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Fiction

The Sounds of Old Earth

Nebula Award NomineeEarth has grown quiet since everyone’s shipped off to the new one. I walk New Paltz’s empty streets with an ox-mask tight about my face. An acidic rain mists my body, and a thick fog obscures the vac-sealed storefronts. Last week they hauled the Pyramids of Giza to New Earth. The week before, Stonehenge. The week before that, Versailles and a good chunk of the Great Wall. But the minor landmarks are too expensive to move, the NEU says, and so New Paltz’s Huguenot Street, seven centuries old, will remain here, to be sliced to pieces in a few months when the planetary lasers begin to cut the Earth apart.

I pump nano into my bloodstream to alleviate my creeping osteoarthritis and nod to a few fellow holdouts. We take our strolls through these dusty streets at ten every morning, our little act of rebellion against the mandatory evacuation orders. I wave hello to Marta, ninety-six, in her stylishly pink ox-mask. I shake hands with Dr. Wu, who performed the op to insert my cranial when I was a boy. I smile at Cordelia, one hundred and thirty-three, as she trots by on her quad servo-legs. All of us have lived in New Paltz our entire lives and all of us plan to die here.

Someone laughs behind me, a sound I haven’t heard in a long time. A group of teenage boys and girls ride ancient turbocycles over the cracked pavement toward me. They skid to a halt and their eager, flushed faces take me in. None wear ox-masks, which is against the law. I like them already.

“Hey shinhun!” a boy says. “Do you know where the frogs are?”

Before I can answer, an attractive girl with a techplant on her cheek blows a dreadlock of green hair from her eyes and says, “We heard some wankuzidi has an old house where he keeps a gose-load of frogs.” A boy pops a wheelie and another takes a hit of braino from an orange inhaler. A third puffs a cigalectric and exhales fluorescent smoke.

“Behind my house I have a pond with a few frogs still alive,” I say.

“Xin!” she exclaims. “How ’bout you ride with us? I’m Lin.”

These kids are as high as orbitals, but it’s not as if I have much left to lose. “Abner,” I say.

And just like that I’m hanging on to her waist as we speed toward my house over broken roads no ground vehicle has used in decades. The wind in my face feels exhilarating.

“We’re from Albany,” Lin says, “We tried taking the old Interstate down, but after Juan got tossed when he hit a cheeda crack, we decided to go local. Took us yungyeh!”

The stascreen around my property makes my fifty acres of forest flicker like water in sunlight. It’s a matter of pride that I keep it functioning at high efficiency; after all, I designed the damn technology. When we pass through the screen’s charged threshold, I take off my ox-mask, and breathe deep. The kids smile when they smell the fertile earth, the decaying leaves.

“It don’t smell like this in Albany,” Lin says.

We park the cycles on the overgrown grass and I lead them into the woods behind my house. The kids stare up at the huge maples and birches and fall quiet.

“The frogs croak loudest at sunset and before it rains,” I say. “That’s when the males are trying to attract a mate.” The kids giggle as they leap over branches. “If you really want to hear them, you should stay until it gets dark.”

“You got anything to eat?” a boy says. “We haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

I search inside the house and return with some readimades, pretty much all you can buy on Earth these days, while the kids shudder and wobble as they inhale braino. The green-haired Lin wanders off to vomit in the trees.

“Is she going to be all right?” I ask a boy.

“Oh, Lin always pukes after her first hit. Want some?” He offers a red inhaler, but I decline.

We sit beside the pond, all of us squeezed on a log. Lin sits next to me, and I pop up the straw of the readimade for her. “You okay?” I say.

“Yeah, I always get all shunbeen when I deepen.”

“It’s probably none of my business,” I say, “but shouldn’t you kids be in school or something?”

“School closed four months ago,” she says. “Not enough teachers.”

“So what do you do all day?”

She wipes saliva from her cheek and shrugs. “I don’t know. This.”

Another boy goes off to puke in the woods.

“What about you?” she says. “You live here all by yourself?”

I nod.

“And what do you do all day? Hang out with the frogs?”

“Most of my time I just try to keep the stascreen working.”

“That your job or something?”

“Used to be. I was a stascreen engineer for fifty-one years. I designed the nanofilters that keep ecosystems like this free of envirotoxins. But the NRDC laid me off four years back.”

“Why? This place is xin!”

I smile wanly. “Because toxfiltering’s a dead business now. People are only interested in making new life, not preserving the old.”

