Chapter Nine -- The Others Who Sacrifice

The Others Who Sacrifice

1308 MD

            Ailana, a young mother in quiet chambers sits and dreams of a life that will never be. The child in her belly, an unformed mind full of promise destined to be extinguished. On her cheeks lie the faded riverbed of tears gone by and by, of unceasing melancholy caused by the daughter within her, and her preordained fate.

            She wonders at the other lives that never were, the countless children who, just born, new to the world and terrified, were erased and replaced by an ancient soul, stuffed into bodies to small and fragile to match its avarice. She wonders if, hijacked, any piece of them remains, drifting among a church of memories built inside of them, lost on the outerskirts of Roan, the mind-palace papered over their ruin.

            It’s cruel to deny this child its life, what life it may have led here. It’s cruel to force eternity on her shoulders.  She had said, upon learning of her first pregnancy to her husband—the Captain. He was adamant then, and is still, to pass on the curse that burdens him… them, the creatures Roan.

            Why her, why not… some other child?

            You would steal some other infant, snuff another’s life? That would not be fair to ask of anyone Ailana. This is my family’s burden, ours and ours alone.

            It’s not fair to ask of me!

            Don’t play innocent, or pretend ignorance. You knew the score. I warned you when you fell in love with me. Our first child, male or female, our first healthy child belongs to the collective. Its identity to be subsumed into a mass of others including my own. It is what I sacrificed, what my mother sacrificed. What we all have lost in service of this species

            You? You sacrificed nothing! You are the parasite! A soul leeching off the host of some innocent child.

Ailana, don’t say th-

Do you hear him? Hmm? Tell me, do you hear him wailing inside of you at night?

Captain Roan didn’t respond to her then, merely sighed sadly and rose to leave her alone. Alone among her cabin’s lights, humming at a near subsonic level, her biometric screens, attached to monitors that remotely examined her child, track its continued health and growth. In her stomach lies her child, her daughter, but more importantly (at least to the Captain, her husband, and mankind at large) therein lies the future. The leader to be.

At the door, Roan turns back to her, lying in bed, hands on her belly as if to protect her daughter from the vagaries of the life she must inherit.

“This is about more than us, than you and her, you know that. This is how our race must survive. I’ve long known this is the only way. That I remember, that *I* endure.”

            Alas, in the end he was right. She had agreed. But it was one thing to make such a promise when you are young and foolish and in love. The Captain offers you his hand, his smile, his deep-grey eyes—eyes that have seen much, the recall the passing of centuries. He offers you a view into immortality, to become part of something vital, safeguarding humankind. It is one thing, yes, to then promise him the soul of your child. But to do it? To allow… Roan to consume the poor babe, kicking and growing within? To shape it into an extension of his/herself? On the eve of its birth, such a thing seems untenable. And as it grows, so too does defiance.

            “Are you ready?” At Roan’s voice, Ailana shudders with surprise. She did not hear the Captain enter. “The doctors would like to surveil daily in the final weeks, nothing can go wrong this time.”

            They lost the last two pregnancies. One miscarriage and one stillbirth. Ailana was healthy, and this male avatar of Roan perfectly virile. Part of this mother-to-be wondered if her fetuses could sense her fear, could sense the erasure awaiting them, which Ailana had come to dread. Ailana nods absently at his words. On their face they make sense, but she cannot help but hear their subtext:

I need to keep you under control, just in case you lose your resolve. Just in case you try to deny Motherlode its continued Captain. It was as if he whispered these thoughts in her ear. She read them plain as Motherlode’s simulated day on his face.

            He gestures to a chair beside him, floating in the air. The seat of the Mother, her throne, her prison. She wonders how many of Roan's previous partners had been shackled to it. Mothers and Fathers fated to sit in it, or walk alongside, and watch as their child was dragged to the chopping block and replaced by a clone that had already lived several dozen lives.

            Behind him, several guards enter the room. The weapons on their hips were just for show, she knew. Roan couldn’t risk anything happening to this child, but they would force her to the medics if they had to. She sees his temples growing gray, and knows the source of his desperation: Ensuring their succession, ensuring they bear a child, and that he lives long enough to see that child assume the mantle of Motherlode’s living ghost. There can be no risk of overthrow, Roan must remain the guide of the human race. How many times had she heard that screed, that almost doctrinal belief in the self? She would call it arrogance, to Roan, it is merely the inheritance given by prior selves.

