Amy Beth

Steve looked in amazement around him and wished he had more time. There were easily hundreds of items that merited investigation, but he was severely limited on time. Commander Edmonds was already trying to hurry all the teams back, before they'd even had a chance to begin their research.

"Teams Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie: Wrap it up. We're on a tight schedule," barked Howard's staticky voice over the radio transmitter. Howard Edmonds was always uptight about something or other. He'd probably been viewing satellite transmissions about more Moonie riots, figured the mission would be scrapped, and wanted to get back to Luna before anyone could prove he'd been involved. Howard lived in perpetual fear of being blamed for anything.

Since boyhood, Steve had dreamed of coming down to the planet. At thirty-four, he could hardly believe he was here as part of the maiden voyage of the Planet Origins Exploration Study. He was determined to make the most of it, especially as the project seemed likely to die an early death because of the groaning of the Moon Originists. While Moonies weren't exactly in the majority in any of the colonies, even the Lunar colonies, they were very vocal and they insisted that scientific research not infringe on their rights to believe…well, whatever it was they wanted to believe these days. Moon Originists set themselves staunchly against the Planet Originists, those who believed humanity originated on the planet around which Luna orbited. Planet Originists were also frequently called O'Malleys, after one of the scientists who had founded the movement. Legend gave the name of the planet as "Earth," which was a fighting word in any room with a Moonie and an O'Malley in it. Many scientists, but by no means all of them, were Planet Originists. Most people were apathetic - they didn't really care where humanity originated and looked upon both Moonies and O'Malleys as freaks.

Steve didn't even bother to respond to Howard by radio but he told his pilot, Jamal Davidson, he'd be done as soon as he could be. "This may be the only chance we have down here, and I want some images and more samples."

Jamal simply shrugged and corrected him. "Up here, you mean."

Steve shook his head but did not take the bait. He'd rather sidestep that particular argument. Jamal was less outspoken than most Moonies, but he felt that O'Malleys and especially planet scientists were a bunch of wackos. It would be pointless to explain to him that, from the perspective of a humanity that originated on the planet, Luna would more probably be thought of as "up there" and the planet's surface would be "down here." Steve had better things to do with his time than argue with a Moonie - or a brick wall. They were pretty much the same thing.

Howard's impatience, though not surprising, was still frustrating to Steve. Their ship had only set down about an hour ago, and with all the required checks and reports, the exploration teams had only set out within the last half hour. That was hardly enough time to find a likely spot to begin, much less collect all the data they wanted.

They were in a coastal area, but there was no way to know their exact location beyond that. Geography of the Earth's surface was a lost art - for many it was considered the stuff of legends. Steve and Jamal had boarded their small craft (a skimmer) and moved a few kilometers away to a group of what seemed to be dwellings. Many of the doors stood open, as if the inhabitants had fled. When Steve had mentioned to his pilot that this lent credence to the Great Evacuation theory, Jamal had merely grunted something dubious about the sanity of scientists.

The interior of the apartment they'd entered (for that was almost certainly what it was, though rather primitive) also bore evidence of having been left in a hurry. Clothing, tableware, and personal items - though different from what Steve was familiar with - were scattered here and there on the floor and on various items of furniture.

Steve had already captured several digital images and collected a few small items that would fit in his bag. Moving toward a wall, he was startled to catch the gaze of a small eye. The rest of the face appeared to be covered under a dusty blanket.

Moving slowly, Steve bent down and brushed the blanket aside. A lifelike doll, looking almost like a half-sized human infant, lay there in front of him. He expelled his breath in a soft "Wow" as he lifted it. This was proof-positive that humans had lived on this planet! The doll was dusty but had withstood the test of time fairly well, being made largely of plastic. Its face bore an appealing expression of wonder. Steve smiled, reminded of his young daughter Diana's expression whenever she discovered something new.

Steve enthusiastically showed the doll to Jamal before stowing it in his bag.

"I bet there are thousands of those up here," Jamal said dismissively. "Idols. Our people have obviously visited the planet in the past and the inferior beings that lived here worshiped us."

Steve really did roll his eyes this time, but he made sure Jamal didn't see him. No way this thing was an idol. Having two daughters, Steve knew a baby doll when he saw one.