She seems to take me in for the first time. “And how old is this place, Abner? These trees look cheeda ancient.”

“I know that when my ancestor built this house four hundred years ago, the frog pond was already here.”

She sighs. “Fucking NEU making you leave this place?”

“They’re making everyone leave.”

She throws a rock into the pond, and a dozen frogs squeak away in fright.

“Please,” I say, gently touching her arm. “You’ll scare them off.”

“How long?” she says, giving me a tender look, and I’m not sure if she means the frogs or my eviction.

“Soon.”

The kids grow hungry again. I had been saving some hard-to-find vegisteaks for my grandkids, but they haven’t visited in ages. As I grill them on the deck the smoke rises through the trees, and the dipping sun sends girders of light through the branches.

The kids inhale more braino, howl with laughter, and Lin pukes again. And when they tire, I glimpse something desperate in their bloodshot eyes, something I’ve seen in the expressions of Cordelia and Dr. Wu and Marta and the other holdouts. Regret doesn’t spare you just because you’re young.

“You cycled all the way from Albany for this?” I ask Lin.

“Nothing but dust and skyscrapers there,” she says. “No real trees. We heard this was xin. Do you have kids, Abner?”

The question catches me off-guard. “Yeah, a son and daughter. And two grandkids. You sort of remind me of my granddaughter, Rachael.”

She pauses to consider this. “They come here lots?”

“Not anymore.”

“Why not? I’d be here every day.”

“They’ve moved.” I point to the sky.

She frowns, and her body sags like an old tree. “We’re moving too.”

“New Earth?”

She harrumphs. “Nah, that’s only for rich kids. We’re going to Wal-Mart Toyota.”

“Haven’t heard of it.”

“You wouldn’t. It’s like cheeda ancient, one of the first orbitals. But you gotta go where they send you, or else, you know?”

“I know,” I say, staring at the upside-down trees reflected in the water.

Night creeps over the forest and the frogs begin their mating calls in earnest. The croaking rises to a din, and the kids pause and listen. The glorious stars emerge, and I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but the frogs seem to plead to them, over and over again, “Save us, save us, save us!”

We listen for a while, until the frogs tire. “It’s late,” I say. “It’s a long way back to Albany. Why don’t you kids stay? There are plenty of beds.”

So we head inside. I set them up with fresh linen I haven’t used in years, and during the night I hear fucking and shuffling and laughing as I pour myself tumbler after tumbler of rye whiskey until I pass out. Late in the night, I hear someone whimpering outside my door, and I rise groggily from bed. Lin sits in the hallway, her eyes as red as cinders as she looks up at me.

“I’m sorry,” she says, wiping away tears. “I didn’t know that was your bedroom.”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” she says as she climbs to her feet.

“You okay?”

“I was just thinking. You don’t know us, Abner, but you welcomed us into your home.”

I shrug. “This place was made for guests.”

She stares at the walls. “Must have been beautiful, when it was full of people.”

I nod. “It was.”

She stands there, and again she reminds me of my granddaughter who I never see. I want to hug her and tell her the future will be xin, that everything will work out, eventually. But I’m too drunk to lie. “It’s late, Lin. Go to bed.”

A tear rolls down her cheek. She nods and turns away. I close the door, feeling as if I’ve missed something important. It takes me forever to fall back asleep.

The next morning, the kids are gone. The house looks as if a tornado has blown through. But one bedroom has been tidied, and there’s a note on the nightstand.

“The frogs are beautiful. You are beautiful. Thank you for a perfect day. —Lin.”

I hold the note in my hand and stare out the window into the empty yard. I already miss their laughter.

***

Several months before I received the evac order, I visited New Earth for the first time. My son Josef played the guide and took me to the Ishibuto-Mori preserve, a dense rainforest on the northern hemisphere. Giant sequoias planted a few years ago had already grown hundreds of feet tall, carrion flowers had been gengineered to smell like cotton candy, and the rains came precisely at 2:00 p.m. every day.

Clear plexi walls kept us safe on a paved path that led us, like Dorothy to Oz, to John Muir Mall. It was a palatial marketplace where they seemed to have anticipated every human need. Food, clothing, jewelry, a pub, an immersion cinema, a spa. All was here, square in the middle of the rainforest. A holohost welcomed us to the mall’s courtyard and carefully explained, as if he were speaking to children, how Old Earth had become uninhabitable, how humanity’s first home was ruined forever because Those Before had no appreciation for the natural world. But the Ishibuto-Mori Corporation, along with dozens of other companies, were hard at work ensuring that New Earth avoided this fate.