            I am in control here. Roan’s face screams in its silence. What she once loved is warped to ugliness by duty; Roan’s wisdom becomes aloofness; Roan’s impassive features become the emotionless distance of a God. She turns from the captain, the creature she no longer recognizes, to the guards as they exit the compound and she floats into open air. They walk along the tree-line, tall pines, nettles breaking quietly beneath their feet In their faces, she sees sycophancy, absolutely in the memories of Earth sustained in their species by the one life that still remembers the lost planet, in Roan’s Godhead, assumed in all but name. She sees the patches on their shoulder, gold with a red R emblazoned in their centers, and knows they are her husband’s creatures. Bought and paid for with title, the greatest honorific that can be given. A title displayed proudly on the chests of their dark jumpsuits: MOTHERLODE’S BRIDGE CREW.

In every face she sees this hopeless devotion… every face but one. The youngest, the newest member of the bridges’ crew. Roan’s prized guard. A young man… Adlai, his name is, she thinks. Face not handsome, but earnest. A frown on his lips as he marches at her side, opposite Roan. He returns her gaze, blue eyes troubled, perhaps reading her own distress. And though they share no words that afternoon, she wonders if perhaps they may someday share a cause, if perhaps…

            …perhaps her child may yet be saved.

            “You asked me if I hear him.” Roan interrupts her fantasies of rescue, speaking out of brooding silence as he walks beside her.

            “What?”

            “You once asked me if I hear him, the child whose place I took. Do you still want to know the answer?”

            She doesn’t reply, but notices Adlai listening, and wonders if he shares her curiosity.

            “Well, Ailana, I do. Every night. I don’t know if it’s just a dream. But… I’m confronted by a man. A mirror image to myself physically, but… nothing I am is there. He looks at me, disapprovingly. Most nights he does not speak, we just stand there in silence. But sometimes…”

            “…sometimes?” Ailana finally relents, prods Roan into continuing.

            “Sometimes, he opens his mouth, speaks with three dozen voices. The voices of all the children I-” Roan lapses once more into silence.

            “And what do they say?”

“‘We would have made great captains too, great mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. We would have been the future. Humanity would still be fine. Let us go. Let us live.’”

            “How do you respond to that?”

            “The same thing I say to you. I cannot risk it. I must see this through. I am Roan. I was chosen. I am your captain and I have become something greater than…”

            “…human?”

            Roan does not respond to her insinuation, her accusation of the immortal’s narcissism.

            He speaks again, this time quietly, a whisper only she… and she supposes by proximity Adlai, can hear.

            “I, I have to see this through. To whatever end. I can’t live this long and not… know.”

Chapter Eight -- The Dust that Hides the Rose

5500 MD

This bitter Earth… Well, what fruit it bears.

            The Roans stand silent. A singer forgotten to all but them, the only two for whom Earth still lives in their hearts, mourns. Dinah Washington’s sad song echoes through the chamber where mankind dies. Slowly, year by year, century by century, memory after memory is lost to entropy and the ever corruptible hardware of Motherlode. Unification, it creeps toward them even faster than they projected, and still the old man has yet to find a cure, has not even spoken to them for centuries. Whether it is despondency or fear of their reaction at his failure they know not. All they had was each other, themselves, the fractured and broken Roan. They live in ,en and women wakened, souls hijacked, as each previous host withers and dies. Now, they rarely speak. Even after all this time, they remain helpless.

What good is love mmmm, that no one shares?

“Such a sad emotion. Giving yourself so totally to another. It always ends with loss. Why does love persist, even with us?” One Roan says, their own identities in constant flux.

Sometimes in their minds-eyes they see two, distinct Roans, two captains, other times they are the same mind stretched across diffuse flesh, Mortician and Librarian, their roles are one, to monitor the slow decay of slumbering Man, whose numbers dwindle generation by generation, some lost to power failures, others to Roan’s own predatory need to survive, still others to the disease that courses through each and every one of their veins, sterilizing and killing the species. To watch the slow decay of the souls they once guided through space, now trapped in stasis, slowly polluted by their own self, memories and personalities obliterated by the omnipotent and omnipresent Captain Oake.

