of man are drawing tighter about their axis, leaving behind a sphere of darkness that gradually expands throughout his massless volume as the lights at its edge fall into the center. As each star falls, it keeps its momentum, spinning faster about its axis as it moves closer. At the center of the sphere of darkness is a glorious rough oval of brightness that becomes ever more sharply defined with each star that falls until, as the expanding darkness eats the last of the stars from the galaxies rim, it is almost solid.
The tight packed stars of that mass spin ever faster as they draw themselves slowly together, taking on a roughly humanoid appearance, narrowing at the neck and waist and dividing itself with further rifts of darkness to form the arms and legs. Slowly the figure gains in definition, becoming a more and more accurate caricature of a human body with every movement of its glowing mass. Finally it takes on colour and texture as its features slide into place, becoming a creature of flesh and blood as the energy of its substance becomes matter under the prompting of ancient memory.
Man stands once more on two feet on the soil of his ancient home. Vanity may have improved upon ancient memory for no man that ever walked this earth before had the perfection of that body. His build is the build of an athlete, lean and hard beneath smooth golden skin, his hair a silky blond waterfall cascading down to frame the face of an angel. Beardless yet mature, his features have a symmetry that goes beyond mere beauty and touches the ideal. His full lipped mouth tilts in a natural half smile that tempers the steel gaze of his cool gray eyes. His stanch and the play of muscle beneath his skin show the controlled grace of the dancer as he turns, surveying a world he has not seen in too many billions of years.
He couldn't have expected the world to remain the same, but neither did he guess at the immensity of the changes that the countless years of his absence had wrote on his old home planet. Out among the almost eternal suns, change is slow, the stars living and growing in cosmic time, but here on earth life moved to its own insistent beat. After so much time, there is little left of the world he once remembered.
The landmarks he seeks are overgrown and eroded, only the impossible durability of their manufacture allows such remnants as are there to persist . He will need to look long and hard before he can make the vestigial dips and mounds of the landscape correspond to the memory of the graceful city he left behind.
Standing and turning, the man looks about him over the endless smooth skin of fungi that covers everything beneath the canopy of the regularly spaced trees. A grimace of disgust mars his perfect features and he kicks at the fungi in frustration, dislodging a football sized chunk which rolls lightly across the ground for a few meters before dissolving into dust and sphores. Where the chunk had been the dead fungi makes a stain of darkness against the background glow. Sighing, the man turns his attention to the barely seen ruins which the fungal carpet covers, hoping to find in their patterns some correspondance to the memories he has carried in his mind for so long.
His eyes follow the almost-there line of a long defunct roadway, then move sideways to follow the ghost of an alleyway before stopping at the empty space where a mighty building once stood. Again he traces pathways long gone, twisting and turning the map in his head to make it fit in with the half seen irregularities of the landscape about him. It takes time but eventually the pattern of the submerged landscape begins to make sense to him. Once more, and then again, he traces the lingering clues to the vanished cityscape, until his eyes match the map, ruin for building, and hecan finally turn his face towards the ending of his quest.
He turns, eyes losing focus as he estimates the distance, and with a sigh he starts to walk in the direction that once was west. His pace is steady and regular. The way before him obviously long but at least reasonably clear as he follows the line of an ancient roadway. Behind him the disturbed fungus fades and dies, leaving a line of darkness to mark his path.
As he walks, his eyes dart this way and that, searching for some sign of life other than the ever-present trees and fungi, some remnant of Earths previous diversity. Wherever he turns, his gaze uncovers only more of the same monotony, an endless repetition of trees and fungi. Nowhere on this earth does any sign remain of the wonders that came before, no rainbow flowers lighten the gloom, no busy insects disturb the silence. Of all that has gone before, nothing remains but the tress and the fungi, and the single visiting human.
The forest seems endless, made so by the monotonous sameness of the landscape. Even the mounds and depressions of the forest floor take on patterns that seem to repeat themselves endlessly. In this unchanging world it is easy to deny change, but even the greatest forest must have its limits and this road, arrow straight into the west, must approach them. The first sign of the forests end is a change in the quality of the light ahead. At first it is subtle, a mere hint of a shadow that becomes more sharply defined as it approaches. The haze of the fungi and the decaying vegetation on which it feeds hide the exact nature of the barrier until it is only a few feet away. Then it slowly changes from a wall of darkness in the west into an arch of the canopy reaching down to kiss the earth along the margin of the forest.