As my son and I ate oversized burgers in the courtyard of Pfizer’s McDonald’s, I noticed that no one looked up when Earth rose above the forest canopy. Before the next scheduled rain we left for home.

Josef’s family lived in a spacious and many-windowed apartment on the ninety-seventh floor of a three-hundred-story tower. Luxury condos like these, Josef said, were popping up all over New Earth. My heart warmed when I saw my grandkids, Rachael and Pim. It had been several years since I’d seen them in person—they didn’t visit Earth anymore. Today was Pim’s twelfth birthday.

My grandson blew out his candles and we all shared papaya cake. On cues from my daughter-in-law, a shining mahogany andro poured coffee, brought out cookies, and cleared the dirty dishes. I felt like a princely CEO. On Earth natural grain was absurdly expensive and hard to come by, but on New Earth it seemed as plentiful as the scheduled rain.

“Pim’s not the only one celebrating today,” Josef said, in between sips of coffee. “Tell Grandpa the good news, Rach.”

My granddaughter beamed and said, “I got a full scholarship to GE Sinopec!”

“GE Sinopec?” I said.

“An orbital university!”

“Oh, wa!” I said. “A full scholarship? That’s xin!”

“As a reward,” Josef said, “Esther and I have decided to buy Rach a small lobber. You’d be surprised at how affordable they’ve become.”

“I can visit Mom and Dad on weekends,” Rachael said, “and fly back to school on Sundays. And Grandpa, there’s this low-fuel maneuver called a Hohmann Transfer that lets you fly over to Old Earth in a couple hours. Me and Leva are definitely headed there when they start dismantling it, to get a closer view.”

Rachael,” Esther said with an admonishing tone. “Why don’t you see if Grandpa wants more coffee?”

“He’s got coffee. And isn’t that what you bought the andro for?”

“Rachael, don’t be rude!”

“But, Mom, his cup is full!”

“Rachael Kopperfeld!”

“Please!” I said. “Yes, yes, they’re dismantling Old Earth. It’s no gaise secret. Why does everyone avoid that subject around me?”

“Because every time we bring it up,” Josef said, “you go on a rant about how they’re tearing down your home.”

I stared at my son. “It was once your home too, if you remember.”

Josef frowned. “That was a long time ago, Dad.” He waved his hand at his apartment. “This is my home now, and I’d like to have a nice birthday for Pim.”

“Is the frog pond still there, Grandpa?” Pim asked.

“Yes! It’s been a struggle to keep the pond free of toxins, but the frogs still croak away on summer nights. Do you remember when you used to put them in boxes to scare the hell out of Grandma Shosh?”

He giggled. “And Rach used make up silly names and marry them.”

“They got so loud some nights,” Rachael said, smiling, “that my ears would ring the next morning.”

I shook my head and stared down at the plate of cookies. “Those poor creatures don’t know that their ancient home will soon be destroyed.”

“Not destroyed,” Josef said. “Dismantled. There’s a difference.”

“Countless species will be killed. I don’t know what you call that.”

“Some death will occur,” Rachael said. “But the Geoengineers are making heroic efforts to save every documented species.”

“Heroic?” I said. “Rachael, the cradle of humanity is being left to rot.”

“I love Earth too, Dad,” Josef said, “but the air is poison. The soil is toxic. You spent your whole gaise life trying to clean it, and for what? So we could watch Mom die slowly from the Tox?” He paused and took a deep breath. “I want a better life for my kids, and your Earth can’t give that.”

I put down my cup. “Since when did it become my Earth? Once, it was ours.”

Esther loudly sipped her coffee, a sign she was not amused by the conversation.

“Grandpa,” Rachael said, “it’s not just the toxins, it’s the overpopulation. We used up all the matter in the asteroid and Kuiper belts to make New Earth. We need Old Earth’s mantle to build more colonies. And besides, it’s natural.”

Natural?” I said as my belly grew hot.

“Yes.” Rachael sat up straight and looked at her mother, as if she had been preparing this for weeks. “In living creatures, new cells are born from old ones, then the old cells die. But life continues. Your body’s cells have replicated themselves dozens of times. Old Earth isn’t ending, Grandpa, it’s rejuvenating. The old cell is giving birth to a new one. And when the old cell dies, its contents are broken up and recycled. That’s the course of life. The body of Old Earth will be gone, but its essence lives on.”