And if my life is like the dust… that hides the glow of a rose.

One by one, in their dreams, every man and every woman becomes Roan.

What good am I? Heaven only knows.

 

1 MD

            It is a strange thing, how often power and a fear of impotence go hand and hand. How often that fear is realized. How desperately those affected cling to it, even remaining unaware of its loss until the bitter end. This stench, this ignorance, washes over Roan in the Council’s presence. A preening body of the privileged, the great grandsons and granddaughters of the best and brightest in past generations, born into power, allowed to survive because of nepotism’s long hand. And so the Captain suffers their presence, and accounts for them the progress of their journey so far, presents to them a potential list of destinations for them to approve and bicker over.

            “…Pershing, the lead astronomer and Keynes, who heads our team of meteorologists and climatologists both agree,” She hears herself saying, though she feels so disassociated from the moment by the caffeine and stim that sustain her. In her head she is on the bridge, she can feel it in her bones, some imminent crisis, some unforeseen obstacle would arise while she, stuck with these… people, is unable to address it. They would die, all due to politics.

            “As you see in the reports sent to your terminals, all signs point to Kepler 438-b as our best bet for a new home. It’s score on the ESI is higher than any other candidate found so f-“

            “Excuse me Captain,” It was an older man who spoke, slowly and carefully, as if to a child. Rolfe Kente, the Council’s chairman after the Old Man, nameless even to them, stepped down to focus on the Motherlode project. “You’ll have to forgive me, I’m no scientist. What is ESI?”

            Inwardly, she rolls her eyes. Either he is a fool or just pretending to be. The definition lay in the report she had prepared for them hours before this meeting even convened. “Earth Similarity Index, it measures which planets are most like our own. And as I said, 438-b has the highest score with .88. At 145 parsecs, or approximately 470 light-years, it would take approximately 2000 years to reach assuming no changes to our acceleration once we reach Proxima Centauri in 10 years and use it to jumpstart our journey.”

            There is a long pause at that. Roan wonders if they understood a word of what she just said.

            “10… years?” It is a middle aged woman who pipes up now, Roan tries to recall her name and fails. “You mean we won’t even really get moving for 10 years?”

            “That’s right,” The captain replies, perhaps a little too quickly, too brusquely, “Acceleration of a craft this size requires delicate maneuvers and a large expenditure of energy. The gravity and mass that star system provides will be vital to ensuring we approach .5c, half-lightspeed, within 50-100 years. We all know the score. This isn’t some quick jaunt into the stars. Our children, their children, will not live to see its end. But Mankind might. Now, as I was saying, also promising, if further away is Kepler 442-b. That’s 1120 light years from our location, but it-”

            “What about… Gilese 682c? I have here a report from a fellow named Barrens, who names that as a potential first location. That’s only 16 light years away. The youngest of us might even live to see its surface!” The speaker, Erwin… Erwin something. A man of angles, both physically and diplomatically. Roan remembers that he always sought the shortest course regardless of its dangers. He looks at Roan with something approaching hope and she can read his unspoken question:

While others might die here on Motherlode, old man and women, we… we could live, right?

She sees they still haven’t acclimated themselves to dying on this false world hurtling through space. To never again feeling the warmth of a true sun. These dreams must be crushed.

            “It’s 4.4 times the size of Earth. That alone makes it nearly inhospitable. It’s at the border of the Goldilocks range, and we can’t even be certain, given its size, that it’s even a rocky planet. It could be a gas giant, or given its place on the outer range of habitability, covered in a frozen, inaccessible ocean. Best case scenario, it’s 45th in ESI. There’s no guarantee, and once we’ve slowed to verify if it’s suited to our needs, that’s another several hundred years added to our trip just regaining our lost speed. Any delay, any unnecessary stoppage, anything that necessitates us regaining lost acceleration or lost time, adds risk to our journey. We cannot afford to take unnecessary risks, not with all that’s at stake.”

            “We all know the stakes, Ms. Oake!” Erwin… Stossur, that was it, snaps, shamed into asserting himself by her lecturing tone. “This is a burden we all bear. You are a mere captain, not president, not king, you would do well to remember your place.”

