Prompt: “I was there when the sky fell.”
I sat at the edge of Acropolis, Venus’ first floating city, my feet dangling far above the fiery maelstrom of the planet’s atmosphere. I often wondered what it would be like to fall, how it would feel to be simultaneously crushed and fried by Venus’ heavy sulfuric clouds. High above me a dull gray rock hovered listlessly in the sky, surrounded by blackness. A long time ago it was called Earth, but after the disaster it had been renamed to Sol-3.
An old man seated himself on a nearby park bench. He hailed me on a public channel and, without even introducing himself, started rattling off stories about growing up on Sol-3 during the 21st century.
“Oh yes, I was there!” he cried, waving an arm in the air. I could hear the faint mechanical whir of his suit’s actuators over the radio’s background static. “2052 was the year, and what a year, too – we’d just elected our first woman president, and then the planet got destroyed. Poor woman, didn’t even have time to unpack her bags.
"Yessir, I remember it like it was yesterday – you kids have your fancy cars what fly themselves. Ours went on the ground, and you had to steer them yourself! You know what it’s like to hang your head out the window while you’re screamin’ down the highway at a hundred miles an hour, boy? It’s like getting slapped in the face by God!
“Boy I tell ya, those were good days! Cheap food, cheap fuel, cheap entertainment – you could walk down to your local Walmart and get a quart of good old pasteurized cow’s milk for just 30 US dollars! None of this pressurized pill crap that costs a day’s worth a credits. Why, we had watermelon, bananas, apples – the real fruit, mind you! Food didn’t come in pill form back then, no sir.
“Yeah, they were good days alright. Right up until this whole ‘solar flare’ business. Didn’t take it seriously at first. Solar flares are a common thing, you see. Happen all the time. Usually they just blow right past us.” He exhaled sharply and gestured with his hand, as if blowing into the sky. “But this one was different. Yessir, this was a big ‘un. Said it wouldn’t leave much behind if it hit us direct. Scientists started getting nervous, and then the big-wigs got nervous. And when the big-wigs got nervous…well, let’s just say lotsa folk started gettin’ a little unhinged.
“We had some time, though. Which was good, ’cause NASA was in a sorry state those days. Far cry from the boys who put men on the moon, I’ll tell ya that much. But once this solar flare thing came out, boy did they start movin’. First it was the spaceports, then cities like Acropolis here, then the transport ships: ‘Movers’, we called ’em. I remember it like it was yesterday – me, my sister, and the few belongin’s we had between us, linin’ up to board the Verne with damn near the whole planet. I’d never seen so many people in my life, but they got us all in, somehow. I begged my sister to take the window seat, but she wouldn’t hear it. Boy, what I saw that day as we took off from Earth for the last time."
There was a hollow thud as he went to wipe his eyes.
"Ain’t nothin’ more terrible than leaving your home for the last time. Not your house or your country, mind you, but your home planet. The only world where you know you got all you need, the only place where you can find a good meal, clean water, and a place to rest your head. We didn’t hafta worry about space suits or pressurization or muscular atrophy or none of that. ‘Round here you can’t open the windows and let in fresh air, or smell freshly cut grass, or go jump in the lake after a long day of work. No playing fetch in the yard with your dog, no fishing down by the river, none of it. Not anymore.
“Those breathtakin’ blues and whites you see in the history holos? Gone, peeled back like a sheet a plastic wrap. Left this pale, disgustin’ looking shade of brown and green, like the planet had died right then and there. And for all intents it did – ain’t nothin’ on Earth still alive these days. That’s right, Earth, damn it, not ‘Sol-3′." He sighed deeply. "But I s’pose that’s God’s way, ain’t it? You never know what’ll happen ’till one day it does, and come to find out there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. You’re just too small. Best you can do is turn away from the past, look ahead, and hope for the best. Yessir, one can only hope…”
I looked back up at the drab gray rock in the sky. I don’t know how long I spent staring at that barren surface, tracing the ancient ocean valleys and mountain ranges, outlining the giant continents and twirling rivers and great lakes, wondering just how many lives were lost in the catastrophe that spread our species across the solar system and killed so many others. I turned back towards the old man, but only found an empty park bench.