I stared at my family, all of them willing to throw away the priceless Earth as if it were an obsolete piece of technology, and disagreed.

***

Three days after Lin’s visit, I set my car down in central Albany. In a foggy rain, I wander past empty skyscrapers, drifts of windblown debris, and vac-sealed buildings, kicking up clouds of gray dust. On Livingston Avenue I meet a holdout who introduces herself as Helen. A sickly looking kitten walks at her heel.

“Not many kids left,” Helen says, her voice muffled by a scratched ox-mask, “Green hair, techplant on her cheek, neh? Yeah, that’s Lin Bar-Martin. Yeoung’s kid. Hangs out with a bunch of liumangs. If I recall, her father Yeoung worked in nanotesting.”

“A scientist?” I ask.

“Ha! No, they tested nano on him.”

“Oh. Where do they live?”

“Nowhere.”

“What do you mean? She’s homeless?”

“As if. No, plenty of places to live here. She’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“To Wal-Mart Toyota. An orbital.”

“You mean, for good?”

“Where’ve you been, baichi? No one comes back to Earth.”

“What about her friends?” I hate myself that I can’t remember their names. “Are they still around?”

“Haven’t seen a kid in days. The whole north side of the city shipped off to Wal-Mart Toyota. Heard the place is dreadful. They abandoned it mid-construction because they found better ways to build colonies using nano.”

“But the kids were at my house three days ago!”

“And they left two days ago. A fleet of ships took ’em away like it was a parade.”

And then I know why the kids cycled all the way down to New Paltz over dangerous roads, and I know the look in Lin’s eyes when she was crying outside my door that night, the feeling that I’d missed something. That was Lin’s last day on Earth. The kids wanted to see a piece of ancient Earth before they left it forever.

“Thank you,” I say to Helen.

I pet the sick kitten, then I leave her empty city. By the time I arrive home, it’s getting dark. There’s a strange car in the driveway, and a young woman sits on my porch. For a moment, I think it’s Lin. But then I recognize my granddaughter’s dark hair.

“Hi, Grandpa.”

“Rach, what are you doing here?”

“I came to say hi.”

I hug her hello. “You came all the way here just to say ‘hi’? Why didn’t you call? I could have prepared dinner.”

“It was kind of a last-minute thing.”

“It’s great to see you! You look good, Rach.” The wicker chair creaks as I sit beside her. “How’s school?”

“It’s tough, but otherwise xin.” We stare at the overgrown grass as a wind whispers through the trees. “The grounds look really healthy.”

“I try.”

“I remember when I used to sit on your lap and you’d tell me the silliest stories.”

“I’d say come on over, but I think you’re too big for that now.”

She smiles, but it quickly fades. “Grandpa, the NEU can spot a flea from orbit. There’s nowhere to hide.”

“I don’t plan to hide. I plan to stay right here.”

“They’ll force you out.”

Beyond the trees, a troublesome spot on my stascreen wavers. “Maybe I won’t give them the chance.”

“Grandpa . . .” She puts a warm hand on mine. “You and I disagree on a lot of things. Promise me that when the time comes, you won’t do anything stupid.”

“Rachael . . .”

“Promise me.”

When I look at her I see the child she once was, the girl who married frogs and danced in fields of sunflowers. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but this isn’t your Earth. You don’t understand.”

“Maybe I understand more than you.” She leaps to her feet. “Neh, I have to go.”

“Already? You just got here.”

“I have an exam in the morning.”

She hugs me, squeezes a little too hard. “Goodbye, Grandpa. I love you.”

And in seconds her lobber is flying up into the sky. I watch it recede until it’s just another star. Out back the frogs croak louder than I’ve ever heard them.

***

I sit on the wet grass under the stars, hugging a bottle of rye. Yesterday, another hurricane blew through the area, a product of Earth’s new gravitational partner. A decade ago they would have burnt the storms away with their orbital lasers, but Earth just isn’t worth it anymore. They didn’t even bother to give the hurricane a name.

The storm washed away the dust, and the moon and New Earth lay hidden below the horizon. And in the dark, how beautiful is the sky! The stars are so bright they cast shadows, their points are so clear I feel I could pluck them like apples from the sky. Jupiter rises slowly in the east, bright as an angel. And the Milky Way swaths gloriously across the heavens. If I could leap into the sky, I’d fall into it forever.