            Rolfe speaks before Roan has a chance to bite back at Erwin’s pettiness. “And I think we all would do well to remember our lives, all our lives, are in this ‘mere’ captains hands.” He smiles at Roan, as if he has done her a great kindness. Perhaps he has, though she is in no mood for any of this bureaucratic interference, she is in no position to handle both Motherlode’s technical and administrative needs. These men and women, administrator was the role they were born to. If they let her do her job, why not let them do theirs? Maybe Rolfe is not the fool she first thought him to be. Or maybe that is an empty hope, and she is truly without allies in this stuffy room of suits.

            Rolfe continues, “But, as Captain Oake kindly reminds us, these are not decisions to be made right away. We have time, perhaps more time than some of us have life. Let us adjourn, peruse these reports, and reconvene at a later date when we are better informed, and more able to help our Captain make this momentous decision. Otherwise we may drift in this dark forever, our species lost and our history forgotten.”

            And, without waiting for the consent or acknowledgement of the others, he takes his leave of the meeting hall.

            The others, put-out by his abandonment of protocol, themselves still clinging to the traditions of the lost-Earth, slowly file out after him. More than one of them, and Erwin in particular, glaring at Roan as they go by. Before them she is stone, but inside she despairs their continued existence.

            What would you have me do? She silently implores of the old man, long dead and long lost to her. How will we survive when I am gone, and only these toothless cowards, and cowards’ children remain?

 

5500 MD

            Lord this bitter Earth. Yes, can be so cold. Today you’re young. Too soon you’re old.

Days later, in their shared chambers, after long silence and the same routine, the same failures, the same slow death, Roan finally responds to the other captain’s question.

            “Must it? End, I mean.”

            The other, annoyed at the length it took him/her to respond, pretends ignorance, though they both know the other’s thoughts too exactly for the pretense to succeed.

            “Must what end?”

            He/she humors him/her, and responds despite the knowledge that they understand each other perfectly.

            “Our love, we are not quite human anymore are we. We, our memories, we could live forever like this. Just you and me, leaping from flesh to flesh.”

            “It’s not right, nor is it fair to those we promised to protect-”

            Roan cuddles with Roan, their joined warmth bringing them even closer than their shared thoughts and selves had thought possible. At first, it hadn’t felt right, this coupling, but then… mankind was sterile, they bodies they used not truly related and they were alone, so alone, except for the other. Why not be together? Why shouldn’t this last forever?

            “Why care about what’s right, or fairness? Or about these humans who sleep, forgetting themselves? What gratitude have they shown us for our suffering, our sacrifice and sorrow? We could be more than they ever were. That planet, when we reach it, could be Roan’s, and spread over it a single mind, a conglomerate of the self. Imagine it…” They did, and as they did so, they began to stimulate one another, first intellectually and emotionally, and then also physically.

            “We could be glorious,” The other agrees, between kisses, between pleasures given, flesh shared. “But first-”

            “But first.”

            They cry in orgasmic unison, and in the afterglow realize: “We must cure this disease.”

            “We need the old man.”

            Little do they know, he already watches them, has watched them fall into this selfishness for some time. A danger he should have foreseen. Such an obsession is inevitable when the only company one keeps is oneself. Only more so when that self is split in two, and one sees in the other a perfect reflection of their shared desire. He is torn. A cure, he inches towards one with each passing decade, is so needed. Man must survive, an imperative coded into his very being by his forefather, his face and namesake. But not as the monstrosities Roan envision, not as an endless reflection of Captain Oake. And so…

            And so.

            He must oppose the very creatures he empowered, the very Captain who he saved time and time again. This time from her self, from the bitter need of love. He leaves them, enthralled with one another, with their one-and-the-same-ness, with the desperate words of need that call to them from Earth’s past, and contemplates: How best to counter the monster he has created?

But while a voice within me cries,

I’m sure someone may answer my call,

And this bitter earth,

May not, oh be so bitter after all.

Chapter Seven -- A Familiar, Forgotten Face

Year Unknown

            In her dreams, the forest whispers. Its own nightmares bleed into hers. In her dreams, the old man cajoles, pleads, demands to be listened to, and does the same again when she wakes. The days pass, the nights pass, and outwardly she is indifferent to their passing, and yet within her builds a sense of urgency she cannot name. The ghost of a memory prods at her. Something… something is coming. She must get ready. She must save them all-

            Them all? If there is one thing this woman knows. If not her name, nor the name of this hell she finds herself in—this world, this forest that circles itself in perpetuity—it is that wherever and whoever she is, she suffers here alone. None have found her to explain the truth. None but the spectral wizened face that appeals to her.