"Mommy, I hold baby," two-year-old Allie Randall commented conversationally as her mother Julia rushed by to answer the ringing phone. The toddler raced after her mother into the living room, dragging her favorite doll and her ever-present blanket behind her, and skidded to a sitting position (Allie only knew one speed: fast) on the floor by the wall, close to the action.

"What?" Julia was saying into the phone. Her voice was shocked.

Her best friend, Carla McPherson, took that to mean Julia hadn't heard. "I said it really is headed this way. It's expected to hit the coast of Brazil in a few days. Brandon got you a place on the shuttle with us to Luna Colony, but we've got to leave now before the real panic starts. One carry-on only. Pack a bag and grab Allie. Daniel and I will swing by and pick you up in ten minutes, and we'll meet Brandon at the station."

Julia hung up and stood dazed for a moment, watching her daughter play and looking at the place that had been their home since Sean's death just over a year ago. She had moved to a new job near Carla, who was an old childhood friend. The McPhersons had adopted Julia and Allie as family, Carla always being a shoulder to cry on and her husband Brandon offering to help out with maintenance and errands.

Once again Julia would be leaving behind everything she knew for a new life. She shook her head and went to find her carry-on bag.

Steve continued sifting through the dusty room for more possible treasures. He moved over to a raised surface that appeared to be a workspace or eating area attached to the wall. "Hey, what's this?" he wondered aloud, finding something on the surface that was shaped a little like a small dish but was almost chalky in texture. He turned it over and found indentions. After clearing off some of the powdery chalk, he saw what looked like an imprint of a child's hand. They saved memories of a child's growth stages, just like we do, he thought, but didn't voice it. He was the only one in that room that cared.

He compared the tiny handprint with his own hand. It looked like the imprint was from a small child, probably no more than two or three years of age.

Julia, bent over the carry-on, pulled her hair back impatiently as she took visual inventory of what she had. What else could she afford to bring? How could she possibly condense their requirements - their lives - into something smaller than her kitchen sink?

Allie had watched her mother packing the bag for a while, and she knew what that meant. They were going somewhere and had to bring important things with them. She remembered something. They had to bring Mommy's present! She ran into Mommy's room and found it on the table next to Mommy's bed.

Crowing with triumph, Allie galloped back to her mother, who was now trying to fit more of Allie's clothes into the bulging suitcase, and called her name unremittingly until she was noticed.

"Mommy. Mommy. Mommymommymommymommy. Mommy. Mommymom -"

"What is it, sweetie?" Julia picked up the plaster craft from her daughter and lovingly touched the little handprint. Unbidden, tears welled in her eyes.

"Bing pesent. Put in soup-case."

"Oh, you want to bring the present you made me at daycare when we go on our trip. You are such a smart little girl! But I just don't know if there's room to take it with us, sweetheart. We can only take a few things with us. Just what fits in this one bag." Seeing Allie's disappointment, her mother tried to cheer her. "You know who's going with us, sweetie? Daniel and his mama and daddy."

Apparently, that did the trick. Allie's face lit up. "Dannel! Dannel Mack!"

"That's right, Allie. Daniel McPherson, so you'll have a friend to play with." Julia smiled as her daughter danced around giggling, the plaster craft forgotten for the moment. Daniel, at almost three years old, was just five months older than Allie. The two were best friends, just like their mothers.

The phone trilled again. Julia crossed over to the kitchen counter to answer it and set the impression down as she picked up the handset. "Hello?"

It was Carla again. "Daniel, honey, Mommy's talking - Julia, we just pulled up. Are you ready to go?"

"I guess I'm ready as I'll ever be. We'll be right out." She hung up and returned to the suitcase. "Time - to - go, Allie," she grunted, zipping the bag with an effort and pulling out the carry handle. "Say bye-bye to our house; we're going somewhere new."

"Bye-bye," chirped Allie as her mother scooped her up.

"Bye-bye," whispered Julia, turning around for one last glance as she crossed the threshold with all that was left of her family and all that would remain of their belongings.

There had been another summons from the radio. It looked like the mission was called off. "Ship's leaving at 1500 hours," Jamal informed Steve. "I'm headed back in five minutes, with or without you."

"Five minutes! That's hardly enough -"

"If you want to stay here and hang out with all this junk, be my guest. But you'll get lonely. I think the program's off."