“Ashey,” I say to my cranial, “Play ‘Grandkids Visit, Summer ’98.’”

A holo projects over my eyes. Little Rach sits on my knee, giggling. Birds chirp in the summer sun. The smell of roses. A soft breeze on my cheeks, all under the warm comfort of a well-functioning stascreen. “Can we sit under the sunflowers again?” a five-year-old Rach asks a much younger me.

Sunlight trickles through fans of yellow petals as I follow her into my field of sunflowers. She sits on the ground beneath their giant blooms and says, “I want to live in your house, with you, Grandpa. I never want to go home.”

I watch her draw a house in the dirt with a stick. “Like this one,” she says.

“Ashey, play ‘Shoshanna’s 60th Birthday.’”

Years earlier, Shosh opens the ancient oak door of our house. Everyone yells, “Surprise!” As my wife throws her hands to her mouth and shrieks, she drops a glass bowl. It shatters, and everyone chuckles nervously. A tear of happiness rolls down her sallow cheek. Even this far back she’s already showing signs of the Tox.

I excelled at removing the worst pollutants from environments, but with all my knowledge I still couldn’t protect my wife’s body from them.

“You devil,” she whispers to me, embarrassed. “I thought you had forgotten.”

“Never,” I say.

“Damn. That bowl was expensive.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

I lean in to kiss her, and I feel the press of her soft lips even after the recording ends.

“Ashey, play ‘Josef’s first steps.’”

Our same house, decades earlier. Shosh, younger, healthier, Tox unmanifest. Little Josef bravely climbs to his feet, takes two teetering strides, then falls. Shosh leaps to publish the holo on the net for all to admire. She struts pridefully over to me and smiles. “Kid learns fast. He’s already better at walking than you are.”

My ancient self giggles.

“Ashey, pause playback.”

Google-Wang Colony spins into view far above. I’d recognize the corporate colors from a billion miles away. I take another quaff of rye, then lay back on the wet grass. Cold moisture soaks into my back. Bank of Zhong Guo Colony winks distantly across the sky, and even though it’s hundreds of miles up I think I can hear it tearing roughly across the Cosmos. I sit here, watching the stars, until New Earth rises, spoiling the glorious night.

I approach my house, plasteel container in one hand, rye in the other. I pour the liquid in the plasteel container into the foyer, and the hydrocarbon smell burns my nostrils.

With a small lighter I set flame to a soaked rag. I toss it into the house. For a moment, the rag burns like a candle, guttering in a bedroom. Shadows dance across my ancient walls like memories. A pang of dread hits me. Is this really what I want?

But it’s too late. The foyer erupts in flame, and I leap back. In seconds the fire roars louder than the frogs ever have. The heat singes my face as the house burns.

And just like that, I destroy the home that my fifteenth generation great-grandmother built four hundred and seventeen years ago.

With the stascreen shut down, the fire corkscrews freely into the sky. A column of smoke arcs away for miles, lit by the light of New Earth. Once, this would have aroused a hundred suppressor-bots into action. Now, what is another fire when all will soon be ash?

My ancient house burns to the ground. It takes a while. So I sit beside the pond. The frogs are quiet, perhaps watching the flames with me. I think of Rachael, and the promise I made to her. And I think of Lin.

At dawn, when the police arrive, the only thing left of the house is a pile of cinders. The air is foul with soot as armed men read me the evac order. They bind me in plasticuffs and escort me off my property. They seat me inside a small craft, and the young man across from me, in bulky police regalia, offers me anti-nausea nano for the trip to space. I was hoping to glimpse my property one last time as we lift off, but there are no windows. This is a prison ship.

***

I paid a hefty fine and was ordered to take “reintegration” classes, then I was set free. The process seemed rote, and I suspect I’m one of thousands. Josef rented me an apartment in his condo for an absurd price, and he and Esther have been inviting me over nightly for dinner as if nothing at all has happened. Rachael calls from time to time to see how I’m fitting in.

When I’m not skipping the reintegration classes or finding excuses not to join Josef and Esther for dinner, I spend my time watching as the Earth gets sliced open like a piece of fruit, as geometric chunks are carved out of its pulpy flesh ten thousand kilometers at a time.

This evening my telescope and datafeeds focus on the Earth’s northern hemisphere.