            Roan.

            After a while, she has become adroit at hiding her shock whenever he appears, staring past him. He is not in the world. He is not of the world.

            I know you see me. We’re almost there! The trees, you must wak-

            If she concentrates hard enough, she can filter out his cries entirely. He mutely rages at her, his contorted screams she no longer hears, his agonized gestures she no longer sees. She sails off, past this invisible ghost, deeper into the forest that has encroached all of Motherlode. These trees, they are her only friends. They, at least, speak to her only in dreams.

 

1 MD

Black. Black. Roan drifts alone. Where is her ship? Her crew? She closes her eyes and remembers, the hull rupturing, the hissing rush of oxygen into the void. The silent screams. Faces frozen in terror. The old man, burning, burning, his tears evaporating even before they leave his eyes. Left, along with the rest of the damned to melt away on the planet that has become dust.

“Roan? Roan?”

            The captain yawns and stretches, bringing herself back to wakefulness.

“I’m sorry to wake you, but-”

Looking up from her desk, where she had sat, promising herself to rest only for a minute. She sees an apologetic Ben Cromartie. In spite of her exhaustion, she smiles.

            “Ben, please, don’t apologize. Come in.” Captain Oake sees the worry on his face. “Ben… is it Motherlode? Are we-”

            “We’re fine. Homeostasis deviations remain within the acceptable norms. Not 100%, though as you already know we may never get there. Rebreathers are functioning at the expected levels. Hopefully we can keep them maintained the hundred or so years it takes for the forest to seed. That’s not why I came. The Council. They’ve requested your presence.”

            Inwardly, Roan groans. Along with the crew-members, astronauts, a fleet of scientists from all disciplines, and a genetically diverse base group of humans needed for labor, farming and a carefully maintained multiplication of homo-sapien stock, Motherlode also carried with it Man’s last government. They insisted, despite politicians not being mission critical in Roan’s mind, that they be saved. And as the ones who approved the funding for Motherlode, who approved the mission, they had the clout to see those demands met. She knew, and that knowledge now bore fruit, that they would be trouble. These self-important pencil pushers, now comes their push for power, of that she is sure. They would demand she kneel before them, that they direct the ship, her, its captain, little more than their hands upon the wheel.

            “All right,” She rubs her eyes, reaches for the now-frigid cup of coffee before her, “Tell them I’ll be right along. You have the bridge in my absence.”

            He nods his head sharply and turns to leave, but before he does, looks back at Roan, tired, forlorn, the weight of a dead world and a wounded race on her shoulders. “Captain?”

            “Yes, Ben?”

            “If there’s anything I can do, anything…”

            “You’ll be the first to know.”

            “It’s just-these are not times to be alone. There are so few of us. Who knows how long there will be life to celebrate?”

            “You think we’ll fail? That this-” With her eyes, she indicates the small dark chambers around her, then the vast ship, largely empty, that surrounds it. The darkness into which they plunge, the light-years of nothing upon nothing between them and their descendants’ destination. “This is our last-”

            Roan closes her eyes, and her dream returns to her. Her own bloated corpse floating in a metal tomb. Her own eyes, hemorrhaged and frightened and now… empty.  This planetoid, a sepulcher. Will some other intelligence find them once they’ve subsided in the black? Plumb Man’s catacombs in wonder, asking themselves what desperate need drove these creatures to the stars? What horrors did they encounter as they died? What hopeless struggles?

            A hand on her shoulder brings her back to her cabin. A mere, slight touch, Ben doesn’t caress her, doesn’t hold her, but it brings comfort all the same.

            “I don’t know if we’ll live or die out here, if what remains of Man will ever set foot on another planet. See another shore or another sunrise. Each day is a gamble, Roan, we have to embrace them while we can.”

            And he returns to the door to leave at last: “I’ll let them know you’ll be along shortly.”

            “Thank you Ben.”

            The door hushes shut behind him, leaving Roan to her solitude. She stands from the desk, but as she does so, a flashing light catches her eye. A message. But from whom? Ben always delivers his reports in person. The Council, still unsure of its authority, would not summon her thusly, she doesn’t think, not yet at least. Any urgent need from the crew and they would com or ping her directly. Who else is there? Who else knows how to reach her? The council did not expect her for another few minutes, so she queues the message and listens.

