The Chapter Ends

by Poul Anderson

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: What will the end of the Earth's lifespan look like? What will happen to the humans left on the planet when it fades into obsolescence? These are just a few of the profound questions at the center of science fiction master Poul Anderson's thought-provoking tale The Chapter Ends.

“Look around you, Jorun of Fulkhis. This is Earth. This is the old
home of all mankind. You cannot go off and forget it. Man cannot do
so. It is in him, in his blood and bones and soul; he will carry
Earth within him forever.”

“No,” said the old man.

“But you don’t realize what it means,” said Jorun. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

The old man, Kormt of Huerdar, Gerlaug’s son, and Speaker for Solis Township, shook his head till the long, grizzled locks swirled around his wide shoulders. “I have thought it through,” he said. His voice was deep and slow and implacable. “You gave me five years to think about it. And my answer is no.”

Jorun felt a weariness rise within him. It had been like this for days now, weeks, and it was like trying to knock down a mountain. You beat on its rocky flanks till your hands were bloody, and still the mountain stood there, sunlight on its high snow-fields and in the forests that rustled up its slopes, and it did not really notice you. You were a brief thin buzz between two long nights, but the mountain was forever.

“You haven’t thought at all,” he said with a rudeness born of exhaustion. “You’ve only reacted unthinkingly to a dead symbol. It’s not a human reaction, even, it’s a verbal reflex.”

Kormt’s eyes, meshed in crow’s-feet, were serene and steady under the thick gray brows. He smiled a little in his long beard, but made no other reply. Had he simply let the insult glide off him, or had he not understood it at all? There was no real talking to these peasants; too many millennia lay between, and you couldn’t shout across that gulf.

“Well,” said Jorun, “the ships will be here tomorrow or the next day, and it’ll take another day or so to get all your people aboard. You have that long to decide, but after that it’ll be too late. Think about it, I beg of you. As for me, I’ll be too busy to argue further.”

“You are a good man,” said Kormt, “and a wise one in your fashion. But you are blind. There is something dead inside you.”

He waved one huge gnarled hand. “Look around you, Jorun of Fulkhis. This is Earth. This is the old home of all humankind. You cannot go off and forget it. Man cannot do so. It is in him, in his blood and bones and bones and soul; he will carry Earth within him forever.”

Jorun’s eyes traveled along the arc of the hand. He stood on the edge of the town. Behind him were its houses--low, white, half-timbered, roofed with thatch or red tile, smoke rising from the chimneys; carved galleries overhung the narrow, cobbled, crazily-twisting streets; he heard the noise of wheels and wooden clogs, the shouts of children at play. Beyond that were trees and the incredible ruined walls of Sol City. In front of him, the wooded hills were cleared and a gentle landscape of neat fields and orchards rolled down toward the distant glitter of the sea: scattered farm buildings, drowsy cattle, winding gravel roads, fence-walls of ancient marble and granite, all dreaming under the sun.

He drew a deep breath. It was pungent in his nostrils. It smelled of leaf-mould, plowed earth baking in the warmth, summery trees and gardens, a remote ocean odor of salt and kelp and fish. He thought that no two planets ever had quite the same smell, and that none was as rich as Terra’s.

“This is a fair world,” he said slowly.

“It is the only one,” said Kormt. “Man came from here; and to this, in the end, he must return.”

“I wonder--” Jorun sighed. “Take me; not one atom of my body was from this soil before I landed. My people lived on Fulkhis for ages, and changed to meet its conditions. They would not be happy on Terra.”

“The atoms are nothing,” said Kormt. “It is the form which matters, and that was given to you by Earth.”

Jorun studied him for a moment. Kormt was like most of this planet’s ten million or so people--a dark, stocky folk, though there were more blond and red-haired throwbacks here than in the rest of the Galaxy. He was old for a primitive untreated by medical science--he must be almost two hundred years old--but his back was straight, and his stride firm. The coarse, jut-nosed face held an odd strength. Jorun was nearing his thousandth birthday, but couldn’t help feeling like a child in Kormt’s presence.

That didn’t make sense. These few dwellers on Terra were a backward and impoverished race of peasants and handicraftsmen; they were ignorant and unadventurous; they had been static for more thousands of years than anyone knew. What could they have to say to the ancient and mighty civilization which had almost forgotten their little planet?