“It’s time,” Ashey warns. By piggybacking illegally onto satellite proxies, I have real-time access to the Geoengineers’ datanet. On my holoscreen a green light flashes twice, the signal from the Foreman. In Pan Mandarin, translated on my screen, the Foreman says, “EDHL-22, begin the first longitudinal cut at your discretion.”

A full minute’s pause. Then a blinding flash. A molten orange circle of light moves south along the seventieth longitude line for minutes, and even from this distance it’s so bright it leaves spots in my vision. The cutting pauses as the laser’s gyroscopes realign. Then it slices across the fortieth latitude line, just under an emptied New York City.

The laser traces out a great rectangle over the course of an hour. Then the grav-beams tug the huge section out. Like ice cream, the molten core drips toward Earth’s center. By technology I don’t pretend to understand, the layered walls of Earth don’t collapse into the new space, but stay fixed. And the white-hot core, from what I’ve read, is being artificially cooled, eleven-point-five degrees per day.

I wonder if any of the holdouts, like Cordelia or Marta or Dr. Wu or Helen and her kitten, escaped the mandatory evacs. As they slowly floated into the sky, would they think they were flying up to meet God?

Over several hours, lasers break the chunk into hundreds of pieces.

“That one,” Ashey says, highlighting a point in my vision.

The land that was my home is shunted up to Trump-Dominguez Colony. It will be used, the datanet says, as a counter mass so the colony can maintain its highly sought-after earth-forward views. Four and a half billion years, of algae and antelope, of brontosauri and bison, of woolly mammoths and glaciers, of trees and earthworms and amphibious frogs just to become a paperweight so the rich can wake up to their plastic earth.

That night, I dream of frogs screaming.

***

Years pass. Old Earth is gone, every last piece used up.

Today, I sit next to Josef, Esther, and Pim in an amphitheater of thousands. Rachael is graduating from GE Sinopec with a B.S. in Applied Biology. We sit through an endless procession of names. Pim and I converse a bit. His voice has deepened, and he looks more like a man these days. He’s polite, and humors me, but I sense universes between us. I know this world isn’t mine anymore.

After the ceremony, we eat dinner at an expensive restaurant, and the low-g does horrors to my stomach. Rachael, in her graduation gown, has been staring at me the entire meal. “Grandpa,” she says, “will you come with me for a ride after dinner? I’d like to show you something.”

Her mother smiles.

“I’ve had too much to eat. I’m a little tired. Maybe next time?”

Josef glares at me. “Dad,” he says like he’s scolding a child, because that’s what I’ve become to all of them.

I sigh. “What did you want to show me?”

We head outside to Rachel’s lobber, a frighteningly small vessel, and I climb into the passenger seat as eagerly as a man to the gallows. I was never good with zero-g. I try to hide my shakes as we leap off GE Sinopec and dive down to New Earth.

“For my graduation thesis we had to recreate an Old Earth ecosystem,” she says, “as part of the bioprojects to save as much life as we can.” I examine her face in the reflected light of the planet. She is beautiful, my granddaughter. From under her rolled up sleeve I see the glint of a techplant, expressly forbidden by her father. I smile.

“So I chose your backyard,” she says.

“Excuse me?”

“Specifically, the lake behind your house, with all the frogs.”

The lobber dips over a deciduous forest, and we descend tens of miles. My stomach feels like I left it back at the university.

“I didn’t tell you,” she says, “because I knew how you were always going on about New Earth.” She holds her breath, and when I say nothing, she says, “and also because I really wasn’t sure if it was going to work.”

“What was going to work?” I say. We swoop over fields of swaying grass, muddy swamps and dense forests.

“Let me show you.”

We set down in a field beside a thick wood. There are deep depressions in the mud, a sign of many previous landings. The sun hangs low on the horizon, and its orange light spills through the trees. She leads me into the woods, down a winding path, pausing to make sure I’m still with her, to warn me of a treacherous branch or root. The air here smells of mulch and earth and abundant life. She smiles, and suddenly it’s like she’s a toddler again, leading me into a field of sunflowers.

And then I hear them.

Frogs. Thousands of them, croaking away with strange voices. We approach a small lake, not too different from the one that was once in my backyard.

“I came by your house when I knew you were away.” She looks apologetically at me. “And I collected, um . . . specimens. They’re not the same frogs, of course,” she says. “They have genes better suited to this particular environment. But they’re direct genetic descendants. Essentially, these are your frogs’ great-grandchildren.”

