Gunter and his two sons, Phillip and Tang were tending the grazing sheep in the meadow a few kilometers from their village, as they had the past several weeks. Soon, it would be the season to take them in for the shearing, and while that would cause them much effort, it would be a pleasure to sleep indoors again.
They huddled close to the fire, cloaks pulled tightly around them.
“Lad, another ale if you please.” Gunter held out his mug to Phillip, his eldest, who had the flagon by his side.
“As you will, Papa.” Phillip, always cheerful (and the light buzz from the ale was adding to that), readily lifted the flagon and filled Gunter’s mug to the brim.
The trio could afford to relax a bit. The dogs were stationed around the flock and the sheep were at rest for the night. The hired hands would be back from the village by morning.
“Look, Papa!” Tang, two years Phillip’s junior, pointed up into the moonless night sky. The constellations were beautiful and brilliant, but something among them was disturbing their orderly progression.
Image: ABC.net.au / Rocky Roe
The plague struck swiftly, perhaps not by human standards, but certainly quickly enough to sicken three-quarters of the people of the Earth within fifteen years. At first the disease seemed very widespread and indiscriminate, but five years into the plague, the CDC’s Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sandra Fry, determined that it was most virulent in high population centers with a heavy industrial base.
The nation with the largest number of deaths by year five was China, which correlated very highly to their level of pollution and generally poor environmental standards.
However, as the plague progressed, the Euro-Asian continent fell, as did North and South America. By year ten, four billion people were dead. Disposal of the bodies in any civilized manner was impossible due to the shortage of manpower and resources, so they were bulldozed into mass graves.
Image: Bryan Versteeg / spacehabs.com
Seven-year-old Timmy Robinson threw the tennis ball as hard as he could, sending it sailing over the Martian surface. Rusty, his pet terrier, scrambled after it, his paws spewing little clouds of red sand into the air behind him.
“Go get it! Go get it, boy! Timmy was screaming at the top of his lungs as the dog followed the now bouncing ball.
“I think this is the last one, Timmy. We’ve got to go down into the gravity lab now.” It was the voice of Joyce Robinson, his Mother. In all the excitement, he hadn’t heard her walk up behind him.
Rusty returned skidding to a halt at the little boy’s feet and obediently deposited the slime covered ball near his left shoe, a red high-topped Converse all-star.
“Ah, Mom. Can’t I stay out a while longer? I’m having so much fun. I never get to play with Rusty except when we’re on Mars.”
Thanks to the revolutionary Roddenberry-Cochrane drive, Ellis Vanderberg was able to travel to Proxima Centauri A, the closest Earth-like planet to our own, perform a year-long survey of its one continent and the six largest islands, and then return home in a little over four decades.
Of course, due to the time dilation effect, much more time passed on Earth than Vanderberg experienced during his trip. That’s the good and bad thing about traveling in interstellar space at a significant faction of the speed of light.
Vanderberg was twenty-two years old when he was launched into space. The only son of Billionaire Charles Vanderberg, he had volunteered to test the space craft and experimental drive his father’s corporation invented. The government first insisted that the journey not be made, but the Vanderberg fortune and influence insisted otherwise. Then they insisted that a team of trained astronauts and mission specialists be sent instead of Ellis, but again, the Vanderberg fortune and influence won out.
In the end, Charles Vanderberg got his way and Ellis Vanderberg got the singular honor of being the first person to travel to another planet outside of our Solar System.
Now he’s back. Ellis knew that much more time had passed for the people of Earth than he experienced. Subjectively, he was a man in his mid-sixties, but he expected his parents, his sisters, his friends, everyone he’d ever known would be dead.