In Memory

"We've lost contact with our sensor in S6087, ma'am."

I stared at the surface of the planet below. From this distance, the land appeared serene—swirling clouds above a shining ocean, the vast expanse of the continents. From this distance, one could not distinguish the ruins of forgotten cities and the exhausted landscape that was destroyed to create them.

We ravaged the planet and then fled, because we could not bear the consequences.

"Commander?" the young soldier asked hesitantly when I did not respond.

I closed my eyes briefly and reopened them.

"The last data transmission?" I asked.

"Received at 0800, reporting elevated temperatures and carbon dioxide levels."

"Imagery?"

"No, ma'am. The connection was lost during the night."

"Damn," I swore. But there was no anger—only resignation.

For days, the fires had danced closer and closer to the location of our final sensor array. By night, the forests had blazed, burning brazenly beneath the watchful eye of Heaven and her fiery harem of stars—and the meticulous, unblinking gaze of our equipment.

The prodigal children of Earth had returned to keep silent vigil.

"What is your name, soldier?" I asked.

"Lieutenant River Forester, ma'am," he replied.

He was too young to remember Earth. His parents might—but only with hazy, romantic memories of childhood. The nurseries of the colony ships were filled with infants called Skye, River, Forrest—names that would have no meaning to children raised in the black embrace of space.

To him, Earth was nothing more than a gridded wasteland of abandoned monitoring stations and myths.

"Where are you from, Lieutenant?"

"The Nautilus project—N59," he explained. Nautilus—it was one of the scientific vessels. No doubt his parents were scientists or high-ranking military officers.

"Why are you here, Lieutenant?" I asked.

"Commander?" he asked, clearly confused.

"The Nautilus launches some of the largest deep space exploration teams in the fleet. Why would a young soldier choose Earth for his first assignment?"

Earth was a graveyard, a relic. Our equipment was outdated and our budget too small to maintain the decaying monitoring stations we were charged to oversee. Most of my team could have retired at least a decade ago, but they remained. None of us could bear to leave planet we once called home.

"I suppose I was curious, ma'am. And—well—I hoped to actually see the planet's surface," he answered.

I turned to look at him for the first time. His skin was porcelain, untouched by the kiss of the Sun. His body was lean and lithe in the way of the children who have spent their lives in the dark void of space. But something had drawn him here.

"We haven't launched a landside team in decades," I reminded him.

He shrugged. His eyes drifted from my face to the window behind me where the planet still orbited.

"May I ask a question, ma'am?" he asked.

"Of course."

"What happens now?"

The boy wasn't stupid. The limited range of the landside sensors required our presence, but with the last array destroyed by the fire, our mission was complete. The satellites positioned around the planet could transmit long-range signals to the main fleet.

"We rejoin the colony ships," I said simply.

I turned back to the window, as if I could not bear to let the planet out of my sight. A day was coming when the Earth would only exist in memory.

"One day we'll return," the Lieutenant said.

I knew that day would not come for me.

But I hoped that no matter how long humanity lived among the stars, something in our soul would one day draw us home.