The sound of their croaking rekindles memories of a thousand summer nights.

“I did it for school, of course,” she says, “but also I did it for you, Grandpa. I remember sitting beside your lake on summer evenings, listening to the frogs. Those times, when we were all together, are some of the happiest I remember. I wanted to bring a little of that here, to New Earth, for you. Now that I’ve got the population stabilized—and a passing grade.” She laughs. “I could finally show you.”

I am flabbergasted. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes.” She waves her hand and a long document arrives in my vision.

“What’s this?”

“A deed,” she says. “I used a few connections at school, and I got a little financial help from Mom and Dad. Well, a lot of help. But I bought this land. And now I’ve transferred the deed to you. These fifteen hectares are yours, Grandpa. It’s my gift.”

I’m stunned. “Rach, it’s beautiful.” I reach to hug her.

She whispers in my ear as she squeezes me, like she used to on summer nights on my porch so long ago, “I thought perhaps you could build a house here.”

The frogs croak. Their sound is different, a little strange. And the trees are arrayed a bit too neatly. This isn’t my Earth. It never will be. But I think of green-haired Lin and her friends, and Pim, and Josef and Esther, and Rachael, all coming to visit.

“Yes,” I say. “A big house, with plenty of room for guests.”

© 2013 Matthew Kressel.

Matthew Kressel

Matthew KresselMatthew Kressel’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and the anthologies, Naked City, The People of the Book, and After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, as well as other markets. In 2011 he was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for his work publishing the speculative fiction ‘zine Sybil’s Garage. When he’s not designing websites or setting up computer networks for a living, he’s learning to play the trumpet or teaching himself Yiddish. He co-hosts the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York alongside Ellen Datlow, and has been a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writers group. His website is www.matthewkressel.net.

10 Responses »

  1. Honestly the best short story I have ever read. It was both moving and heart-felt. Thank you for writing this wonderful story.

  2. A very well written story… However, the ending was somewhat too predictable.

  3. I was hooked. Great tale. Expecially cause im from the area, Scotia. Loved the details

  4. Stunning. Had me crying a bit. Absolutely spectacular.

  5. I can understand the sentiment behind the story, but the science and the technology is so far out it makes me wonder why the human race of the future is settling for recycling pieces of the Old Earth instead of flying off into space and “looking for new worlds to conquer.” Or making other planets and/ or moons more habitable for humans. Still, on an emotional level, “The Sounds of Old Earth” makes for great reading.

  6. Great story, so moving. Tried hard not to cry.

  7. There are some interesting ideas in this story, but some of the orbital mechanics details are seriously flawed. For example, a number of corporate space habitats in orbit around Earth are described. Then, however, there are descriptions of Earth being carved up by giant lasers, with large hunks being somehow pulled away. Yet there is no consideration of the havoc this would wreak with the orbiting colonies. The author needs to study some physics.

    • All of that could be accounted for. A society with the energy to cut apart and carry away the whole planet would have energy to put their colonies into independent orbits around the sun.

      That isn’t the point, though. The story is about the characters and how these events affect them. The narrator does not care where the colonies end up or how they get there as long as they’re safe. It is irrelevant to the story, it is enough that other, relevant elements of the story imply that those things are possible. It would ruin the pacing of the story to digress about how each colony was moved into its new orbit. There’s also that “Years pass” transition. I’m sure a lot of things happened in those years. We don’t need to hear about it.

  8. I’ve been listening to hours upon hours of science fiction podcasts in my recent travels and my daily commute in the last couple months, in no particular order mind you. But I managed to wind up listening to a few in a row from various sources were truly awful…a lot of masturbatory second-person navel-gazing. It might have put me off the whole thing, or narrowed my listening such that I’d stop finding new things (and I’d been away from Sci Fi, apart from a few high-profile authors, for a long time, so that would be bad).

    This was a welcome change of pace. Thank you.

    You could have ended the story at the letter from the punk girl and it still would have been excellent. That isn’t to say you should have. The arc of the story to that point resembles, to me, the story as a whole. I like self-similarity, and that the parts work as well self-contained as they do as pieces of a whole makes it easy to keep listening (or reading, I suppose).

    And speaking of listening, Stephan Rudnicki’s voice is one of the most pleasant I’ve heard. His voice as the narrator reminds me of an announcer I heard once on public radio when driving through West Virginia, and the voice of Moro from Monoke Hime, and I don’t know who else.

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