Steve sighed. "I'll be there in a couple minutes." He loaded up his gear as Jamal headed to the skimmer. Two minutes later he stood in the doorway and looked back to bid the apartment goodbye, wondering if he'd ever get back to Earth and wishing he could somehow pack up the whole apartment and take it with him. It felt like there was a story here that needed to be told.

Steve had unpacked the last of the items from his boxes and still hadn't found the nameplate for his desk. He was just beginning to wonder if he needed to order a new one when he heard a knock at his open office door. He was surprised to see Jamal standing there. He hurriedly uncovered a chair and was even more surprised when Jamal actually sat down. Jamal and Steve didn't typically interact on a personal level.

"Thought you could use this," said Jamal in his characteristically brief way, handing Steve the nameplate.

"How did you -"

"Found it lying around somewhere," Jamal said somewhat evasively, then amended, "Had to go see Howard about whatever his new project is, and it was down in your old area."

"Thanks, Jamal. I was just trying to figure out if I should get another one."

"Sure, no problem."

Steve was almost certain that Jamal had run out of things to say. He was casting around in his mind for some topic of conversation that wouldn't involve any of Jamal's hot buttons, when Jamal spoke again, hesitantly.

"How…how're you holding up?"

"Hm? Oh - well, I guess okay. It'll take a while to get in the swing of things but I'll manage."

"You'll miss it, won't you? The…the exploration and everything?"

"Yeah, but I like research also and there's plenty of that here. Not quite as exciting as being down on the planet, but…well, maybe one day Luna will be ready to give it another try." Steve winced inwardly at his own words. He hadn't meant to discuss topics that were likely to goad a Moonie into argument but Jamal's questions had steered their conversation in that direction.

"I hear Commander Harkins is pretty good to work for."

"I think she'll be fine. I've worked with her in the past and she places an importance on research and on getting to the bottom of things."

"Even if you find out your own…theories…are wrong?" Jamal prompted.

Ah, thought Steve, now maybe we're getting somewhere. "A true scientist should always be more concerned with discovering the truth than with proving his own pet theories," he responded. "That concept is what drives science."

"Yeah, I got that vibe from you. I think you're the first scientist I've met who really seemed to believe that, though."

Steve didn't really know how to respond, but he didn't have to. Jamal quickly changed the subject. "What's this?" He nodded toward a three-dimensional frame on Steve's desk.

"Oh, I don't know if you saw it at the time, but I picked that up on Ear - on the planet when we were down there. A mold of a child's handprint."

"Hmm," said Jamal noncommittally. "And you labeled it 'Allie?'"

"Yeah," Steve replied with a laugh. "It reminded me of stories my great-grandpa used to tell of his grandmother. Her name was Allison, Allie for short. When he was little, she would tell him stories about being born on Earth, and leaving with her mother in the Great Evacuation when she was pretty small - about the age of the child that made that handprint. Makes me wonder, too, whatever happened to that little boy or girl. I guess I'll never know." He realized he was getting excited and too careless with what he said, but Jamal didn't seem to mind. He prompted Steve with another question.

"And the Great Evacuation is supposed to be the big asteroid that hit?"

"We think that's what it was. We're not sure where it hit, but it would have caused some natural disasters, making life unsustainable for a good while for probably the whole planet. Problem is, the only records we have are word of mouth handed down for generations and a lot of people think those are just tall tales. And even though the planet eventually became habitable again, nobody ever went back. There was already a thriving colony on Luna by the time the evacuees arrived. It's just like they started new lives and abandoned everything that had to do with where they came from. You know, I'd love to go down there and see more, maybe find where Allie used to live, see everything the way it was when she was there." Now he really had talked too much. Jamal was even quieter than usual. "Well, anyway, maybe one day I can do more exploration," he finished awkwardly.

To his surprise, Jamal smiled briefly. "I hope you can get back there someday," he said, heading for the door. "You're okay for one of the O'Malley crowd."

Steve smiled too. That was high praise, coming from a Moonie.

He polished his nameplate on his sleeve and set it on the front of his desk. It announced his name in bold black letters: Dr. Stephen J. McPherson. The nameplate nudged the framed handprint, and Steve picked it up again and repeated quietly, "I guess I'll never know."

The End

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