            Hello Roan.

            The voice stops her blood in her veins. The old man? “Im-impossible,” She stutters aloud.

            I know what you’re probably thinking. “How am I just now receiving this message? How am I receiving this at all?” Right? Don’t worry, I’m not scurrying around in Motherlode’s bowels, I programmed this message into your terminal what will now, to you, have been years ago, before your ship ever left orbit, before you made your way out to the solar system’s edge. If you’re hearing this, that means the Earth is gone. The home of all human history is but memory and dust.

            The recording pauses, long enough to make Roan wonder if it was cut short somehow, but after a while, the old man continues, the tears obvious in his voice.

            I can’t help but look back now and wonder, “What could I have done?” “Could I have saved more? More than the few hundred that sail with you now?” The empty eyes of those left behind, who can number their remaining days in a couple short years, a few dozen months, how can we go on?

            Sorry… that’s my problem now. Yours is much larger, your timeline longer. I do not envy your task. All that I’ve asked you to sacrifice. I’m sorry, but I must ask of you one more sacrifice.

            You, Roan, you must live. And keep on living.

            There is no one remaining as strong as you are, and no guarantee of what strength will issue forth in the next generations.

            You, Roan, you must endure. You must transform as Man diminishes, you must transcend.

            Roan blinks, confused, what is he saying? She wonders. What does he mean?

            I’m sure you wonder right now what exactly I mean, but fear not, when the time comes. I will guide you. I may be little more than a ghost in the machine, a shell, an echo, but… our service is not yet done Roan. Remember that. We still have so much to give.

            Silence, Roan slumps back bewildered. There was one voice she never expected to hear again. That of the man who handpicked her to lead this mission, then a young woman of 24, immature and unexperienced, but…

            Roan? Make her our captain? Are you mad? Many had raged at the time. This mission is too big, too important to be placed in the hands of a… of a…

            She knew what they wanted to say then, woman, little girl. It was a man’s place to save Mankind. But the Old Man, for he was old even then, nameless even then, was adamant.

            We need someone resilient, which she is. Someone young, who can grow into the role, this ship, Motherlode, won’t be finished for another 10 years. And 10 years is all most astronomers predict we have. There is no time for debate, only unilateral action. Roan? He had turned to her then, both hands on her shoulders.

            Are you willing to do this? Do you think you can?

            She was young, brash and above all wanted to live, wanted to prove the whole world wrong, wanted to be a hero. Of course she said yes.

            What a fool she had been. These pressures were not worth life.

            She walks to her door, it opens before her, but before she goes through she takes one look back at her austere room. Her chair, desk, her simple sheet-less bed, the only life she has left. That anyone has.

            What more could you ask of me, Old Man? Living on is all that’s left.

Year Unknown

It’s strange, Roan thinks, but the longer she walks among the trees, the more she feels she knows them. Each one has a face, a name, familiarity to something in her. Memories of a past life she supposes. Snatches dancing just out of reach. Ones she unsure of grasping for. What weight do they carry, what responsibility do they bear? What will they demand of her? And yet, try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that something is coming. A moment, a window that is hers to seize. Seize on behalf of a multitude she cannot see. And try as she might, she cannot totally unsee the old man’s worried face, drifting in the corner of her eye. She walks on, and a growing sense of dread walks with her.

Chapter Six -- Do You Remember Earth?

(2000 MD)

Earth…

The young girl Roan blinks at the echo. A voice from a previous life stirs in her memory. The sun shines high above her at the core of her world, and beyond it the world circles round to meet her again. Pastoral, empty, full of guileless man ignorant to the peril awaiting them at every moment.

Do you remember?

Chapter Five -- ~10,000 MD: The Planetship Forest

Flashes of memory, snippets of being, a name floating into her formless sea and with it comes a self…

Roan Oake has been walking for a long time. She can feel it in her bones. Where she is headed she knows not. There is nowhere left to go. At night she dreams. Planets swaddled in pools of blue and layered greens, life humming merrily away on the surface, unharried by imminent doom. The silence of the infinite vacuum she travels through. Dreams of an old man alone in the desert, melting away into nothing...