After scientists discover that the sun will go nova in a hundred years, humanity divides into two warring sect, The Affirmers and The Custodians. Affirmers eschew everything but the strictly utilitarian in a effort to transport the entire population to the safety of extra-solar colonies. Custodians seek the aesthetic and wish to die with the Earth than live without art. The Affirmers triumph politically and they begin a mass evacuation of Earth, evenually forcing Custodians to leave with them.
The story begins with the Custodian granted the privilege to die with the Earth. Only a few years remain before the nova. He is left with a functioning spaceship and is tasked with making sure no Custodian hold-outs remain by monitoring the planet for human life signs. He spends his days flying around the world and viewing all the art and natural beauty left behind. Eventually he discovers a group of Custodians who had hidden themselves to avoid evacuation. The adults are dead due to a malfunction in the machines that kept them hidden. He adopts the surviving infant and the responsibility of fatherhood teaches him that life is more precious than art or artifacts. He loads the spaceship with as much art as he can, and they leave for the colony orbiting Alpha Centauri.
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