As he approaches the wall of foliage, the man slows and stops. Behind him an arrow straight line of darkness extends into the forest, marking his passage. Ahead the thick foliage hides all sight of what lies beyond. The wall of the forest divides the world into two, cutting off the gloom of the land beneath the canopy from the outside world. The man reaches out and parts the thickly interwoven branches, creating a space just large enough for him to fit his broadshouldered body through.
Beyond the blackout curtain of vegetation that marks the end of the forest, sunlight once more holds sway illuminating a scene of sand, sea and sky. The beach is little different from any other beach in the history of the planet, its sands are perhaps a little heavier than is usual and the sea beyond a little more sluggish, but it is recognizably a beach.
The sky is unique. Beautiful and awe-full.
From earliest times, twilight has held a special magic, an enchanted time balanced between the day and the night, between the dark and the light. It is a time of imagination where dreams and nightmares grow and take on life. Now the sun has grown gross and swollen with age until it covers the sky and twilight has grown with it. Dawn and dusk have expanded from the edges until only the cusps of noon and midnight lie beyond their domain. In many ways this has amplified the magic of the halfling hours, in other ways, killed it.
It is the beginning of sunset, just passed noon. The enormous bulk of the sun is just beginning its descent below the western horizon. Above and to the west the sky is ablaze with its mottled fire, only to the far east is there a thin crescent of the sky free of its burning presence.
The man stares out over the water, his annoyance plain to read. This ocean is an unexpected obstacle. Formed during the countless years of his absence, it now covers the object of his quest. Annoyed but undismayed by its liquid body, the man crouches down just beyond its reach and furrows his brow. One wave, driven by chance and the mechanics of the vestigial tide, reaches out like a hopeful stray and gently licks the tip of the mans naked toe. He stands up. Stepping back beyond the reach of the ocean, he looks about him, studying the line of the coast.
The beach curves gently into a vast bay, cupping the ocean with sands that spread from the margin of the water to the wall of the forest. To the south it sweeps out into a great monochromal ruby sand bank which merges with the crimson of the sea and the sky. To the north its opalescent shimmer washes against a low and worn out finger of rock that points crookedly out to sea.
The man now turns his gaze towards this monument to the power of the elements. His eyes measure every step of the route to that rocky finger and then flicker back to the sea and the slowly setting sun. Finally he nods and turns to walk with a slow and purposeful tread along the beach.
The sand is hard and heavy, gem like. The lighter, less resilient minerals have long since been ground to a powder and washed away by the patient kiss of the ocean, and what is left is a rainbow of fine ground crystals too heavy for the sluggish waves to move and too hard for them to break. They are close packed and dense and move only slightly beneath the mans feet, leaving only the shallowest of shapeless depressions to mark his footsteps.
The same grains are present in the rock that defines the northern extremity of the bay. They give it a coarse texture, showing swirls and patterns of different colours with occasional veins of purer crystal knifing through its substance, glowing with refracted sunlight. The uneven weathering of the different minerals and the naturally blocklike structure of the rock itself create many hand and footholds which can be used to climb the face of the formation.
After climbing the weathered ridge of the broken finger, the man makes his way to its ocean pointing tip, carefully placing his feet to avoid the runnels cut by winds and water. Once there he sits at the very tip, his gaze drawn out towards the ocean.
The sun has sunk now, halfway towards night. Its enormous bulk, bisected by the horizon, is reflected in the still waters of the ocean. Behind, the clear sky fades from navy blue at the horizon to delicate lilac at the zenith. Already the boldest and brightest of the stars are beginning their brief appearance on the stage of night, rare and lonely pinpoints against the wash of light from the west. The western half of the sky is filled completely with the sun, the waters with its reflection. The mottled crimson of the corona gives the impression of a wall of fire stretching into infinity In the west. The wall is penetrated by a slender, crooked needle of rock, and at its very tip the man sits and stares out to sea.
He stares more carefully this time over the sluggish waters, judging the distances and directions of a landscape now long gone. His goal is somewhere out among the waves and his only clue to its location is a memory now made obsolete by the billions of years of passing time.
Slowly his gaze homes in and then fixes on one particular place in the waters, marked by his memory and by logic as the ending of his quest. he stares so intently and for such a time that it seems he must be staring through the waters and down to the sea bed below. Finally he nods in satisfaction and looks away from the water, having found that for which he searched.
