They were taking the lid off the sky. Not an actual lid, of course. They did not live under domes like those fools on Mars. But they were letting the atmospheric generators fail, and that was more or less the same thing.
He imagined a sound no longer heard: an ever-present thrum finally switched off, a vibration on the wind gone still.
The grass was drying. It still stretched soft and green around him, but it held the first faint hint of a golden October back on Earth. The Drying Grass Moon. When the fields are baled.
He would not bale this season. There was no one left to buy. The herds down south had been butchered, the ranchers moved on.
He squinted at the snowy crescent overhead. On clear nights — nights that lasted a hundred hours — you could sometimes make out the shape of Africa, but usually it was just the cold white-and-blue blur of the eye that took a long, slow month to blink.
It was daytime now, late afternoon. It would be afternoon for another week at least, but before much longer it would be night forever. The blue of the sky would fade, the grass would grow black and brittle, and the stars would return to keep company with the sun by day.
The sky was already too thin to hold clouds. There had not been rain for months.
He walked the gentle rise toward the farmhouse in the distance, passing his hand through waist-high grass as he went. Remarkable plant. Bred to draw minerals from the regolith and transform them into nourishment for the tall, thin heifers that for a time fetched the highest prices in the inner system. It could bake in sunlight for weeks and hold out in the cool of the weeks-long night. It was most lovely though in the slow evenings and mornings, rippling in every direction like the play of sunlight on the bottom of a shallow sea.
When he stepped into the small kitchen his wife made as though to rise, but he motioned her still. She did not move much these days, conserving her strength. Her skin was still as smooth as the day they met, and apart from her weakness it was only her cloudy and unfocused right eye that gave any indication of age.
“Couldn’t see any satellites overhead,” he said as he poured water from the tap and drank. The aquifers would likely last for another hundred years, which seemed a waste.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said.
“The wind is getting thin. Feels hollow.”
He carried her to the front porch and they sat as they had for years, side by side in the changeless afternoon light.
There was not another farm for dozens of miles. When they arrived, land had been cheap, and few others followed. They had been here now for decades, with only the occasional trip in to port for supplies or to sell at harvest. They worked the farm alone, she in their large garden and he on the enormous, silent equipment that paced the hectares of field.
“You tired?” she asked him.
He shook his head.
They were both old. They had been married here, nearly sixty years ago now. It was one of the reasons they originally came. It would have been illegal up there, but down here — and especially back then, when settlement had begun in earnest — the laws were enforced more laxly if at all.
She was a wonder in her stillness now as she had been in her grace and easy laughter then. When she was young it seemed she never tired. No matter how far out he was working she would walk to him at lunchtime with a basket over her arm. Sometimes she would come naked across the grass (for who was there to see?) and they would make love with only the blue-and-white whorled marble looking on above.
He held her hand now and felt the weakness of her grasp.
A shape was moving along the ribbon of dirt that formed the road to their door. The man stared at it and scowled. Government officials had been by several times in the past year, each explaining with a pained patience what the exodus meant and urging them to leave. None threatened removal. He assumed they had by this time given up and left along with everyone else.
The shape slowed and a young woman stepped off her wheelless cycle and walked the few steps to the porch.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
He nodded greeting.
“Mr. Holden?” The woman read the name off a small datapad. She was dressed, unlike the government officials, in the uniform of one of the shipping companies that called at the ports south.
Holden nodded again, and the woman’s eyes moved to his wife.
“You know they’ve let the atmospheric generators fail now, don’t you, Mr. Holden?” She spoke with a forced cheerfulness, as if discussing the weather instead of the end of all weather. “You’re some of the last folks left on this hemisphere.”
“Boys from the government came a while back and explained it,” Holden said slowly. It was not hard to make his voice gruff. “Everyone leaving, and rolling up the sky behind them like a rug in an empty room.”
They had gone to great lengths to explain the logic of it. The energy required to maintain a livable atmosphere around such a low-mass satellite was immense, and it made much less sense now that the light-speed barrier had been breached. There were more planets now, planets with Earthlike masses and rotation, Earthlike atmospheres or near to it. Space here was no longer needed.
“Then you know about the new worlds,” the young woman continued, following Holden’s thought. “Well, not really new of course.” She grinned. “We’ve known about them for years. But they’re only a jump away now. You’re there before you realize you’ve left.”
“New frontiers,” Holden finished for her, already bored with the conversation and wishing she was gone. “This was ours though, and we don’t intend to leave.”
Holden ventured a glance at his wife’s face. She was studying the woman silently with her good eye.
His wife’s attention wandered of late. He remembered the conversations they used to have on this porch under warm stars. She had entire books memorized, and she would recite them during the long weeks of darkness when he came in from the fields. Now they sat in silence.
“You’re obviously not interested in the government’s relocation program,” the woman said. “I understand that. Some people don’t want to go back.” She paused. “But I represent a shipping association looking for outbound homesteaders. We can offer you land on one of a variety of habitable exoplanets, places where hardy frontier farmers such as yourself would be sorely wanted.”
“I’m an old man,” Holden said. “Leave new worlds to the young. Leave this one to us.”
To his satisfaction, he felt his wife’s hand squeeze his own with an almost imperceptible pressure. He imagined what it would be like when the last of the air bled away. He would lie down beside her and hold her hand as he held it now. It would be like falling asleep. They might lie like that, side by side, for a million years.
The woman’s smile became apologetic and perplexed. Holden felt for a moment almost sympathetic. How many times had she given this speech to other stubborn homesteaders?
“But your granddaughter,” she said, inclining her head. “I understand you choosing to stay here and …” She trailed off. Holden could see that the thought of remaining behind as the sky drained away terrified her. “Choosing to stay here. But would you condemn your family to share your fate?”
Holden stiffened. “This is my wife, Muriel.”
illustration by Al Sirois
The woman glanced, puzzled, at the datapad she carried, almost certainly a map and census report. Holden could almost hear her wheels turning. She was young. Perhaps too young to recognize Muriel’s face. When the woman looked back she met and held his gaze.
“It must be difficult to get supplies out here,” she said slowly and carefully. “And from now on it will be impossible. We have plenty of doctors and engineers at port right now, waiting to board with our crews. If you and your wife sign on, we can guarantee the finest treatment and repairs.”
Again came the faint pressure on Holden’s palm. He looked at his wife, at her thick, glossy hair, her smooth skin, and her unfocused eye. She sat unmoving, though Holden knew she was listening.
“Power cells,” the young woman was saying. “Anything else you might need.” She pointed a thumb upward at the crescent Earth. “Leaving here doesn’t have to mean going back there.”
His wife smiled.
The ship was surprisingly small. Holden walked slowly up the gangplank, favouring the knee that had been giving him trouble these past few years. Muriel strode easily beside him. Both her eyes were bright. She wore the pale blue dress she had worn when they first came from Earth, and wherever they went she was greeted with stares.
No one had seen her model for a long time.
In their cabin with its tiny window onto the universe, her lips and fingers were hungry. She held him, though he was tired.
Below, the moon was pale and green. It was perhaps only his imagination that painted on it a faint brown tint like a leaf beginning to wilt.
I’ve made a mistake, he thought. I am the grass, dry and withering. She is young and fresh as space. If I had stayed, would she have remained?
He did not want to wonder. He did not want to imagine that it was only his fear of being abandoned that brought him to this crossing.
She was singing softly, and they lay together while he listened to the beat of his own heart. Even though he was waiting for it, he did not feel the jump.