Kormt looked at the declining sun. “I must go now,” he said. “There are the evening chores to do. I will be in town tonight if you should wish to see me.”

“I probably will,” said Jorun. “There’s a lot to do, readying the evacuation, and you’re a big help.”

The old man bowed with grave courtesy, turned, and walked off down the road. He wore the common costume of Terran men, as archaic in style as in its woven-fabric material: hat, jacket, loose trousers, a long staff in his hand. Contrasting the drab blue of Kormt’s dress, Jorun’s vivid tunic of shifting rainbow hues was like a flame.

The psychotechnician sighed again, watching him go. He liked the old fellow. It would be criminal to leave him here alone, but the law forbade force--physical or mental--and the Integrator on Corazuno wasn’t going to care whether or not one aged man stayed behind. The job was to get the race off Terra.

A lovely world. Jorun’s thin mobile features, pale-skinned and large-eyed, turned around the horizon. A fair world we came from.

There were more beautiful planets in the Galaxy’s swarming myriads--the indigo world-ocean of Loa, jeweled with islands; the heaven-defying mountains of Sharang; the sky of Jareb, that seemed to drip light--oh, many and many, but there was only one Earth.

Jorun remembered his first sight of this world, hanging free in space to watch it after the gruelling ten-day run, thirty thousand light-years, from Corazuno. It was blue as it turned before his eyes, a burnished turquoise shield blazoned with the living green and brown of its lands, and the poles were crowned with a flimmering haze of aurora. The belts that streaked its face and blurred the continents were cloud, wind and water and the gray rush of rain, like a benediction from heaven. Beyond the planet hung its moon, a scarred golden crescent, and he had wondered how many generations of men had looked up to it, or watched its light like a broken bridge across moving waters. Against the enormous cold of the sky--utter black out to the distant coils of the nebulae, thronging with a million frosty points of diamond-hard blaze that were the stars--Earth had stood as a sign of haven. To Jorun, who came from Galactic center and its uncountable hosts of suns, heaven was bare, this was the outer fringe where the stars thinned away toward hideous immensity. He had shivered a little, drawn the envelope of air and warmth closer about him, with a convulsive movement. The silence drummed in his head. Then he streaked for the north-pole rendezvous of his group.

Well, he thought now, we have a pretty routine job. The first expedition here, five years ago, prepared the natives for the fact they’d have to go. Our party simply has to organize these docile peasants in time for the ships. But it had meant a lot of hard work, and he was tired. It would be good to finish the job and get back home.

Or would it?

He thought of flying with Zarek, his team-mate, from the rendezvous to this area assigned as theirs. Plains like oceans of grass, wind-rippled, darkened with the herds of wild cattle whose hoofbeats were a thunder in the earth; forests, hundreds of kilometers of old and mighty trees, rivers piercing them in a long steel gleam; lakes where fish leaped; spilling sunshine like warm rain, radiance so bright it hurt his eyes, cloud-shadows swift across the land. It had all been empty of man, but still there was a vitality here which was almost frightening to Jorun. His own grim world of moors and crags and spin-drift seas was a niggard beside this; here life covered the earth, filled the oceans, and made the heavens clangerous around him. He wondered if the driving energy within man, the force which had raised him to the stars, made him half-god and half-demon, if that was a legacy of Terra.

Well--man had changed; over the thousands of years, natural and controlled adaptation had fitted him to the worlds he had colonized, and most of his many races could not now feel at home here. Jorun thought of his own party: round, amber-skinned Chuli from a tropic world, complaining bitterly about the cold and dryness; gay young Cluthe, gangling and bulge-chested; sophisticated Taliuvenna of the flowing dark hair and the lustrous eyes--no, to them Earth was only one more planet, out of thousands they had seen in their long lives.

And I’m a sentimental fool.


He could have willed the vague regret out of his trained nervous system, but he didn’t want to. This was the last time human eyes would ever look on Earth, and somehow Jorun felt that it should be more to him than just another psychotechnic job.

“Hello, good sir.”

He turned at the voice and forced his tired lips into a friendly smile. “Hello, Julith,” he said. It was a wise policy to learn the names of the townspeople, at least, and she was a great-great-granddaughter of the Speaker.

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