Cupping his hands before him, he stares into the hollow they form. Slowly within them, there comes into being a gentle sparkling, a velvet lightning, a thing almost alive in its complexity and with the quick consciousness of the rodent yet composed only of his will. When its ball lightning body is fully formed he releases it into the air and sits back, watching it as it flies over the waves towards that unmarked patch of water that had so held his attention.
As the creature of energy plunges into the water, the man relaxes and starts to look about him with unhurried curiosity.
The waters of the ocean are thick and warm. They are unruffled by the gentle breeze that blows off the land, the swell barely distorts the polished mirror of the oceans face. It has fed greedily on the salts washed of the land and now rolls, stuffed and somnolent, a sated glutton on its sediment bed. The ocean is a perfect mirror of the sky. It shows animation only where the gentle ripples break upon the beach, barely disturbing the heavy sand.
Behind, the forest spreads a low patchwork of sober colours - reds, purples, and dark muddy browns. The successive arching bubbles of the canopy give it the appearance of a dark and discoloured foam blanketing the land, closely following its tired contours.
Between the forest and the sea, the sand makes a hard and glittering divider, rich and iridescent in the suns red light
That light is so pervasive that after only a few miles the colours of the forest, sand, and sea merge and blend into one another and into the fiery sky. Only behind, where the sun free darkness touches the eastern horizon, is there any discernable separation between the heavens and the earth. From that solid foundation, the landscape projects, half floating on a sea of flame.
There, to the east, the stars appear in ever greater numbers, scattered about the growing darkness. The man nods and smiles to each one, recognition and memory shining in his eyes, acknowledging shared experiences with old friends. As the arch of the sun moves down towards the invisible western horizon, more and more stars appear and each one he greets until, with the sun showing only a crescent above the waves, his attention is drawn once more to the sea.
There amid the glints of sun on sea, a sharper reflection approaches. Moving at a walking pace, but already only a few hundred yards offshore, it moves directly towards the man as if drawn on the end of a line. the half submerged shape is masked by the opaque waters, its few visible curves give it an organic feel at odds with the hard silver sheen of its surface. It is only when it approaches close enough for the man to pluck it from the cradle of the ocean that its full shape is revealed.
Cradled in his arms is a silver child. Just weeks old it is frozen in time and in the act of reaching for support from a parent who is too long absent. This is the mans goal. It is for this and for this alone that he has returned to the planet that gave him birth.
Looking down, he smiles at the time frozen child and bends to kiss it upon its hard, reflective brow. From the contact of that kiss, ripples spread out over the surface of the silver babe, patterns of rainbow interference that fade and leave behind the healthy pink of newborn skin, replete with the warmth of life.
As the last stain of silver fades from the babies flesh, it begins to move, wriggling and jerking in the mans arms. A petulant cry dies stillborn as he comforts the babe, rocking it in his arms and humming soothing nonsense then leaning forward to kiss it once more.
As his lips touch the infants cheek, his body loses its solidity, becoming once more a structure of light. And as the child accepts that phantom embrace, he draws its own flesh along into this fairy state, slowly transforming it from a creature of flesh and blood into one of stars and lights. Once the childs flesh is completely transformed, the pair begin to lose their human shapes to become, at last, twin interlocked galaxies, the man holding the child in his orbit as he held it in his arms.
His quest is now complete. The man with his burden begin to ascend into the rapidly darkening sky. Rising slowly at first , then with increasing speed the two disappear into the coming night, becoming one more distant light ignoring the lonely earth.
The empty Earth spins, the wall of fire in the west lowers, the sky darkens. Alone, the Earth holds its breath, awaiting a nightly miracle that no eye has ever seen.
Slowly the last shard of fire sinks below the western horizon and it is night, dark save for a shimmering glow in the west marking the very last resting place of the dying sun. Then the shimmering point of fire expands to either side, north and south around the edges of the world, surrounding the island Earth with a wall of red flame. It lasts for an eternal instant only. Then darkness takes the west as the fire moves all to a point on the eastern horizon and the sunrise begins, bringing yet another day to the patient earth.
The dying sun of mans old home rises steadily into the day, burning fitfully. One day soon, it will be finally exhausted and will burst in fiery death taking its offspring planets with it into darkness and dissolution. When that day comes, no human eye will witness the end of all they once held dear, but only then will man no longer have a home. Until then the earth hopelessly awaits his return as mothers eternally await the returns that will not be. And restless man, as children do, turns his gaze endlessly outwards.